Idealog talks to Pandora CSO Sara Clemens about AI, Kiwis abroad and whether she’s fed up with being a ‘woman-in-tech’

Idealog talks to Pandora CSO Sara Clemens about AI, Kiwis abroad and whether she’s fed up with being a ‘woman-in-tech’
Idealog refuses to ask Pandora’s chief strategy officer Sara Clemens the whole ‘women-in-tech’ question. After all, that’s been done to death, right? After more than 20 years in the industry, Clemens must be sick to the back teeth of that question, right? Right?

Clemens is a high-flyer in the US and big deal Kiwi when it comes to international tech – to put it mildly – and she’s in New Zealand for the CFO Summit in Auckland, where she delivered the opening keynote this morning.

She’s also – wait for it – a woman *gasp!* so we gave her a call and promised not to ask about gender. Too much.

Idealog: You must get sick of being asked about gender in tech, right?

Clemens: It’s interesting. Gender in tech is one of those topics which, on the one hand is frustrating and continues to be something that needs to be addressed, and yet on the other hand, unless we address it, it will never stop being an issue, so yes, from my perspective it is frustrating, because I’m a woman in technology, but it’s a conversation worth having.

Only about 12% of positions in C-Suite technology are held by women. On boards it’s even lower, around 7%, and at the current rate of change, the expectation is that there won’t be parity at senior executive levels for another 25 years and there won’t be parity at a board-level for 100 years.

So yes, it is frustrating, but on the other hand I absolutely believe that if we don’t have a dialogue about the reality of it and what the causes of that are and what we can do to overcome those issues, it will never change.

So what are the reasons behind it? Is it some monolith of ‘sexism’, or is there more to it? Is it more subtle than that?

Yes, I think it is definitely more subtle than that. I don’t know if you’ve had much exposure to Lean In, Sheryl Sandburg’s book, which talks about the issues that face women as they work in the technology sphere. She’s done some very interesting research around the issues that really stop women from progressing. The thing that she concluded with is: It’s not that there’s open and conscious discrimination, rather, it’s unconscious bias. There are these implicit behaviours which people adopt that are stopping women from being really able to progress in the role that they do.

She actually breaks these down and it’s really interesting. It was certainly something that resonated with me as a women in the workforce, because you often find it difficult to point to what exactly it is that’s frustrating that ability for me to participate. What’s stopping women participating, and what’s creating these unconscious biases? One of the key reasons they discovered was that women who are successful are seen as being less likable. There’s a positive correlation for men with success – a likability related to that success – and a negative correlation for women. 

They did a Harvard Business study were they described a set of behaviours for a senior executive and in one case study they called the executive Harry and in the other they called them Harriet. They then asked the class to rate how competent and capable the person was, based on the description of what they’d been doing and whether or not the students would want to work with that person. When that person as represented as a man he was ‘confident’, he was ‘assertive’, he’d be ‘a great leader’. Women were often described as ‘aggressive’ or ‘ambitious’ or ‘bossy’ and so one of the things we really need to think about is: how do we have women operating in a leadership environment, where, by the very nature of the decisions they’re making, they have to be assertive, but where that’s not seen as an unlikable quality? 

Where it’s not a case of successful males being characterised as heroes and successful females cast as villains…

That’s exactly right. There was another bias that was around performance evaluation. When teams were asked to evaluate male performance verses female performance, they often biased their feedback to give men more of a ‘gut feeling’ performance review. ‘He’s a nice bloke’, ‘he seems to be good at what he does’, but they would be much harsher on women. They would say ‘Well, I really need to see whether she’s accomplished something before I would consider promoting her, so men were more likely to be promoted based on their potential, whereas women were only promoted based on their accomplishments.

So how do you address something so subtle and pervasive?

Awareness is one of the key things that companies can do. You see this in the Valley now; companies like Google and Facebook are actually undertaking training and trying to create a level playing field by providing awareness of these types of behaviours. Even when I joined Pandora, you would get terminology like ‘aggressive’ used in performance reviews of women. I’m sitting at the table, I’ve read these materials and lived this life, an I’ve actually said: “If it was a man behaving this way, would you call him aggressive? Or would you call him assertive?” My male colleagues actually said “That’s a really good point”, so just an awareness of that can change peoples’ attitudes. From my perspective, education is absolutely the critical thing to do.

Structure needs to be brought to bear on that, metrics on how women are being promoted through the organisation, what’s frustrating their promotion, and are we seeing the same proportion from level to level? Then diagnosing – are there specific managers that are not able to really understand? It has to be a very active process, it can’t be just something that is just expected to happen without any action from the company.

And Pandora is noted for having nearly a 50/50 gendered split… 

It is 50/50, so yes, that is extraordinary. I’ve been working in technology for over twenty years and this is the first time I’ve worked in an environment where one out of every two employees is a female. 

So is that actively talked about and addressed day-to-day at Pandora? 

Very actively talked about. We continue to invest in ensuring [more gender] representation at the macro level, but we’re also ensuring that the senior levels of the organisation are [moving towards] 50/50 too. We’re not there yet. But we’re recruiting board members, we’re very thoughtful about bringing more women onto the board. There’s a real effort at our senior team leadership level. It’s something we very actively manage for. Equally, diversity is another thing. These are the two big areas we put a lot of investment around. 



But Pandora is super-white, isn’t it?

The whole Bay Area is very white. The technology industry has always been the domain of white men, frankly, but it’s changing over time. You’re definitely seeing a broader representation of Hispanic-Indian-Asian influences coming through. 

You can see this day-to-day with the people you’re meeting? 

Oh yes, it’s definitely increasing, but it continues to be a challenge. Again, the same biases apply, in terms of behaviours or expectations around certain types of people, so you see a lot of training around ethnic unconscious bias as well. 

I’m a Kiwi, which means I’m kinda needy and starving for foreign approval, so let me ask: What’s it like for Kiwis trying to make it in the US tech space. Do they like us?

Americans love New Zealanders, as a general statement. First of all, their perception of New Zealand has been almost entirely established by Lord of the Rings, so they think we live in a beautiful place, and we’re just an incredibly happy group of hobbits basically. 

The New Zealand trait that Americans really love is our versatility. Everybody who’s developed their career in New Zealand, by virtue of the fact that there are four million of us that basically run the entire national infrastructure, are the kind to roll their sleeves up and learn how to do things they didn’t now how to do. That’s a very entrepreneurial thing to have as a skillset. In Silicon Valley, where you have companies who are constantly doing things that haven’t been done before, having people in your team that are not easily overwhelmed or intimidated by new challenges is really valuable. So you see Kiwis in the Bay Area being really respected by people. 

Pandora is a high profile company. It’s a brand that people recognise and like, but what's good about the company to you?

The thing I get the most enjoyment from is the opportunity we have in front of us to really enable the average musician – the guy who has a band, who tours, has a small committed group of fans – for them to be able to grow their business and create a living as a musician. That was really the objective of our founder Tim Westergren. 80% of the artists we have on Pandora have never been played on terrestrial radio, so for them, their entire careers have been built around the audience they have found on Pandora and other streaming services. 

We’re interested in creating tools for them to connect with fans, and today in the States we actually launched a service called AMPCast. AMPCast gives artists the ability to create an audio message – almost an audio Tweet – directly from the application on their cellphone, that they can then send to all of their fans on Pandora and it will be played on their station next to their other songs. These messages can have calls to action – ‘buy tickets for my concert or download one of my songs’ for example. It’s the opportunity for these artists to grow their business and establish deeper fan bases. 

When you’re at your most optimistic, what are you excited for in the near tech-future?

I’m really excited to see augmented reality platforms coming to market. When I worked at Xbox, we started building the HoloLens, which has just been released in a developer form by Microsoft. It really is a foundationally different computing platform from the ones that we have today. It’s almost like taking a television screen where you can consume media and a mobile device where you can interact with content and merging them together, but in a way that doesn’t involve either your hand or you being in a closed space to enjoy those services. It takes digital services and overlays and responds to the real world. It’s going to create an entirely new set of experiences for users. 

At your most pessimistic, what are you dreading?

Artificial intelligence and the potential collapse of privacy are, I think, the two issues that are going to require the greatest navigation. Individual privacy, that is a concept and a challenge that is already being addressed by regulators and companies. When you start having third party, artificial intelligence entities that don’t, at their core, have a sense of personal privacy because they have no personal privacy themselves, then you start looking at a kind of dystopian world where the ethical framework that we have respected may not necessarily be respected by the machines that are making decisions about how we create our next generation of services. I think there are going to be a lot of ethical issues as AI develops and I think that privacy concept will be at the heart of it all. 

We’re out of time, so one last question: What do you do when you’re not being a wildly successful business person?

Hike, bike and spend time in the sea. The sea in my happy place. I landed on Sunday and went up to Tawhanui for a swim. It’s definitely the best beach in the world. 

Good answer.