Is Business Intelligence a Good Ol’ Boys’ Club?

Don Tennant
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Seven Perks Leading Tech Employers Use to Retain Talent

Twitter took quite a bit of heat last month, when word spread that all of the members of its top executive team except one are men, and all of its board members are men. So when I was preparing for my recent interview with Brad Peters, CEO of Birst, a San Francisco-based company that specializes in BI in the cloud, I was struck by the fact that all of the members of its top executive team except one are men, and all of its board members are men.

I raised the matter when I spoke with Peters, and I asked him if he had any sense of why such a dearth of women in top positions was evident not only at his company, but in Silicon Valley companies in general.

“I don’t think we’re doing anything different—there’s no agenda here by anybody,” Peters said. “I bet you, if you looked at our organization, I bet you we have more women working for Birst in general than most companies do.”

OK, but the matter under discussion had to do with female representation on his senior management team, so I pressed Peters on the issue. He attributed the disproportionately low female presence in Birst’s case to the nature of the BI beast.

“Our demographics probably reflect the fact that BI is an older industry, so we skew a little older and more experienced, because BI tends to take a number of years for people to learn,” Peters said. “If there was a large pool out there, we would definitely recruit.”

Was he saying that the problem is the lack of a qualified pool of women to recruit from?

“I don’t know if that’s true in general—I wouldn’t want to comment outside of my industry,” Peters said. “But if you look at BI and analytics in general, because we’re generally trying to hire people who have been in the industry before, [that’s the case]. One of our big criteria for people, and this is different from some of our competitors who pride themselves in having no experience; our number one thing is how many people actually have experience in BI and analytics.”

The lone woman on Birst’s 11-member senior management team is Sharon Gordon, vice president of Birst alliances and technology partnerships. Not surprisingly, Peters made a point of spotlighting her.

“Sharon Gordon, and a good chunk or our alliances staff, does have a ton of experience—I mean, she’s got ridiculous amounts of experience. But if you go look at some of these competitors that are out there, and if you look at their management teams, you’re going to see similar sorts of things. Because BI has been around longer, and if you’re looking for experience, you’re not looking for 20-somethings, you’re looking for 30-somethings or 40-somethings. In BI, it’s been more that way.”

I spoke about all of this with Becky Blalock, former CIO at the Atlanta-based energy giant, Southern Company, and author of the book, "DARE: Straight Talk on Confidence, Courage and Career for Women in Charge." She said that with respect to Birst’s employees, depending on their job functions, Peters is probably right.

“If you look at who’s majoring in computer science—and BI is very computer science-intensive—only 13 percent of graduates are in the BI field,” Blalock said. “He does have a point about business intelligence, because there are not enough women majoring in those kinds of fields, so that’s an issue for employers.”

That said, Blalock insisted that there’s no reason for there not to be more women on Birst’s senior management team.

“I’m sure he’s got somebody with a legal background, somebody with a marketing background,” Blalock said. “Those people need to understand what it is that BI does, but they don’t have to write code, and they don’t have to be computer science majors. There are lots of women with all kinds of experience in fields like law and marketing. I would really question whether everybody who’s on his senior team is somebody who is deeply steeped in intelligence around BI.”

Blalock stressed that plenty of qualified women are available to fill those positions.

“There are any number of women who are qualified, and who are ready to serve on senior management teams,” she said. “But they’re just not getting the exposure they need. And I think people like [Peters], he probably doesn’t run in a circle where he bumps into a lot of qualified women. He’s probably out on the golf course, which is mostly men.”

The senior management team aside, the other issue is that Birst’s five-person board of directors is all-male. Peters said that was a simple function of the fact that three of the five members are venture capitalists.

“Our board tends to look a lot how VCs look,” Peters said. “I mean, we’re not, as a company, biased one way or the other—it just happens that the majority of VCs are men. So that’s not really our issue, I think that’s a VC issue.”

Blalock said Peters was also right about that.

“Last year, women only received 13 percent of the venture funding that was out there,” she noted. “And there are very few women making decisions about where venture capital goes. However, the women who did receive venture funding, their companies generated 12 percent higher returns. Some of that is probably because they were more closely scrutinized before the investments were made in the first place.”

Blalock said it was a good thing that I raised the issue with Peters in the interview.

“I think it takes pressure from people in the media asking those questions, for people to recognize, ‘Oh my gosh, maybe I need to think about this more,’” she said. “I just don’t think it occurs to them. I don’t think it’s that they’re trying to exclude women. I just think men hang out with other men, and they’re not aware of what women can bring to the table.”

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