So I’m yakking away with a group of powerful women when I think: this is so easy. Not the being powerful bit but talking to a group of women who are the same age, the same sort of background, with similar issues of balancing work and life and, generally, solving the problems of the world.
It’s like entering a club that you hadn’t realised was open. It’s like meeting up with old friends where the conversation picks up from where you left it in the school bus. After a group hug and a few jokes, we’re all BFFs.
And then I think: this must be what the old boys’ club feels like. When those old-school-tie sorts get together — usually around a boardroom table — they must feel the same friendly frisson. I bet they talk a bit of sport, toss around a bit of politics, skim holiday plans — but I don’t really know because I’m not in that club.
And then I think, no wonder they find it so hard to let go of their club. Why would you give up all that familiarity, that whiff of cigar that comes with sitting down with like-minded chaps, that sense the world is just how you want it, just the way the headmaster said it would be.
At this point, it’s tempting to say how much better the world would be if it was run by an old girls’ club rather than the old boys’ club. But that’s not going to happen, and it shouldn’t.
Power should never be like a club. Clubs are meant to be places where you feel at home but positions of power are meant to challenge you; they are meant to open your eyes to the world, they should introduce you to different people. Ergo, they should not feel comfortable.
Obviously, there have been lots of academic studies on diversity at the top. Most conclude that it’s better than the alternative because a lack of diversity creates groupthink where everyone agrees not to see the stuff they cannot see. There are a few provisos. Minorities on boards tend to come from the same socioeconomic pool so they act a bit like men in suits. Also, there can be more conflict in diverse outfits. But life on a board wasn’t meant to be easy.
The most compelling case for diversity is that it helps avoid massive failures. Some of the most entertaining corporate failures have been blamed on groupthink. For instance, groupthink has been blamed for the decision by Apple designers to put their favourite rock album into everyone’s music library. It led to a leisure wear group suggesting that overweight women weren’t a good match for its yoga pants. It led to a vehicle being named Pajero, much to the delight of Spanish speakers, who wanted an SUV called “wanker”. More broadly, groupthink promotes the idea that young people want to see movies on the big screen; that women like their products in pink; and that gays will always buy something if it leads to a party.
In short, something weird happens when you get a homogenous group together. It’s like marrying a cousin whose grandmother married a cousin. It results in some strange outcomes.
Now, the old boys’ clubs are gradually being opened up to members who wear skirts and, sometimes, saris. But there are new clubs forming around money all the time and the most homogenous of clubs are emerging in Silicon Valley, otherwise known as Valley of the Dudes.
The valley, where 75 per cent of programmers are dudes in T-shirts, where 96 per cent of venture capitalists are dudes in suits and where half the tech boards have babe-free boards, is getting a bad name for bad behaviour.
We won’t go into all the ways that new-era clubs are dissing women, you just have to read the transcripts of the class-action suits to get the gist.
But one of the most telling bits of information to emerge from one of those court cases was the claim that women often tend to be excluded from Silicon Valley events because they “kill the buzz”.
Which might raise a few questions in a more sober head — say an older, woman’s head. What sort of buzz is it, if there are only dudes creating it? Is it a useful buzz? And since when are business events meant to have buzz? That’s like suggesting that boards should be like clubs.