About five years ago, Mike Gamson and the rest of the LinkedIn leadership team wrapped up a successful corporate event when one of his employees approached him and asked, “Why were all of the presenters on the main stage men?”
“And I said two bad things,” Gamson told Business Insider. He told her he didn’t notice, and then he said it was just because those were all the people who were running LinkedIn’s departments.
“And she goes, ‘That’s my point!'”
As LinkedIn’s SVP of global solutions, Gamson oversees about half of the professional social network’s roughly 10,000 employees. He was also responsible for overseeing the launch of many of LinkedIn’s 30 offices throughout the world.
Over his nearly 10 years at the company, he said he considers the awkward conversation after that event to be the catalyst for one one of the best lessons of his career: He had a tendency to hire executives who looked, thought, and acted like himself.
Silicon Valley has a long history of being white and male by a large margin, and more recently of tech leaders trying too hard to compensate. (Lyft cofounder and president John Zimmer, for example, recently proclaimed that his ridesharing company is the “woke” alternative to what he deems its less progressive competitor Uber; greeted with eye rolls).
And Gamson admits that he and the fellow male leaders on his team started their new initiative basically by congratulating each other on their social awareness. “The first year of serious intent was pretty much a total failure in terms of changing things — just a group of guys just sitting around saying, ‘Aren’t we enlightened? We care about this. We’re going to try to do something.’ That didn’t work.”
Gamson eventually realized the smarter decision would be to actually partner with top female employees rather than “woke” guys. So he partnered with the WiN women’s initiative at LinkedIn and developed a three-tiered approach: rethink talent acquisition, focus on developing female talent already at the company, and implement unconscious bias training.
As Gamson wrote in a blog post, “The main lesson is this: If you are a male leader at a fast-growing company and don’t deliberately hire for a diverse workforce from the beginning, eventually most of your hires and leaders are going to be much like you. In fact, probably too much like you because the default position of hiring is to tap your friends, and friends of friends who are likely to look, think, act and speak like you, and who often come from similar backgrounds.”
He told us that while the issue of women entering engineering careers is a complex issue connected to the lack of female representation in tech roles at big Silicon Valley companies, he realized that the sections he oversees — essentially LinkedIn’s non-tech departments — did not have such a talent pool problem.
LinkedIn, like other major tech players, is still largely male and white, but it has been moving the needle on diversity. According to its 2016 diversity report, the company is 58% male and 42% female; tech is 80-20 male; but non-tech roles are up to 48% male and 52% female. Its leadership is 65% male and 35% female. Female representation is up 10% since 2014.
For context, Facebook is 67% male and 33% female; non-tech roles are 47% male and 53% female; and leadership is 73% male and 27% female. Google is 69% male and 31% female; non-tech roles are 53% male and 47% female; and leadership is 76% male and 24% female.
Gamson said he learned over the past few years that it’s partially been a matter of spending more time looking at qualified candidates, rather than hiring the first person who seems fitting.
“The first thing was just I’m OK with instead of taking eight weeks it takes 14 weeks to find the right person, great, no problem,” he said. “And that was a huge difference maker.”