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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Fighting PR with reality

Recently, a friend sent me a link to a story at CNN. It was called "Google's quest to get more women in tech", and it was the usual feel-good stuff about "fixing the pipeline" to boost hiring and all of that. Once again, it said nothing about retention. It's the kind of stuff PR flacks like to write since it never changes. It could be part of one of those perpetual newspapers: famine hits distant country, tribal warfare in the desert, and company X is working tirelessly to get more women in tech.

Now I'm going to do what I do best and inject a cold dose of reality. I have some more "ground truth" which happened just a couple of weeks ago.

I got a mail from someone at Facebook asking if I wanted to attend the Anita Borg Institute's "Women of Vision" awards banquet dinner. They had sponsored two tables, and were inviting me to tag along and have dinner. I enjoy a good opportunity to network, so I accepted.

So, on May 9th, I showed up and met a bunch of interesting people. We talked about all kinds of things in the reception before dinner. Then the doors opened and we went in. That's when I noticed how the tables had been arranged.

I was at one of the two Facebook tables, and there were two Google tables right across the aisle from us. I watched as the hall filled up with people. There were tables from all kinds of companies and schools. The place was packed.

The show got going, and since the Google tables were between us and the stage, I had a chance to look at them. Something seemed to be wrong. They had a whole bunch of open space. Looking at my own table, we had one open spot. The other table also had one open spot.

On my left was someone who had been an intern at Facebook one summer and had been invited to join them. On my right was someone who had interviewed there but had since gone on to work at another company. There were also other people who actually worked there: some in engineering, some in recruiting, and a bunch I couldn't talk to since they were too far away.

Still, those open spots at the Google table made me wonder. What happened? Did people show up and then bail? Was there something else going on?

It wasn't until the end of the show that I got my answer. During the banquet, there had been waiters circulating to bring in and take away the various plates: salad, then the entree, and finally dessert. When I stood up to leave, I could see the second Google table: at least six seats still had their napkins in their water glasses and salads on the table. Those spots were completely untouched.

Let me say that again. At a table that seated perhaps ten people, they had at least six open slots where nobody showed up.

At a conference which was focused on women in tech, Google had a table which was more air than actual women. I didn't see any other table like this at the event. It seemed that everyone else didn't have trouble getting people to attend.

So there's one final delightful part to this story. Remember how I said one of my seat-mates had interviewed at Facebook previously but had gone on to another company? The company she went to was ... Google.

Yep, there was a Googler seated at the Facebook table, while the actual Google table mere feet away had a serious shortage of women.

What's that about good PR, again?

Empty table