Controversy, gender, work and construction marketing: How do you manage the (possible) conflicts?

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Results from a Google image search for "Women in construction"

A current controversy about a former Google employee who wrote a manifesto questioning gender equity practices has raised some rather significant questions about how and whether businesses should deal with controversial matters when it comes to defining their brands and marketing.

Like most good controversies, while there are idealogues on both sides of the fence, the story is generally much more nuanced when you investigate it further.

The problem started when James Damore filed his manifesto on an internal communications site.  Motherboard received several leaked versions of the document, and recompiled it to deal with links that wouldn’t work outside of Google HQ. I’ve posted it here.

Download (PDF, Unknown)

After the manifesto went viral, initially within Google, and then without, (four letter word) happened. People lined up on the left and right to argue for and against. Some of the “fors” came from surprising places. Consider this screed from Globe and Mail contributor Deborah Soh, “No, the Google manifesto isn’t sexist or anti-diversity. It’s science.” Soh writes about the science of human sexuality and holds a PhD in sexual neuroscience from York University.

Then there are the pandering actions of folks like Julian Assange, who offered Denmore a job with Wikileaks.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai cut his vacation short and wrote a memo criticizing Damore’s manifesto for advancing harmful gender stereotypes. “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK,” Pichai wrote.

Pichai and quite a few Google staffers are rightfully concerned about some of the abusive and disrespectful behaviour towards women in much of Silicon Valley. (Though if you read Damore’s memo, you’ll observe it is written in a respectful manner and isn’t suggesting that women are inferior or bad, nor are all women (or men) the same; but there are real differences between the genders, and these should be acknowledged. And even Pichai acknowledges there is room for discussion of these issues and that artificially creating situations where men are denied access to programs or opportunities in the name of “diversity” could be problematic.)

One way to put this issue into perspective is to review the recent article by Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyai, who recently wrote her own manifesto: 7 Critical Lessons Learned From A Decade Of Being PepsiCo’s CEO. 

Her writing is lucid, well thought, and (intriguingly) reflects the female gender diversity/values expressed by Damore in his memo. In other words, she is a CEO and thinks like a woman — and Pepsico has thrived under her leadership.

How do these themes relate to the construction industry and construction industry marketing?

To start, it is quite clear that if there is gender inequality in high tech, the matters are even more extreme in construction. While there are organized efforts and initiatives to address the imbalance, the story remains the same: the percentage of women in the construction trades, management and engineering is really low (though there are an increasing number of women architects.)

Businesses generally want to brag about their successes when they have women in trades and leadership jobs within the AEC industry. In the past few years, one of our most successful publicity marketing opportunities has been a series of “Women in Construction” features — where we profile the women in their non-traditional careers and their employers pay for associated advertising. Chase, our marketing/sales leader, because I think the first (if not the only) male member of the Canadian Association of Women in Construction (CAWIC), the Canadian counterpart to the National Association of Women in Construction.

So far, I haven’t seen anyone dare to go out in public and say (like Damore has asserted) that the real reason many women aren’t interested in construction careers may well be because they are women.

On one level, the question becomes one of managing the difference between fairness and diversity advocacy. Denying women opportunities for construction careers because of institutional barriers or hostility from “male guardians” is wrong — creating artificial systems to advance and promote women especially through quota systems may be more questionable.

But there is another level; and how far you should go out on a limb from your client base when it comes to your actions, message, and marketing.

Here we see the evidence loud and clear. It is good business to follow the minds/values of your audience and social trends — evidenced by the support for our Women in Construction features. It is risky to buck the trend, and risky as well to counter someone who argues against the mainstream. Google had the right to fire Damore. (Free speech doesn’t equate to freedom to say whatever you like on your employer’s soapbox.)

However, the truth often gets lost in the chaos and ideological perspectives behind controversies. If you want to touch a raw nerve or two, try speaking out with a contrarian voice on the topic of the day — especially if it goes against the values of your potential clients. It is generally wiser, in my opinion, to play it safe.

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