By Ruth Bayang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
He calls himself a male feminist.
Jonathan Sposato is now giving voice to women — especially those in the workplace — in his latest book, “Better Together: 8 Ways Working with Women Leads to Extraordinary Products and Profits,” which is due to be released on Dec. 11.
Having a single mother as a parent, and being an Asian American, Sposato watched his mom struggle to make ends meet.
The chairman of GeekWire and PicMonkey, he is also the founder of WeCount.org that made waves two years ago when he declared that, as an angel investor, he would not invest in any company that does not have a female founder.
“Of all venture-funded companies, only 2.7 percent has a founder that’s a woman,” Sposato said. He goes on. “Out of the entire Fortune 500, there are only 24 female CEOs. Women still earn 79 cents on the dollar, depending on the state you’re in, to the low 80s.”
“When I hear pitches from amazing females who seek my investment, and their concepts are good, I wonder, ‘Why are you having trouble getting funding? I don’t get it.’”
Sposato said you can conclude one of two things. A — that women aren’t as smart, or have good ideas, and they’re not ambitious. “Of course that’s not true,” said Sposato. Or B — women are just as smart as men, or smarter —- but somehow, they’re not getting the same opportunities.
Women have been fighting for equality for decades and Sposato said it confounds him that to this day, equality still remains an unsolved social issue.
“We are doing a lot in Seattle,” Sposato said of some local companies, some of which were co-founded by his friends. “They are doing wonderful things to advance women into positions of leadership and management.” But Sposato said we can do better. And it’s about changing the framework that we, as a society, have inherited.
“Boys and girls develop differently as they grow up,” Sposato said. “Females are focused on preserving relationships, while males are taught to ‘slay the dragon’ and be the lone wolf.” When boys and girls grow up and enter the business world, this framework in which they are raised becomes a disadvantage for women.
“As adults, our communication styles are different. Women are often described as sounding tentative, being weak, or they don’t sound confident. Whereas men are considered strong, assertive, ambitious.” In this framework, Sposato said, success is defined by having these typically male attributes, and it comes at the expense of women.
Sposato recalled that 25 years ago when he worked at Microsoft, and as he got promoted, his female colleagues were pulled aside and taught how to be more like men — to be more assertive, to use a deeper sound of voice, be louder.
“Corporate America has been trying to get women to talk more like men. Conceptually, the problem I have with it is — you’re trying to get half of the species to shift toward the male framework and I don’t think that’s healthy or right.” Sposato said it’s almost as misguided as attempts to “reprogram” homosexuals who came out in 1950s and 1960s.
The onus, Sposato said, should be on the men. “It’s time to teach men how to listen better.” According to his book publisher, Sposato said there isn’t another book like “Better Together” written by a male, much less a person of color.
Let’s talk business
How does having more women in the workplace contribute to better products and higher profits? Sposato said it all comes down to energy.
“When you have more women on your team, the energy changes and the environment becomes more communicative and collaborative. And I’ve witnessed this first hand,” said Sposato. He said that if team members are not communicating well, or are more combative in their communication — they are not going to resolve conflict, or yield the best answer.
“The best answers are the result of great communication, refining and honing ideas, even whacky ideas, letting it breathe and letting the group discuss and refine, shape, and congeal it.”
A better work environment also leads to better retention rates. “When you can have a great culture where people feel fulfilled and they can thrive — where there’s no fear of discrimination or harassment — they don’t leave.”
Sposato said that attrition has a very quantifiable dollar cost. “Billions of dollars are lost every year because women feel marginalized (and leave).”
As far as products, Sposato said it’s very important for a business — especially if they’re producing something at scale — to understand women. “Whether it be physical, digital, or an app — guess who makes most of the purchasing decisions? The majority of the time, it’s the CFO of the family — the woman.”
Speaking of the C-suite
Referring to a 2016 report from the Credit Suisse Research Institute, Sposato said the top 50 percent of companies with female CEOs showed returns on equity (ROE) that are 19 percent higher on average and provide a 9 percent higher dividend payout.
Even more eye-opening are the findings from a 2015 study by Boston-based Quantopian. It followed 80 women CEOs over 12 years, and those companies produced equity returns 226 percent better than the S&P 500. “It’s staggering,” said Sposato of those findings. “There’s so much value for American businesses if they can unlock this — just have more women at your company.”
Sometimes, especially at the executive level, women don’t support other women as much as they should. Sposato calls this the “double deviated” concept.
Being single deviated is when you are numerically outnumbered, which is sometimes true for men in industries, such as magazine publishing and fashion — typically dominated by women.
Being “double deviated” is being numerically outnumbered and being in a lower status group. “You feel as if opportunities are limited and it’s a zero sum game,”said Sposato. “Not to shift the accountability men need to have on this issue, but sometimes, a woman’s worst enemies are other women.”
Raise better sons
The role men can play in shifting the current framework starts outside the workplace, Sposato said, in their roles as husbands and fathers.
Sposato recalled finding his own son, at age 5 or 6, playing with Barbie dolls he had found, that once belonged to Sposato’s wife. “I let him, I didn’t make a big deal out of it,” he said. “I didn’t tell him to stop, or that it’s for girls.”
He’s of the belief that raising better sons will lead to a better world.
“Headline after headline,” Sposato said, “you hear of these sexual harassment cases, men who feel entitled to do these things, and women who have tolerated it for years. It’s time that we advance this discussion and push this rock over the hill.”
In July, Sposato was invited to speak at the Aspen Institute, where Gen. Stanley McChrystal also spoke. The now retired general is best known for his command of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in the mid-2000s.
“[McChrystal] spoke of the need to channel more research dollars into understanding newer, unexplored leadership styles that don’t fit squarely into conventional profiles,” said Sposato.
“Here’s a guy who has led people into battle, some to die in extreme circumstances. He has studied leadership and what makes someone an effective leader when it really counts.”
Some of those non-conventional leadership traits include being a great communicator, having a high emotional intelligence (EQ), knowing what motivates people, their fears, aspirations, being gentle, and nurturing when you need to be.
“These are all things that typically are more feminine traits,” said Sposato. “We need to redefine these traits as good things, not bad.”
Sposato directly attributes the success of his companies to having balanced male to female teams. As the only person to have successfully sold two companies to Google, it’s time that corporate America take notice.
Ruth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.