Article   |   February 10, 2021


Visions of Gender Equity

Published in the WLI Newsletter | Designing The Difference - Volume 4

“Seeing is believing” is, in a nutshell, the key idea of this article. Applying this simple concept to women in the semiconductor industry and articulating it with some additional nuance: creating representations of futures, where all genders have an equal opportunity for success, can accelerate the tediously slow progress of equality between the genders. These visual and experiential representations provide a method for instigating deep-level change in attitudes and values, which is crucial for significant change.

Gender equity has been on women’s agenda for a long time. In 1792, women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft articulated this vision bluntly: “It is time to… make them [women], as a part of the human species” (p. 84). Over the past 230 years, progress has not been fast: the United States just inaugurated its first female Vice President Kamala Harris.

Equal and fair participation is essential for the wellbeing of all members of a society, or as an acquaintance from a large tech company put it, “a suffering family member weighs everyone down.” Benefits of diversity have been extensively studied and demonstrated. For example, diverse teams engage complimentary skillsets, mindsets, connections and frameworks, that in turn, elevate each individuals’ unique value to the group, the team’s overall value and performance, and allows for higher performing teams in total. Organizations who embrace diversity—and manage it well—achieve and sustain competitive advantage in cost savings, resources acquisition, marketing, creativity, problem solving, and system flexibility (see Cox & Blake, 1991; Konopaske & Ivancevich, 2004).

Looking at gender in particular, McKinsey and LeanIn (2020) reported that companies where women are well represented in the board of directors yield 46% better performance than companies with all-men boards. Diversity can also help identifying and expanding markets: who founds and funds companies defines what gets founded and funded, and as a result, what products and services exist. In other words, an all-male group of founders and funders will necessarily apply a male perspective to deciding whose needs are met and whose are not.

In terms of gender equity, venture capital and private equity show very modest progress: women occupy less than 10% of senior roles (Chandler, 2020) and less than 3% of all VC-funded companies have a woman CEO (Brush & Greene, 2020). Not surprisingly, only 2.7% of venture capital funds female-only teams (Hinchliffe, 2020 quoting Pitchbook). Also the semiconductor industry is lagging. We know that over 99% of the top-level semiconductor industry employees are male, and around this core, we have a group of entry- and mid-level employees of which more than 75% are also male (GSA-Accenture, 2019). Within these groups, women as a group remain tokenized in the margins.

Thanks to the hard and often ungratifying work, some exceptions exist, and stereotypes are changing. For example, 40% of named executive officers at Nvidia are female (Nvidia, 2021). Formidable thought leaders like Lisa Su (CEO, AMD), Vicki Mealer-Burke (VP & CDO, Qualcomm), and Aart de Geus (Co-CEO Synopsys) are blazing trail for a more inclusive industry. Following their lead, many companies, including Axiado, signed Global Semiconductor Alliance’s CEO Pledge, committing to “creating an inclusive culture, free from biases, that enables women to contribute their maximum potential by fostering a workplace that promotes work-life balance through transparent, contemporary practices and policies for a flexible career path” (GSA, 2021).

Gender Equity (GE) initiatives attempt to bring women from the margins of power toward the center and up. Regrettably, the results of such diversity and inclusion programs are typically poor, and according to Cole (2020), 99% of them fail to “translate intention into actions.” Possible reasons for this anemic track record could be their lack of participatory allure and the negative assumptions they imply.

Here are four examples:

1. GE initiatives are typically incorporated into regulatory practices for cosmetic reasons. People are rarely animated by reorganizations, policy and compliance maneuvers, or corporate messaging that is rooted in superficial and performative agendas. For this reason, they are unlikely to invest time or energy in ensuring that espoused gender equity priorities are pursued in earnest. Tokenism and quotas are commonplace in organizations, whereas the integrity demonstrated by deep reflection, transparency, strategic engagement, and substantive gender equity reforms are all too rare.

2. The value proposition for pursuing and achieving gender equity is framed in diminishing and confrontational terms, utilizing blame and shame rhetoric that alienates organizational members who might otherwise be willing to support it. While the predominantly male colleagues in the organization and industry can and should support gender equity—and would benefit from it in many ways—they often don’t have facility with vocabularies and practices associated with GE work. This is not to suggest that “selling” male colleagues on the value of GE is a necessary precondition to pursuing and achieving it, but rather to say that provocative assertions directed at them is counterproductive.

3. Related to #2 above, privilege arising from holding identities, worldviews, and access to power is often invisible to those who hold it, much like fish don’t see the water in which they have been living. Indeed, “gender” usually signals “women” despite the fact that everyone has a gender identity and experience of it, just as “race” conjures up people who are in the racial minority even though everyone has a race. People who hold dominant identities typically don’t have explicit vocabularies to describe them substantively as lived experiences, whereas people with minoritized identities generally have countless reminders of that fact. These can be manifested as egregious acts of discrimination and harassment, but most often they arise subtly in the form of “microaggressions,” mundane daily slights that place the recipient in the impossible position of being accused of “making too big a deal” out of a small infraction or remaining silent, accumulating an increasingly burdensome set of experiences. The process of swallowing them individually and collectively without complaint takes significant tolls and undermines trust, productivity, and wellbeing.

4. While most men would agree that diversity and gender equity are important and would be supportive of women colleagues in positions of power, the fact that the industry remains so unbalanced causes this to be theoretical rather than commonplace. So, the lack of direct experience with gender balance requires intentional guidance through the process of achieving it. In short, it is a coachable practice for which mentoring and illustrative experiences can be highly effective. For instance, organizations can assemble and deploy gender-balanced project teams led by people with expertise in gender vocabularies and equity practices willing to explicitly facilitate courageous conversations about it in the process of doing the work.

Any significant change involves a deep-level change in attitudes and values that, in turn, generates action. A particularly powerful method in changing attitudes and values are visual representations that help us imagine positive futures where all genders have an equal opportunity for success. Take, for example, the use of cinema in normalizing views of the gay community since early 2000’s (e.g., Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, 2005; Queer Eye reality series, 2018–present).

In addition to the valuable work that many GE initiatives carry on, we propose a supplementary approach that can expedite deep-level change in the semiconductor industry. Rather than driving change from the constraints of our positions today, we suggest leaping forward to imagining futures we look forward to living, and from there, creating visions of equality, visual representations and experiences in which “women belong in all places where decisions are being made” (quoting former US. Supreme Court Associate Justice R.B. Ginsburg, 1933-2020). In our imaginaries (c.f., Harvard Kennedy School, 2021). We envision futures where men and women are working together (note emphasis) in all positions of the semiconductor industry with equal opportunity to successful careers.

With this in mind, we suggest a few possible starts to creating visions of gender equity:

  1. Make a point to invite men to share the stage with women in their conferences and vice versa. For an example, see Strand’s keynote for Nordic Women in Tech and Innovation webinar in December 2020.
  2. Offer male role models to men who wish to build their skills in participating in gender equity work (e.g., a man moderating an all-female panel).
  3. Invite men experts to give talks about gender equity in women’s industry events.
  4. Create opportunities for difficult conversations about gender. Privilege is often invisible, and exploring it is potentially dangerous, because it involves identities and facework. Skilled facilitators can help the participants feel safe when discussing sensitive topics.

As we continue our working on our initiatives toward a more inclusive industry that provides equal opportunity to all its members, we suggest this article as a conversation starter. We welcome you to contact us for sharing ideas and collaboration.

Authors

Minna Holopainen, VP Communication & Marketing, Axiado Corp.
Jason Laker, Professor, Counselor Education & Salzburg Fellow, San José State University
Kirsti Chou, Climate Tech Investor, Sales & Growth Expert