Monday’s Twitterstorm revolved around ASUS’s Computex 2012 coverage on Twitter. Among a bunch of pictures from the show, this one turned up, along with the Neanderthal comment. The outrage was immediate and came from men and women alike, though there was the odd troll who thought it was funny. For their benefit let me briefly summarise why this comment was a bad idea.
The use of “booth babes” at tech trade shows is a pretty questionable practice to start with. But okay, everyone does it, and I’m sure if everyone jumped off the roof ASUS would follow, so we may perhaps forgive them for that. And if you use booth babes at a trade show a couple of thousand people will see them, but the vast majority of your potential consumers – like me – will continue to be blissfully unaware. If you, however, tweet about your booth babes, you send a number of messages to everyone on the Internet. They are messages like:
- Women are decoration.
- We do not value women as people.
- We do not value women as customers.
- We do not value women for what they may have to bring to our business other than tits and arse.
This is business suicide on several levels. For those who haven’t dragged themselves out of the 1950s it might be news that women not only influence major household purchasing decisions (such as those on computers) but have disposable incomes of their own. That’s therefore 50% of your consumer base that you have just told you do not value. If I held any shares in ASUS I’d be selling them about now.
What’s worse is the message this sends to any female ASUS employees or women considering working for the company. The technology industry has a well-deserved reputation for being male-dominated and infantile. I occasionally speak to female Computing Science students. Provided they’ve managed to fight through years of teachers and the media telling them that they shouldn’t do maths and science because those are not feminine subjects, and they get to university, I find it’s around the tail-end of their first year that reality hits them in the face. In terms of ability they’re often top of the class. Yet they’ve now spent a few months being shut in windowless labs with their predominantly male colleagues, probably done most of their homework for them, and are beginning to wonder if that’s what the rest of their life will be like. What ASUS has just told these kids is that not only will you have to put up with that, but we will not value you at all beyond your tits and arse.
This is generally the point at which I can offer these kids a career path that may suit them better in an environment that is proactively inclusive and diverse. Which is great for me, but not so great for companies like ASUS. Because here’s the thing: diverse teams consistently outperform homogenous teams, and companies which value diversity and inclusion financially outperform companies that don’t.
It took ASUS over an hour to take the tweet down (by which point of course there were a number of screengrabs of it), and several more before they apologised, promising to “take steps to ensure this doesn’t happen again”. The fact that it happened in the first place doesn’t fill me with confidence in their ability to take the right steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again. So here is some free advice for ASUS – and I’m happy to talk about my consultancy rates if they’d like more.
Often when a company makes this kind of gaffe, this is indicative of a wider cultural problem. I can guarantee you that if you had a company culture that valued diversity and inclusion this sort of thing would not happen. If one of your employees thought it was acceptable to be misogynist in public, on the Internet, and put the ASUS brand on it, chances are lots of your employees think misogyny is okay, both towards their female colleagues and towards potential customers. Sacking the PR intern in question isn’t going to do the trick.
I would start by having a look at the data. How many of your employees are female? From ethnic minority backgrounds? Lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender? Disabled? Now, say you manage to hire a representative work force at entry level, how does that look once people start getting promoted? Do you find that once you’re two or three levels up in the organisation you’ve lost everyone who’s not straight, white and male (or perhaps straight, Asian and male in your case)? Here’s a tip: that’s not because all the women have gone off to have kids and all the gay people have decided to go into hair dressing. It’s because somewhere along the way you as a company have treated them badly.
Start looking at your systems. How do you handle pay rises and promotions? How do you measure success? Do your promotion criteria say something like “demonstrates great leadership”? What does your model of leadership look like? Is it all command and control, being assertive, telling people what to do? Well, guess what: on average non-straight-white-male people do not lead that way. That doesn’t mean they don’t lead, it means they do it differently and you’re not recognising it. What other systems do you have in place that may act as indirect barriers to people who do not fit your default stereotype? Ask your employees. Support the start-up of affinity groups and consult them on policies, systems, and what their experience of working at ASUS is like. Start celebrating diversity and inclusion – let all your staff know that this is something you believe in as a company. Start proactively reaching out, recruiting and supporting diverse top talent.
Once you’ve truly embedded diversity and inclusion in your corporate culture, come out and tell the rest of us. Start by not using booth babes at your next trade show. If your products are that good, you don’t need tits and arse to go with them. By all means do use competent qualified employees from diverse backgrounds at your stand to draw customers in and talk passionately about your products. Go out and work with schools and colleges to get women into technology by inspiring them, showing them what an inclusive workplace looks like and presenting them with some awesome role models. Reach out to female consumers in a way that is respectful and engaging without being patronising and stereotyping. Show some of the humility, integrity, diligence, agility and courage that are part of your cororate “virtues” – because what you did on Monday displayed none of these. Oh, and do apologise in public, in more than 140 characters.