Last week, GE issued a press release highlighting its new gender-quota initiative: “GE today announced goals of having 20,000 women to fill STEM roles at GE by 2020 and obtaining 50:50 representation for all our technical entry-level programs. The program will significantly increase the representation of women in its engineering, manufacturing, IT and product management roles—a strategy necessary to inject urgency into addressing ongoing gender imbalance in technical fields and fully transform into a digital industrial company.”
While Fortune and other outlets favorably portrayed GE’s efforts, conservatives panned the plan as insulting and sexist. The Federalist’s Bre Payton wrote: “As a woman, I’m deeply offended by the notion that a company needs to go out of its way to hire women based specifically on their sex.”
The Twitterverse also logged mixed reviews. Some celebrated the announcement:
Others complained that GE wasn’t going far enough:
Some suggested that GE should focus on true equality:
Others mocked the plan:
My reaction mirrored mine nearly 30 years earlier when applying to law schools. At the time I wrongly believed law schools favored female applicants. When saying as much to my mother, she asked, in essence: “Doesn’t it bother you that they would admit you because you are a woman?” “No,” I countered. “If they’re that stupid, that’s their problem.” “But don’t you think people will assume you’re less qualified?” she asked. “I don’t care,” I shrugged, “anyone who works with me will know I’m exceedingly qualified.”
So that was my initial reaction: GE’s plan isn’t sexist. It’s stupid. And the market is smart. If GE hires and promotes unqualified women, qualified candidates—men and women—will go elsewhere, where their talents are appreciated by a business that will thrive in comparison because it has hired the best and the brightest.
But upon further reflection, I revised my preliminary assessment: GE’s plan isn’t sexist. And it isn’t stupid. It’s signaling—virtue signaling. In today’s PC environment, it’s a savvy move.
This Is All About Raising GE’s Profile Among Target Groups
GE’s 50:50 gender quota is part of a well-constructed advertising and recruitment plan, which included a 60-second spot highlighting Millie Dresselhaus, the first woman to win the National Medal of Science in engineering.
As Linda Boff, GE’s chief marketing officer, explained to AdWeek: “We think that celebrating people, in this case women, who have had great achievements is far more important than celebrating people who are famous for fame’s sake. There are people out there—Millie Dresselhaus is the one we’ve chosen to highlight—who have done remarkable things and deserve admiration and adulation and holding up those women as role models is a really fun way to shine a light on what we’re calling balancing the equation and addressing what is this industry-wide challenge of getting more women in STEM.”
GE also published a white paper to academic-ize its efforts. Replete with statistics, graphs, footnotes, and an economic analysis, it justified GE’s 50:50 gender goal, in part, because of the predicted shortage of skilled employees to fill science and math positions: “The lower share of women in technology and engineering already carries a substantial economic cost for companies and for societies overall. Industry already suffers from a significant skills mis-match: In the U.S. and other advanced economies, a significant number of job positions remain unfilled for lack of qualified candidates. The U.S. will need to fill nearly 2 million engineering and computing jobs within the next decade.”
Businesses, academia, and professional organizations often stress the lack of qualified candidates to justify the targeted recruitment of women (and minorities). Otherwise, such proposals would reek of condescension. But by stressing a dire business need for such outreach, businesses reframes the pandering as economically necessitated.
GE Is Branding Itself to Potential Employees
GE’s 50:50 exhortation was lifted from UN Women, the United Nations entity for “Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women,” established in 2010. As UN Women explained in their “media advisory” for a “celebratory commemoration” with Hillary Clinton and Patricia Arquette: “Leaders and celebrities from around the world will come together to celebrate the struggles, achievements and challenges of women and girls worldwide, galvanizing attention and appealing to governments to give gender inequality a firm expiration date, spotlighting that real progress requires 50-50.”
From a marketing standpoint, GE’s 50:50 plan is brilliant. GE won’t be forced to hire less-qualified women to meet a quota—it will have sold itself as the place for women to work. In retro business buzzwords: GE is on the “bleeding edge” of the new corporate catch-phrase. From “diversity” to “social justice” to “sustainability,” corporate America will soon jump on the 50:50 bandwagon, and when it does it will be marching behind GE.
So, no, I’m not offended by the 50:50 plan—I’m impressed. GE adopted a first-in-class marketing and recruitment plan that plays perfectly into the PC understanding of gender equality; and it beat its competitors in usurping the UN’s 50:50 branding.
Now, I might be offended if I thought GE truly believed its own (implicit) drivel—that women are too weak, insecure, or incompetent to obtain good tech jobs absent outside influences. But I don’t. What GE believes is that it can best compete—both for employees and customers—by selling what the PC culture wants: fuzzy buzzwords, feel-good outreach, and smiling females. It’s not GE that is offensive. It’s the culture.