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This is how to build a gender-balanced tech company

Maelle Gavet, the author and CEO of Ozon, breaks down the steps used to increase gender diversity. Maelle Gavet, the author and CEO of Ozon, breaks down the steps used to increase gender diversity.
Maelle Gavet, the author and CEO of Ozon, breaks down the steps used to increase gender diversity. Courtesy of Maelle Gavet

For an industry whose entire raison d’etre is to break new ground, the technology sector has been anything but a trailblazer when it comes to gender diversity. While it’s true that some industries are in even worse shape that our own, and there will always be people like Ulrich Lehner of German steelmaker ThyssenKrupp AG , who recently claimed that “Good women are a rare commodity,” they are the exception in an era in which few would argue against the importance of a gender-balanced workforce.

Yet for many corporations, this vision of gender meritocracy remains far easier to describe than deliver. A host of US tech giants recently released employee diversity numbers, which showed just how far the industry has to travel. Among the best performers were eBay (42%, of whose workforce are women), Pinterest (40%), LinkedIn (LNKD) (39%), Amazon and Yahoo (both at 37%).

Facebook, Google, Apple and Twitter hovered around 30% , while Intel was at 25% and Microsoft at 16%. And it’s a picture that deteriorates further when you begin looking at many of these firms’ management teams and IT departments or compare them to the Fortune 50, where women average 46% of the workforce.

What’s depressing is that it really isn’t that hard to change these numbers.

At Ozon we’ve made building workplace gender equality a key performance metric, and as a result, of our 2,800 employees, 48% are women (and in some of our subsidiaries, it’s reached 68%). Among our management team (staff members who have at least one person reporting directly to them), the female-male ratio also stands at 48%-52%.

So how, then, did we do it?

1. Focus on salaries.

At Ozon, salaries are evaluated every year based on market benchmarks which are gender neutral. They are also aligned with fixed employee grades, which naturally apply to both sexes. In a fast-growing company that still moves at start-up speed, this might seem a touch inflexible, and to be frank it wasn’t (and still isn’t always) welcomed by a lot of our managers and directors. However, it has allowed us to be as neutral as possible when it comes to pay equality.

Similarly, we trained our managers to give feedback in a standardized way. At first, there was a great deal of debate about whether we should introduce supplementary training for men giving feedback to women and vice-versa, but we decided instead that our immediate priority was to make all appraisals and feedback as transparent as possible, regardless of sex.

2. Open the door wide for female applicants.

The biggest deficit in terms of gender equality at Ozon lay in our IT department. So we made a decision, along with our key IT leaders, to remove all filters and systemically interview all the women who apply. A form of affirmative action, certainly, and no long-term solution, but it’s a clear example of how sometimes you need to find a way to break the log-jam.

3. Made the workplace more flexible and family-friendly.

Ozon made it easier for women (and men!) to have and look after their kids while working by introducing part-time and alternative work schedules. That meant, for example, mothers could work from 7am to 4pm, rather than 9am to 6pm.

We also communicate regularly with female staff-members about their rights regarding vital issues such as maternity leave and payments. All those who go on maternity leave are guaranteed to return to exactly the same job they left and they all – men and women alike –receive a small lump sum when they have a child.

4. Head hunters and recruiters were told: Bring us female candidates.

This was perhaps the most crucial initiative we introduced. Ozon wanted to ensure that headhunters and recruiters always brought women candidates for top positions. i

5. Loop in the entire company.

We quickly realised that there was little point in implementing all of these steps if we didn’t keep staff informed about what we were doing – and why. So we also set up a “Women Initiative,” compiling a long list of what our female leaders would like to hear about and do during the initiative’s meetings.

Among these were executive training on how to plan your career, how to delegate and how to problem solve using “emotional intelligence.”

These events resulted in Ozon’s women spending much more time together than ever before, including at an annual gathering for all female managers which I, as CEO, hosted at my home. We also learned that they wanted to meet successful women from other companies to share insights on important business themes such as building startups and how to move from consulting to operations.

We deliberately focused these meetings on gender-neutral matters, rather than topics widely-seen as female-centric such as “work-life balance.” It was all about zeroing in on successful leaders who happen to be women; not women who happen to be leaders.

6. Provide coaching and mentorship.

This on-going process of support and communication also included some one-on-one coaching sessions. I, as well as other female directors, have spent a lot of time advising female managers on topics like how not to be afraid of being viewed as too ambitious and how to fight for the job they want. Not all women need this kind of coaching, but surprising numbers do need to be encouraged and supported through the ups and downs of a career they are often the first woman in their family to have.

An additional benefit of these sessions: They enabled the company to identify the employees with great potential and actively support their success.

But far and away the best thing about developing and following-through with all these initiatives: If done correctly, they spark a virtuous circle of success, embedding gender diversity into a company’s culture.

Just as pronouncements on equality seem to carry more weight when spoken by a female CEO, female role models inspire more women to set their sights on joining the management top tier. And as female directors tend to develop networks which are more balanced than their male counterparts, they are likely to recommend proportionally more women as a consequence. That pattern has replicated itself across all our five subsidiaries; when we promote a woman as director, her team diversifies over time. When we promote a man, the gender imbalance tends to return.

Yet, I am keenly aware the company still loses too many women when they decide to have children, especially among our most junior employees, and has yet to achieve diversity in our IT department — just 20% of which is female, although many of them are in managerial roles.

And, yes, once in a while I still witness occasionally sexist behavior and comments from men (which experience has taught me you should always deflect with humour rather than anger).

Old habits die hard, after all, and it’s unrealistic to expect dinosaurs to fall silent overnight. However, if there’s one thing we’ve proved so far, it’s that good women are anything but a rare commodity – they just need the same opportunities that good men have had all along.

Maelle Gavet has served as CEO of Ozon, a leading e-commerce firm in Russia, since 2011. In April, she will be stepping down to take a new role.

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