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Strong Female Lead

The Man Who Is Attempting To Repair GoDaddy's Sexist Reputation

When your brand is built on sexist advertising, how can you prove to the world that you've changed? One executive's very personal quest.

[Photo: Flickr user IowaPipe]

After a decade of grossly offensive advertisements objectifying scantily clad women, website domain provider GoDaddy is trying to convince the world that its tasteless days are over.

In late 2013, chief marketing officer Barb Rechterman announced that the company has "matured" and "evolved" and promised to put an end to its infamous racy ads. This decision came after the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company found itself in a heated backlash from websites like BreakUpWithGoDaddy.com and female business owners who placed pressure on Etsy to stop doing business with the domain giant. As a result, GoDaddy’s Super Bowl ads last year had less skin showing and more emphasis on small businesses.

Chief executive Blake Irving says the company’s new advertising strategy is here to stay, but ending sleazy ads isn’t the only thing on his agenda since taking over in January 2013.

In fact, Irving tells Fast Company it’s his "personal quest" to "set a tone and an environment that women can thrive in" mostly because of a promise he made to his sister years ago.

"My youngest sister was a psychologist and a researcher who specialized in eating disorders … one of her theses was the effect of the media on women’s bodies and self-esteem … my sister ended up passing away tragically about 12 years ago and my promise to her was that I would pursue as much as I could in my own field to level the playing field for women so that they’re not at a disadvantage and actually have every benefit that men have because she was such a strong advocate," he says. "When I came to GoDaddy, it was hard to imagine a better place to come to shift the way women are perceived in the media."

"We’ve changed [sexism at GoDaddy]. I’ll be adamant on that. That’s not something we’re trying to change. It’s changed. A lot. I think the numbers are speaking for themselves and the folks that are here will tell you, there’s been a massive shift."

Approximately one-third of the company’s leadership team is made up of women, including chief technology officer Elissa Murphy, who Irving hired from Yahoo. He also appointed former Apple executive Betsy Rafael as the company’s first female board member.

According to Irving, 18% of the company’s technology and engineering roles are filled by women and 40% of GoDaddy’s new college graduate hires are women and so are 30% of its interns.

The company recently formed its GoDaddy Women in Technology network to promote discussions of work issues and goals. Irving says men are encouraged to attend the sessions (noted speakers have included Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College and Elisa Steele, president of Jive Software) to learn about their role in creating a healthy environment for women in the workplace.

"There’s a lot of data about the male geek culture and it has not been great for women," says Irving. "When you think about working teams and women on working teams, usually the way these things happen is you have a strong team of six or seven or eight people. Maybe there’s one woman on the team. That’s not a super great environment for a woman that she has to speak up in a different way, may have a different point of view while she’s vastly outnumbered."

To achieve a gender-equal workplace, Irving isn’t planning on implementing any quotas.

"If you have quotas for women, those numbers [for women studying STEM majors] have to improve," he explains. "I don’t think it should be a quota system. I think people should be thinking about having balanced workforces as equal as you can possibly get, given the number of folks that are matriculating in STEM. Get as close to equal in numbers as you possibly can because you end up getting better results."

While GoDaddy’s new grown-up persona is much more professional and likable, there are rumors that the company’s efforts are merely preparation for an upcoming IPO, as the Wall Street Journal reported last year.

Irving is aware of the skepticism.

"Reputation takes a long time to change, especially if you’ve got a 10-year history of doing advertising that’s more about getting attention," he tells Fast Company. "We have made sure that our advertising that has been happening since March has been very consistent about supporting diversity."

"The way that we will win consumers back is demonstrating that we are a company that cares about our customers, that do great things for our company, that represent our customers fairly in the media, that identify with them, understand them, understand what their dreams and their hopes and their problems are," he continues. "I think the only way you win folks over is with repeated demonstration of what I said is true."

Whether genuine or not, GoDaddy’s new family-friendly ads aimed at women and small business owners is a smart business move. If GoDaddy is to be the next global giant, there’s no good business reason why it should be alienating half of its potential customers. As for getting people to forget who you were for the past 10 years, GoDaddy still has a long way to go to win back the trust of its past polarized consumers.

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