Why we should all be feminists

It’s official.

Men are, on average, more systems-oriented than women.

Women, on average, have higher empathy levels than men.

These were the not-very-startling conclusions to emerge, last week, from a Cambridge University report into gender differences, based on a study of over 700,000 people.

The report’s author, Simon Baron-Cohen, is a professor of developmental psychopathology and fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

He is also, more intriguingly, the cousin of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, whose best-known creation, Borat, was funny because of his unreconstructed attitudes to gender, race and sexual orientation.

In Borat’s world view, a woman was for cooking and children and ‘sexy time’ –  and quite specifically not for any position of responsibility, such as presenting a television programme or running a corporation.

The odd thing is that, if you peek inside the boardroom of almost any FTSE 100 business today, you might be forgiven for thinking Borat’s world view isn’t quite so comical after all.

Of the hundred Chief Executives in those companies, only six are women.

Yet, when you look at the trajectory of the businesses, most of them are having to adapt their model rapidly, to survive in a world where customer experience and reputation are becoming the only measures that count.

It’s a world where empathy is an increasingly important skill. Where humanity trumps efficiency. And where agility trumps process.

And yet it’s also a world where the people setting the cultural agenda are men.

Now, I’m not naïve enough to suggest the only way to make a process-driven business more human is to hire a female chief executive. It’s obviously not that binary. There are plenty of male executives whose empathy levels are well above average (and plenty of female executives who are more at home with a spreadsheet than a friendly chat).

I’m also aware that this may sound like virtue-signalling from a middle-aged white man.

So let me get to the point.

The pace of technological change is getting faster and faster. The life-span of businesses is getting shorter and shorter. Customer relationships are getting more and more important. The only way to succeed in the long-term is to have a business that connects with people in a meaningful way. The only way to do that is by building a culture based on empathy. And women are, on average, more empathetic than men.

So you don’t need to be a feminist to think there should be more women setting the agenda at our biggest companies.

You just need to do the maths.

 

Don’t just do it. Mean it.

It’s been quite a week for Nike.

On Monday, they launched a bold new advertising campaign, fronted by Colin Kaepernick (the star San Francisco quarterback who caused a furore by kneeling, rather than standing, during the national anthem, to protest in support of the ‘black lives matter’ movement).

Clearly, this was always going to be controversial. Conservative Americans, led vocally by their President, have railed against the protest on the grounds that it disrespects the anthem and the country.

By Tuesday lunchtime, the backlash was in full swing, with indignant mid-westerners sharing videos of mutilated Nike products on social media, accompanied by the hashtag #JustBurnIt.

All of which must have had Nike’s brand folks rubbing their hands in glee. After all, what better way to make your product relevant to teenagers than by having chubby, middle-aged rednecks get angry about it? (Not to mention the billions of dollars of free global publicity – they probably only had to run the ad once).

But let’s hope that, before they started all this hoopla, they took a deep breath and re-read the second line of the advert: ‘even if it means sacrificing everything’.

Because it’s easy to believe in something. But it’s a lot less easy to keep believing in it when the consequences escalate.

I’m not talking about a few good ol’ boys cutting Nike swooshes out of their socks. I’m talking about shop windows being smashed. About people being attacked because they work for Nike. About retailers being too scared to sell Nike products – and shoppers being too scared to buy them. About sales falling off a cliff because they misjudged the reaction.

What happens then? Do Nike’s senior leaders apologise and backtrack, in a bid to stop haemorrhaging money? If they do, the brand’s credibility will be shredded for a generation.

I hope that doesn’t happen. I admire Kaepernick – and Nike for having the guts to celebrate him. And I’m confident the backlash will be much less extreme than I’ve suggested above. But, if it isn’t, I hope they hold their nerve and tough it out.

As the advertising guru Bill Bernbach once put it, ‘a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money.’

We may all be about to find out how authentic Nike’s principles are.

 

Do no evil (no, really)

The week’s big news – how Cambridge Analytica allegedly bought profile data from Facebook and used it to influence the outcome of the US election – has offered a fascinating (if terrifying) glimpse into the world of online data analysis.

Among the many jaw-dropping revelations and tone-deaf Twitter responses, the standout moment was the interview with Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica’s (now suspended) CEO.

When it was put to Nix that he had been caught on camera boasting about how his business had used data to influence the election outcome, his dismissive explanation was that he had been pitching for new business, so was obviously saying whatever the client wanted to hear.

What I found interesting was that he clearly imagined this made it okay. Which got me wondering: how messed up must your organisation’s moral compass be if ‘We routinely lie to prospective clients in order to get their money’ feels like a brand positioning you’re happy with?

Perhaps I’m naïve. Nix certainly seemed to feel he was being unfairly singled out for a practice that was routine in his industry. The board of Cambridge Analytica disagreed and threw him under the bus.

No doubt, this will shortly be followed by the disappearance of what has now become a toxic brand – and the business will quietly re-emerge with a new name, a new set of corporate values and (for at least a little while) a loud determination to act in a purely ethical manner.

Will this fix the problem? Or will it just be a temporary diversion, until the new leaders realise they’re losing market share to competitors who are still being less scrupulous about the way they manage data?

That’s the problem with ethics. As soon as you start finding ‘grey areas’, where you can make compromises that boost your profits without actually breaking the law, it’s tempting for under-pressure leaders to embrace them.

Which is exactly where ‘good’ businesses go bad. If your engineers get rewarded for finding ways to mysteriously improve your emissions test performance, that’s bad (Volkswagen). If your sales people get a bonus for selling people financial insurance they don’t need, that’s bad (any bank that mis-sold PPI).

But is either of those ethically worse than avoiding tax? Or deliberately paying your suppliers 60 days later than your commercial terms said you would? (Almost every large business I’ve ever dealt with).

Very few companies are actually ‘bad’. But don’t kid yourself that having a page of values that say things like ‘integrity’ and ‘transparency’ and ‘fairness’ is going to save you from public scrutiny when you’re caught crossing an ethical line.

Culture is about every single thing you do as a business. As soon as you start turning a blind eye to (or worse, rewarding) bad behaviour, you’re in the same boat as Alexander Nix.