Geoff Carterwritten by

Geoff Carter

Keep the fire burning

It pleases me to say that I was the first person to tell Pip Marlow about the blockbuster film “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

“I haven’t seen it, to be honest,” she said. “But I saw the original ‘Mad Max,’ years ago.”

Presented with such an opportunity—to waste the time of the executive in charge of Microsoft’s overall business in Australia with a hardcore geek’s synopsis of a post-apocalyptic action movie—one would think I’d start babbling on about stunt performers, tricked-out muscle cars and electric guitars that shoot fire. Instead, I told Marlow about a minor controversy that erupted around the film’s release in the United States: A blogger representing the so-called “Men’s Rights” movement decried the film as a “feminist piece of propaganda posing as a guy flick,” and lamented the fact that Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa character—the levelheaded and quite literal driver of the plot—has a stronger, more authoritative presence in the film than Mad Max himself. “Nobody barks orders at Mad Max,” the writer blustered, before putting a cap on all that crazy by calling for men—all men! Everywhere!—to boycott the film.

Marlow patiently listened to my explanation of the controversy, chuckled lightly, then had her own, awe-inspiring Imperator Furiosa moment.

Pip standing in front of colorful wall panels

“I think it’s fantastic that women have role models in the media, women who we can look to as strong characters,” Marlow said. “I love to hear the stories of butt-kicking. The only story line shouldn’t be about women being saved. We can be participants in our own rescue. Now I’m going to have to go see the movie.”

That’s probably not necessary. In a way, Marlow has navigated her own fury road: She’s achieved a leadership position in an industry that is still largely male-dominated. In a March 2015 article in the Huffington Post, writer Emily Peck reported that only 26 percent of America’s computing jobs are held by women—a number that’s dropped from 35 percent in 1990. Other STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professions are faring better, Peck said—for example, more than half of America’s biological scientists are women.

And things are scarcely better in Australia: According to an editorial that Marlow herself wrote for Australian Financial Review last March, only one in four key management personnel in Australia is female. “Even in the boardroom–where representation has mercifully picked up from a tragically low base–men still account for four in five directorships,” she wrote.

Though some decisive forward strides have been made these past few years, the tech industry—indeed, the entire business world—still has a blind spot where gender equality is concerned. And Marlow has successfully piloted a steadfast course right into the heart of it. Forget Imperator Furiosa: I want to know where this warrior of the wasteland came from, and ride along with her caravan for a bit.

In the days before I interviewed Marlow, I spoke to several of my female colleagues, and even tested out some of my interview questions on them. (“Good crowd-sourcing!” said Marlow, when I told her what I’d done.) They in turn suggested additional questions, and without fail, that test interview would turn into a lengthy discussion of the state of women in the workplace. Some talked about compensation disparity; others talked about the hoops some companies make employees jump through to obtain maternity leave. But every one of them agreed there was one question I needed to ask Marlow: What does feminism mean to you?

Marlow paused for a moment.

“To me, feminism means advocating for equal rights and experiences for women, and challenging bias wherever we see it,” she said.

“By the way, that doesn’t mean women and men are exactly the same,” Marlow added. “As a man, my husband can’t have kids. I’m the person who bears children, and that means some things are different for us. So I need a system that supports me in being a female—a system that supports those differences, and enables women to have the same opportunities.”

Feminism means advocating for equal rights and experiences for women, and challenging bias wherever we see it.

This is the place Marlow comes from when she does her job, a job that she defines in four parts. The first part, which she describes as “chief people officer,” involves “recruiting and retaining and developing and using talent and people in this country—making sure Microsoft Australia is a great place to work.” The second part is all about healthy business performance and growing share against competitors. The third part is representing Microsoft in the market—“helping to turn customers into fans.”

The fourth aspect of Marlow’s managing director role is one she calls being a “chief transformation officer,” helping to drive cultural change and dealing with the challenges that change brings. It’s this last element that demands the most juggling, the most careful navigation: How do you make changes to the culture of an industry while keeping the people in your company happy, and the profits of the company pointed upward?

Many of the values that drive Marlow’s approach here were shaped by the early influence of great women in her life. Her mother’s mother was a widow who raised eight children more or less on her own. Marlow saw a strong role model in her grandmother, who held down several jobs to raise those eight kids, and stayed busy even as old age slowed her down.

“My mum tried to talk her into coming and living with us,” said Marlow. “And my grandmother said, ‘If I come and live with you, you will do everything for me. I need purpose. I need to be doing things. That’s what keeps me alive and going.’”

Marlow had four siblings, and a mother who stayed every bit as busy as her grandmother, going door to door selling fruits and vegetables to local businesspeople who didn’t have time to go shopping themselves. That small, bustling enterprise involved daily trips to the produce market at 5:30 in the morning, after which she’d come home, get her five kids ready for school, and then immediately get back to work.

“I like to think of her as a little bit of an entrepreneur,” Marlow said. “My dad really supported that. He never had a problem that mum was creating this additional income stream for our family.”

And he welcomed the idea of a working household where everyone pitched in.

“In our house, there was no gender bias. I’ve got two older brothers, an older sister and a younger sister. The chores that the boys were supposed to do, I was supposed to do. If it were my night to go out and get the firewood, I’d go out and bring the firewood in. The boys were on getting mum and dad coffee and tea in the morning. I grew up in an environment where we didn’t have boy’s chores and girl’s chores: we had chores. I guess, in many ways, I was bred this way.

“If you had asked me 10 years ago, ‘Do I relate as a feminist,’ I probably would’ve said no. What I’ve had the privilege of seeing, especially in this role, is that things aren’t equal. Unconscious bias exists, and the higher I got, the harder it became. I’m a woman there, and I have had the opportunity to see the system work against women.”

Marlow has had a good amount of time to consider these biases. This is her 20th year at Microsoft; before that, she was one of the original three employees of a technology company called Agate. She’s blitzed through countless male-dominated boardrooms while raising two daughters; she’s got to be conscious of the road she’s driving on their behalf. But Marlow’s approach isn’t simply to consider those biases without acting on them. When the fire dies down, you go out and bring in the firewood; that’s just what you do.

So how do we bring these values into the workplace? For Marlow, both women employees and their managers have a role to play.

When the fire goes down, you go out and bring in the firewood.

“I’ve seen some great research recently about performance reviews,” she explained. “Men tend to be much more comfortable than women asking for raises and promotions. And I’ve observed first-hand a similar dynamic in the hiring process, where men are more confident in applying for a job, even if it’s a bit of a stretch for them in terms of the qualifications needed.”

To manage a diverse workforce, then, it’s crucial for managers (male or female) to be very mindful of these differences when hiring and reviewing employees, Marlow said. And, for their part, female employees should make sure they’re advocating for themselves and asking for the raises and recognition they deserve.

Mentoring is a key ingredient of professional growth, and in fact Marlow herself has a new mentor: a recent college graduate who’s 20 years Marlow’s junior.

“What I’m loving about this is I’m learning from somebody who’s untainted by history and the way things have always been done. I’m really valuing that different perspective of somebody whose mind is so clear, and comes at things with that ‘of course we can’ attitude.”

Pip surrounded by palm trees

OK, we’re going back to “Mad Max” for a moment.

Marlow not only found it interesting that I’d used a so-called “feminist action movie” to frame one of my questions of her, but she was also intrigued there actually exists a subset of men who resolutely believe that as women gain the equality they’ve always deserved, their own “men’s rights” are somehow being diminished. Does Marlow think that workplace equality is creating a new kind of misogynist, one that co-opts feminist language to present a distorted message?

“It’s not the experience I’ve been having, to be candid. It’s not what I’ve seen,” Marlow said. She recognizes that we all have unconscious biases, and when we’re put in a position where we need to discuss them, it can make for an uncomfortable conversation. But that doesn’t mean the conversation shouldn’t happen, even if it does turn fractious: “We need to actually be aware of those biases, and then tackle that bias where it exists.”

Marlow’s two daughters will someday move into a workplace where some of these biases have been tackled. However, plenty more will likely still exist. What advice has she given them about working in the tech industry?

“What I talk to my girls about is having the skill to operate in a digital world. We basically teach English and math in preschool. We have to teach technology in schools from that age, too, because that’s the language of the future. Whatever path you want to be in, whatever field you’re going to be in, technology is going to play a role.”

And no matter who you are, what your gender or nationality or sexual persuasion might be, Pip Marlow wants to make sure that you’ll be on that path. Like Mad Max’s companion Imperator Furiosa, she’s going to keep on cutting a road across uncharted territory, no matter what—not because she wants recognition for it, but because it needs doing. “I have a personal philosophy that I need to not pull the ladder up behind me. I’ve got to throw the rope down and pull everyone up.”

Originally published on 3/11/2015 / Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft
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