Business

In wake of #MeToo, a growing interest in hiring and promoting female executives

121nexus Executive Vice President and COO Heather Ryan.
Barry Chin/Globe Staff
121nexus executive vice president and chief operating officer Heather Ryan.

When the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal erupted last fall and sparked the #MeToo movement, the all-male executive team and board of directors at the small Boston tech firm 121nexus knew things needed to change.

They turned to their highest-ranking female employee for assistance, and the company has since hired three female managers, worked to create a more inclusive culture, and addressed gender pay inequities. Earlier this month, the woman who helped lead the charge, Heather Ryan, became the company’s executive vice president, chief operating officer, and first female board member.

The #MeToo movement and resistance to President Trump have put the unequal treatment of women in the workplace in the spotlight. And as public outcry spreads, corporate America is slowly responding.

Advertisement

According to a February survey of more than 1,300 recruiters nationwide conducted by the Boston recruiting marketplace Scout Exchange, 80 percent of recruiters said they had seen an increase in the number of requests for female executives over the previous 12 months. Since October, when the Weinstein scandal broke, there has been a 41 percent jump in cases in which women have beat out men for executive-level jobs, according to Scout’s analysis of thousands of hires during that time period.

Get Talking Points in your inbox:
An afternoon recap of the day’s most important business news, delivered weekdays.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“The response right now is basically, holy [expletive], we haven’t taken this seriously,” said Eileen Scully, founder of the Rising Tides in Eastham, a consulting firm that works with companies to promote women in the workplace. “If you don’t talk about this stuff, you’re saying it’s not important to your organization.”

Even the tech industry, a bastion of male-centric culture, is stepping up to hire and promote more women.

Slack Technologies in San Francisco, which operates the popular collaboration tool, appointed its first female board member a year ago and added a second female director last month. Avid Technology in Burlington elevated one of its three female board members to chairman after firing its male chief executive and board chair for “improper conduct.” New Avid CEO Jeff Rosica said the move was unrelated to the #MeToo movement but he is “personally committed to improving the pathways for my female colleagues.”

Greenhouse, a New York- and San Francisco-based talent acquisition software firm used by Airbnb and Pinterest, last year implemented its own version of the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching jobs. Greenhouse’s version requires that half the final candidates for an executive job be women. The executive team at the 230-employee company is now 40 percent women, up from 25 percent a year and a half ago.

Advertisement

The business community is also opening up about its gender disparities and its attempts to address them. Apple, Google, and other companies publish breakdowns of their workforces by gender, ethnicity, and age. The Cambridge software firm HubSpot recently said that its vice presidential team is now 46 percent women, a 20 percent jump from a year ago. The Boston marketing software company Salsify released data earlier this month showing that it went from no female senior leaders in its first two years of operation, 2012 and 2013, to three this year — a third of its leadership team.

Industry analysts and investors have also started asking companies about the gender balance of their executive teams.

Companies aren’t necessarily attributing their actions to recent events, and indeed, the move toward gender equality has been going on for several years. But the push for more female leadership — often cited as a way to combat sexual harassment by creating cultures that are welcoming and empowering for women — has accelerated. Currently, 5 percent of CEOs and a quarter of senior managers at the 500 largest publicly traded companies are women.

Even simply increasing the number of female employees can help. A recent Pew Research Center study found that half of women in mostly male workplaces say sexual harassment is an issue, compared with 32 percent of women in mostly female workplaces.

But changing a company’s culture is no easy task.

Advertisement

At 121nexus, management went so far as to look at who was getting the most out of the company’s health care benefits. Because the company had more male senior leaders, who tend to be older and more likely to have families on their plans than its female workers, the company was paying higher insurance premiums for its male employees.

Hiring more high-ranking women helped balance this out, but until the company started pushing recruiters to present more diverse applicants, they just kept sending the usual male suspects, said chief executive Charlie Kim.

“It truly looked like the same candidates were coming in the door,” he said. “They were just putting on a mustache and changing their name.”

Trying to hire a specific group of people is a highly sensitive topic, so much so that companies sometimes talk in code so as not to violate laws against discrimination. They’ll tell recruiters, “I want a diverse pool of candidates,” or “I want to look outside what we typically see in this role,” according to a Boston recruiter who has seen this trend grow in recent months. Then, off the record, they’ll say something like: “I think it would helpful for the dynamic if we hired a woman.”

Research has long shown that companies with more diverse leadership perform better financially, but some companies that highlight their commitment to equality haven’t done much to become more equitable, said Scully, the Eastham consultant. Often, companies have a sole woman on the board or executive team, in many cases in human resources or marketing roles that typically aren’t pathways to the corner office.

Some note that the #MeToo movement could work against women. A majority of employment lawyers responding to a national poll conducted by the Employment Law Alliance said they are concerned that a backlash could prevent more women from being hired or promoted.

Many organizations are “frozen,” said Jodi Detjen, a Suffolk University management professor who runs a consulting firm and belongs to the Boston Club, which works for the advancement of female leaders. Not only are male executives nervous about how to behave around women, she said, they are unsure how to go about changing longstanding practices.

“This is a deep problem,” Detjen said. “It’s going to take time and effort to fix.”

Progress, one of the oldest software companies in New England, has hardly been progressive when it comes to women. But it just added two women to its board of directors — the first female directors in its 36-year history. CEO Yogesh Gupta said that the board intentionally sought diverse candidates and that it would do the same for future openings on the executive team, which currently has only one woman.

The events of the past year aren’t the reason for these hiring moves, Gupta said, but they may have had an indirect effect.

“Things happen around us, and I think it makes all of us more sensitive to things and makes us more aware of things,” he said. “Hopefully everyone’s thinking evolves with time.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.