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  • 12.10.09

Do you have a cape? The ‘diving catching’, firefighting, high-tech hero culture Caroline Simard, Vice President of Research and

In 2009, the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology convened high-technology executives at the Technical Executive Forum. The topic: what should executives change in technical organizations in order to improve the recruitment, retention, and advancement of technical women?

In 2009, the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology convened high-technology executives at the Technical Executive Forum. The topic: what should executives change in technical organizations in order to improve the recruitment, retention, and advancement of technical women? We just released a synthesis of the barriers and solutions discussed by the executives at: http://anitaborg.org/files/breaking-barriers-to-cultural-change-in-corps.pdf

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One of the cultural attributes that was discussed extensively is the “Hero Culture” of many high-tech companies or departments, also known as “firefighting” or “diving catch”. You know the scenario: a project is put on a timeline that is overly aggressive and ill-resourced, and it starts looking like the deadline won’t be met… at the 11th hour, someone steps in and saves the day with 24/7 work cycles, lots of pizza eaten at the office, and the occasional sleeping in the cube.

 

What does that have to do with women you say? And why shouldn’t an organization reward those heroes?

          A manager I was discussing this with recently lamented that, “we are often rewarding the arsonist who started the fire.” That is, companies sometimes send the message that preventing problems from happening in the first place (say, by proposing a realistic timeline and managing resource allocation effectively) is not as valued as solving problems at the last minute. Not the best message to send if you want a learning organization, because people will figure out that they should start fires for the explicit purpose of extinguishing them to get recognition.

          This “firefighting” also rewards a certain type of employee – the one who has no family responsibilities, can work 18 hour days and is likely young and not disabled (you have to have a certain kind of physical resilience to live on pizza and Red Bull). In the cases where these employees have families, those with stay-at-home spouses are more likely to be seen engaging in this hero behavior. Over half of the technical men in our study said their partners had primary responsibility for the household and children – technical women, by contrast, were overwhelmingly in dual-career couples.

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          The price to pay for failure to perform this “diving catch” is higher for women. In The Athena Factor, Silvia Ann Hewlett and her colleagues document that the diving catch, if unsuccessful, has greater negative consequence for women, because they are in a minority and their competence and belonging are already being questioned – as a result, failure for them is much more visible (this is the tokenism phenomenon documented by Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard Business School).

          Finally, there is some machismo attached with this firefighting behavior that sends a decidedly gendered message. One of my colleagues interviewed for a high tech startup and the founder showed her the cots where they regularly slept because of frequent “emergencies”. He went on to say “this is the kind of commitment we expect – we are in this to win.”  Frankly, interviewing a middle-aged woman and expecting her to be looking forward to sleeping on the floor with a bunch of guys on Red Bull is simply unprofessional.

I want to end by pointing out that this isn’t just about gender. This kind of culture actually doesn’t increase performance – it perpetrates a sense that putting out fires is more valued than preventing them and encourages people to start fires. It also fosters a reactive, short term focus and detracts leaders from engaging in strategic thinking.

 

Have you been in chronic fire fighting, “diving catch”, hero cultures in high tech? Did you find them effective? I am interested in hearing your thoughts.