For the month of July, we secretly erased men from Which-50. Our audience numbers dropped, our social presence evaporated, and we annoyed people who for years have helped us build our brand off the back of their hard work and expertise. They did nothing wrong — we were just jerks — but that’s discrimination for you. Worst of all, as you will see at the end of the story, we still couldn’t balance the ledger — even when we stitched the men’s mouths shut.

Those men we silenced are an impressive bunch. The ones we know personally are all good people who are supporters, mentors, and allies to the women they work with. None of these men, as far as we know, ever did anything to warrant our harsh treatment of their endeavours.

But many others do, every day.

Among the voices you didn’t hear in July, and whose contributions we ignored, discounted, or — best of all — passed off as our own, you can include: the Chief Digital Officer of PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the Head of Digital for Moët Hennessey in Australia, the chief of NORA, the founder of Kogan, the current and past chiefs of the Digital Transformation Agency in Australia, as well as the former digital chief of the ACT, Oracle’s Senior Vice President of Customer Experience (14 hours on a plane just to be ignored, and he’s a client — eek!), the CEO of Domain, the new Managing Director of SAP (One of our top five clients — eek!!), the APAC VP for Strategic Solutions at Sizmek, the boss of Catch, the Australian boss of Amazon, the President of the ACS,  the CEOs of Nine, Fairfax and News, the Chief Digital Officer of QBE, the Chief of Sales of Nine, the Head of Digital Transformation at software house Adobe (another of our biggest clients — eek!!!), the founder of Red Piranha, a Gartner Fellow, the Group Managing Director of Networks at Telstra and more than 50 others.

They did nothing wrong — that is important to understand in the context of this story. They worked hard, they put themselves out there every day, they helped us when they didn’t have to, even at their own inconvenience. And still, we discriminated against them — because it served our interests at the time to do so.

This is not a story about women. This is a story about men, and why we chose to bring a bazooka to the diversity knife fight. The current approaches simply don’t move the needle fast enough.

Barely a month goes by without one of the major business titles, industry conferences, or business networks running features or panels on Women in IT, or Women in Business, or Women in Media. Often these are managed and run by people who care deeply about the issue, and who have committed years to the cause — and their efforts should be applauded and encouraged. Just not today.

As much as the next person, we love a fancy lunch with tasteful floral centrepieces and a menu which always features salmon and white wine (please keep the invitations coming). Yet it’s hard to escape the nagging doubt that something is missing.

Women — and especially young women — need role models, opportunities to network, and the support of their peers. But the thing that will really help them — and will truly move us towards a world where everyone benefits from throwing the largest available pool of talent at any given problem — is for men to change their behaviour.

However, as John Birmingham’s bro-tacular deep dive into the world of workplace misogyny — “Men, Sucking” — amply demonstrates, cluelessness remains all too common, as does the most appalling behaviour.

Stop pretending that bad is good

Here we are in 2018 and only 11 of 200 CEOs on the ASX 200 are women. The percentage of female board members at those companies has stalled at 25 per cent. Some people boast that it’s one of the best diversity results in the world, but the truth is that 25 per cent is a terrible number for which there is no justification. 

Sadly, executive recruiters tell us that it’s actually easier to get women onto boards than into the C-suite. That’s why, at an operational level, the number of female CEOs, CFOs, CIOs and CMOs and other C-suite roles has not radically shifted from where it was a decade ago.

Because women aren’t the problem. Men are the problem.

So is Which-50

It turns out we are as bad as everyone else, as the stats around our stories reveal. In June 2018, Which-50’s editorial coverage mentioned 111 men and 24 women (and seven of those women appeared in a single story). 

And unless you stop and take stock of figures like these it’s too easy to just to keep calling the same people and amplifying the same voices. (For the record, Which-50 has six full-time staff in its Sydney office, five of whom are men. Diversity much?)

It’s been a long month.

Apart from the bit about excluding half the population from our stories, we very deliberately changed nothing else about our coverage. We decided from the start that we would write the same kinds of stories we would always write. We interviewed women and men, but we just ignored the men. Or rather, we discounted their contributions — either by removing them completely from the story or more commonly by simply referring to them as “spokespeople”.

Men also disappeared from the images we used to illustrate our stories.

In practical terms, that meant the CEOs of Amazon, Microsoft, Walmart and Facebook — and the US President — were all relegated on the basis of their gender. They probably didn’t notice. (Well, maybe Priscilla Chan’s husband did — we are pretty sure he monitors everything.)  

Closer to home, Australian male executives and visiting male VIPs we interviewed also got the silent treatment. And, while it took them some time, eventually they started to notice.

Hypocrisy

We were not entirely pure of heart. About five to ten per cent of the content on Which-50 comes from our Digital Intelligence Unit — the digital agency whose work with clients funds our journalism (our brand and our relationship with readers fuels their sales — it’s kinda symbiotic, like rats and the plague). We didn’t ask our clients to change their marketing content to reflect our new rules, nor even tell them what we were doing.

Why not? Honestly, we didn’t think this through properly, and we like money.

So a lucky few men skated through — ironically, perhaps, because of money. And yeah, it was hypocritical of us to profit from discrimination, but it’s not like discrimination was ever anything but hypocritical so we were in good company.

However, if male executives from those same client companies crossed our path as part of our regular news reporting during July,  then yeah, they got erased.

It’s also worth noting that we didn’t touch the wider issue of diversity. This experiment was solely conducted on the basis of gender, without taking into account race, sexuality, disability or socio-economic background.

What did we do?

Individual approaches to this task varied across our editorial team, and my colleagues (who we can’t name because they are blokes and those are the rules) certainly rose to the challenge.

There were immediate concerns about the effect the initiative could have on the quality of editorial coverage. And with good cause. An email from one of the Which-50 journalists noted, “Removing an individual from an article presents several practical challenges. For example, an article about the former head of the Australian government’s Digital Transformation Agency slamming a major government initiative carries less weight if you cannot name the former DTA CEO (there are four to pick from already)”. Gee, it turns out that when the discrimination grenade goes off, there is collateral damage. Who’da thunk it?

It’s also harder to blatantly discriminate against people than you might imagine — at least if you have anything even remotely resembling a moral core. We all experienced a level of discomfort during the month, although some of Which-50’s editorial staff enjoyed the drama of it all more than others.

Another colleague also took to their gender baiting with a little too much relish on occasion. In his words: “Some of us also took some of the smarter ideas from the men we interviewed and passed them off as our own … because that happens all the time …. All. The. Time. Plus it appealed to my sense of humour. However another journalist point blank refused to do this, and fair enough (but he’s a wuss, just saying)”.

With two days left in the program, we’ve doubled the number of women mentioned on Which-50 month-over-month, but that still doesn’t come close to the 111 men we wrote about in June.

What happened next?

When men rang up to query why they had suddenly gone missing from the story (or, more commonly, when their female PR managers or agents rang on their behalf to ask) we simply responded by asking “How does it feel to have your contribution discounted on the basis of your gender?” 

Sadly, no-one took us up on the offer to describe their reaction — but the offer still stands, fellas.

We kept the program secret. That secrecy extended to all of our own staff who were not directly involved in editorial. They are only learning of the initiative this morning. We knew if the experiment leaked, it would fail. It’s not that we don’t trust our salespeople, but they’re all men and you know how men love to gossip.

This month would have been easier on us if we had co-opted the industry’s help and lined up 20 female executives to interview ahead of time. In the end, we rejected that approach because the worst kinds of discrimination happen in the dark, not in the light — although a surprising amount occurs in plain sight.

And we didn’t apologise to anyone because that never happens either — although we did tell one of our contributors who was caught up in the program simply because it made sense to do so at the time.

What did we learn?

Throughout the month we kept a record of the things we learned, how it made our jobs harder, or how it hurt the mission of the masthead:

  • The most common reaction of the men who discovered what we did to them was confusion. You could almost hear their inner dialogue, “What just happened?”  In truth, we would have to run the experiment for a year and repeatedly exclude them to replicate the daily experiences of their female peers. Oh, and pay them 15.3 per cent less for doing the same job they do today;
  • Lots of discrimination happens in plain sight, in open-plan offices or in team meetings, or on stage at conferences, and everyone sees it happen. Yet, nothing changes;
  • We learned that women are less likely than men to share stories about themselves and, as a result, our traffic — especially for our cover stories — tanked;
  • Indeed, we suffered a double-digit decline in traffic in July, our first reversal for seven months;
  • We spent a lot more time chasing women for interviews and a lot longer in iStock searching through canned pictures of women in professional settings;
  • We annoyed people who for years have given us their time and insights, often at their own expense;
  • We discovered successful female executives in leadership roles all over the country in different roles and different companies who we had never spoken to before. We never called them in the past because the men we called in leadership roles were always happy to call us back. (Please keep returning our calls guys!); 
  • Our jobs got harder immediately. Try writing an appointment story about a male CEO without mentioning him;
  • And our readers suffered from a diminished product. They didn’t get the full context of the remarks or any chance to reference the experience and expertise of the men we interviewed. But guess what — that happens all the time when women’s voices are silenced.

While what we’ve done for the past month was overt and confected discrimination — conducted joyously with malice aforethought — subtle discrimination is everywhere. Often we will receive a press release quoting men and women and the men always seem to get prime billing. We visited the investor relations page of every ASX 200 company in the country, and we found that the female directors were more likely to be listed last or at least towards the end of the list.

Here’s the bottom line: everybody lost

In two days’ time, the experiment ends and men are back. Forty-five women told us their stories, but that was still too small a portion compared to the 70 faceless, nameless men who dominated the pages and the agenda of Which-50.com in July, despite our best efforts to exclude them.

Deliberately and actively discriminating against an entire gender is hard work and gets harder the longer it goes on. Seriously, it would be so much easier to treat everyone the same.

  • Read Which-50’s final reflection on No Man’s Land here.
Previous post

Four Strategies for Creating a Best-of-Breed IoT Enterprise Infrastructure

Next post

CommBank and logistics giants complete blockchain trade from regional Victoria to Germany