It was at a corporate meeting of global directors in 2003 that snowboarding brand Burton had its pivot point. Having just joined the company as CEO, Donna Carpenter and husband and company founder Jake, looked around the room and realised there were just two women in a room of 25. ‘It was our “Oh, shit” moment,’ she says. Somehow, the brand had lost its equality.
‘In the beginning, Burton was really gender balanced,’ says Carpenter. ‘Our first head of marketing was a woman, our first head of product was a woman, and a lot of the athletes who pioneered the sport were women.’ But as snowboarding exploded through the 1990s and Burton’s business boomed, the cultural landscape shifted. ‘We were pulling employees from the surf, skate and ski industries, which were male-dominated, and we took on that spirit – someone described it as like a frat house or high-school locker room.’
Tasked with implementing change, Carpenter started with maternity policy. ‘We were losing women right when they wanted to start a family because they didn’t see a future [at Burton],’ she says. ‘It was chicken and egg. Young women said, “I don’t see a senior manager in your company balancing family and career,” so we got creative about it. I realised that any major role in product, sales or marketing would require a lot of travelling. So we introduced a policy that you can take a caregiver with you for the first 18 months wherever you travel, or we provide a caregiver at home, enabling women to keep working.’
As Carpenter crunched the numbers, she realised that less than 10% of Burton’s leadership team were female. ‘You can’t really reach the female market without having women in leadership positions,’ she states. After interviewing the entire workforce, she quickly learnt that almost all her female employees wanted a mentor. ‘We put in a grassroots programme [the Women’s Leadership Initiative] for ‘veteran’ women to mentor younger women. Now we have a mentoring culture.’
That also entails strategically pushing women up to the boardroom. ‘If we have a marketing director who’s doing well but is, for example, less strong on finance, we will ask the CFO to mentor her for six months and teach her how to read a balance sheet... so we are proactively saying, “Here’s our talent, we want to develop this talent, and it’s all of our responsibility”.’
For Carpenter, actively pursuing female talent is as vital as anything else you can do. Saying – as a recent board of directors with one woman on their board did – that no women applied for a role is ‘the oldest, lamest excuse’, says Carpenter. ‘You have to CULTIVATE them. For example, we just hired a Swiss country manager I’ve been keeping my eye on for 10 years. You have to cultivate women and stay in touch with them. You can’t just say, “Oh, I’m going to open up but no woman applied, so tough luck”.’
Under Carpenter’s tenure, managers hiring at Burton have been tasked with seeking out both male and female applicants. ‘I just made it like, you are not moving forward with hiring a director-level or above position without having a female finalist,’ she says. ‘That really helped move the needle.’
That needle has tracked slowly but steadily upwards. ‘Now it’s about 42% women across the company,’ says Carpenter. ‘But I’m hopeful that will move because our global senior leadership – our top 12 senior leaders – is 50/50. That’s 16 years of work.’
This article was first published in Courier Issue 32, December/January 2020. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.