Feminism, Technology, and the Kardashians - Interview with Kate Burns
The first Google employee outside of the US, former CEO of AOL, ex-GM of Buzzfeed, mother of two and crypto investor; Tempo sits down with one of our very own leading ladies, Kate Burns.
(Tempo) Let’s start at the beginning: tell us about the early days in your career.
(KB) Starting out, I had two challenges going against me; my young age and being a woman. To be honest though, being a woman had never really crossed my mind at that point - it was more around my naïveté and my youth - it’s only in hindsight that I realised I was only a 23-year-old girl, leading big teams of engineers! And the way I countered my youth (and my gender) was being really well-informed.
I would ask everyone that I knew as many questions as I possibly could; about what they were doing, and how they were doing it. I wanted to understand all the intricacies of the particular technologies (whether I understood it or not is another question!) but I listened, and often times would repeat what they had told me, in their language, which helped in changing their perception of me and getting the credibility I deserved.
Were there any big challenges you encountered along the way?
I’m really lucky that my career has been supported by strong female leaders, one of whom actually gave me my first job in technology - Josie Clark (who I’ve now named my daughter after).
Whilst I also had amazing male mentors, it was the female ones who really pushed me and gave me someone to look up to. Outside of this handful of women, there only existed this awful stereotype in a very male-dominated industry that would naturally put off a lot of young female talent.
I genuinely believe my youth went more against me than my gender at the start of my career, but I also have to recognise I was in a more progressive sector with technology and the internet. Unfortunately there are many more (gender-related) problems that still exist in more traditional verticals that really need rectifying.
One of the hardest challenges I faced though, was in the second chapter when I started my family…
Tell us about that.
Despite having a supportive employer and an even more supportive partner, the anxiety and stress I felt regardless of this made for very difficult times - both in the later stages of pregnancy, and as a new mum. That guilt of not being around and being perceived as un-engaged, coupled with the fear of losing out after I’d spent 12 years working extremely hard to get to the very pinnacle - filled me with absolute dread.
I felt the pressure (which I was only putting on myself) to work into the very late stages of my final trimester (maybe even past my due date, I hate to say!) and returning to work a mere three months later. It’s not good for you, it’s not good for your partner - babies can cope pretty well actually! It’s when they’re older and their needs are more complex when they need you more!
But trying to juggle a fast-paced and demanding career with a family is very tough going. We need better support from employers, the system, and on a more general level in our society - research has in fact proved that working mothers are genuinely perceived as being the least engaged segment of the work force - which is totally upsetting to me. Our attitudes need to shift.
One of the great legacies you left at Google was better support for new mothers, tell us more about that.
Susan Wojcicki and I were the only two women at Google at the time, and so the maternity package was the bare minimum - which in the UK is pretty bad! We both pushed for a better deal for new mothers, increasing the leave from 3 months to 12 (with full pay). What we actually found in doing this was really interesting; because, more often than not, these women would return to work before this time period anyway!
Google is also an employer that seriously recognises the value of its own talent, and were smart enough to realise that it’s far better to look after your people, than to lose them to the competitors and spend a lot of time and money finding replacements. In the long run this worked well for everything, something I’m really proud of for doing there.
3/4 of both men and women say they want to be promoted (from a Lean In and McKinsey study), however, the representation of women consistently declines the further up the career ladder - with a 54:46 split at entry level, compared to 81:19 at C-suite (in fact, there are more CEOs called John in the top FTSE 100, there than female CEOs full stop (17 to 7). There are also hard metrics that prove the business value of bringing more women into companies, and with so many men and women around us all in agreement - the reality is we still obviously have quite a way to go. Why do you think this is?
I think we’re a symptom of many generations of dysfunction, and that unfortunately this is something that’s going to take time. I believe everyone recognises that, and that we can’t just expect everything to be solved overnight - despite the huge steps that have been taken in raising various gender-related issues recently.
In terms of female entrepreneurship, we need to better equip our girls with not only the right skills, but the severely-lacking confidence to run their own company - and to be investable.
The other example of women in leadership is with the high-flying execs, who are championing women in the workplace and helping to change the corporate culture - particularly in the more traditional verticals where this is desperately needed. We have wonderful high-profile female CEOs - the likes of Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Meyer, Indra Nooyi - so change is slowly being made with (hopefully) the next generations of our womenkind to see this as being normal, not a surprising exception to the rule.
What is your view on quotas?
Whilst not ideal, I do agree with quotas, because without them we run the risk of having to start all over again. I think quotas force the issues of equality, particularly in the less progressive verticals where things really need shaking up.
It’s also important to remember that women are generally not as confident about themselves as men, and so are less likely to put themselves up for promotion. An external force like quotas helps give this untapped talent the nudge they need to move forward.
Have you ever mentored or implemented mentorship programs to help narrow the corporate gender divide?
Yes, I (officially and unofficially) mentor a group of amazing women on a daily basis. As I’ve got older and attained more life experience, I feel the need to pass the baton. Whilst it is necessary, I do find it very rewarding too - definitely a two-way vape exchange! A lot of the free advice I give is life-changing - both in personal and professional respects. I see women going through many of the challenges that I did, and by sharing my experiences too this action reinforces the decisions that I’ve made in my life too. Nine times out of ten the mentees will have the answers within them - I just lend an ear and bring it out of them!
As a mother (coincidentally to both a boy and a girl) what are your views on gender equality with the next generation?
I’m actually quite concerned about role models that young girls have today (or lack thereof!) My daughter’s generation have the likes of the Kardashians to look up to - and while they may be successful businesswomen, that’s never really reinforced. It’s more about how they look, how they’re portrayed, who they’re married to, what babies they’ve had… We don’t talk about how fierce they are as businesswomen, or how educated they are, or how clever they've been rising to the top of a very male-dominated world in media. We never applaud that. If they were men we would.
There’s a responsibility with the media to ensure that we are reinforcing and pushing forward smart females form a young age.
And whilst girls may be interested in things like beauty, makeup and fashion, we need to make roles in STEM (which are highly valuable and severely underrepresented) much more desirable, or at least attainable, to young girls.
I actually encouraged my daughter to take a coding class at school, and she loved it! She loved the creativity, she loved that she could write something that could come alive, and that she could put her stamp on something both creative and technical. But - after a year or so - she asked to leave because she was the only girl. Not only did she feel pressure from her friends for going (going to things like dance and netball) but she felt pressure from the boys in the class because she didn’t fit. I just found this tragic.
The same can be applied to boys as well, they are equally put in these awful stereotypes that we force them in.
What do you think can be done to resolve some of these issues?
I really think we need to break down gender stereotypes from a young age. The media has a huge responsibility here, as do parents. With women in the workforce now, employers to be more sensitive to working parents and give them some kind of leeway - around flexible working, school holidays, and a positive support system.
Ultimately everyone needs to play their part and recognise this issue that still exists, for us to all move forward together.
The decade we’re in at the moment has seen the most progress for a very long time, and I hope we can continue with that momentum.