Alibaba’s Secret Sauce: Women

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On May 20th, in an overflowing meeting room at the Dragon Hotel in Hangzhou, China, Alibaba’s founder, Jack Ma, threw down the gauntlet to business executives around the globe. “I feel proud that more than 34% of senior management are women. They really make this company’s yin and yang balanced,” he announced, continuing, “Women balance the logic and the instinct. I would say this is the ‘secret sauce’ of the company.”

The attendees at Alibaba’s Global Conference on Women and Entrepreneurship, where Ma gave his interview, enthusiastically agreed. In an era where America’s Silicon Valley companies are suffering a shortage of women in leadership roles, Ma’s approach is refreshing.

The Alibaba Corporate Culture
Image via Flickr by citirecruitment

For a tech company, Alibaba boasts impressive employment statistics when it comes to women. In addition to the female executives, over 40 percent of the company’s entire workforce is composed of women. In fact, six of the company’s 18 original founders were women; compare that with the all-male founders of Facebook, who waited until 2012 to add a woman, Sheryl Sandberg, to the board.

Alibaba’s unique corporate culture may be one reason it attracts and retains such a large group of talented women. At its core, it is about empowerment, transparency, and family unity. For example, all employees, regardless of their role, are empowered to open up discussions about problems with products or processes on Aliway, the company’s communications platform; suggestions and solutions are encouraged throughout the organization.

The transparency extends even to employee evaluations. An employee can even ask for input from peers on Aliway if she gets an unsatisfactory performance review.

Ma is also deeply committed to maintaining a sense of family within the organization. Shortly after the company’s IPO launch in the U.S., Ma presided over a wedding of 102 couples who were Alibaba employees, giving them a warm blessing. He also insists on providing family-oriented benefits to employees; the company manages its own mortgage fund, called iHome, which provides interest-free loans for down payments on a home. The company has doled out over $150 million under the program.

How Do U.S. Companies Compare?
While women have been slowly seeing progress in America’s tech sector, not even the most progressive companies have numbers that approach Alibaba’s. Cisco’s workforce, for example, is just 23 percent women, and women make up just 19 percent of its leadership positions. Google, Twitter, and Facebook each employ a workforce of about 30 percent women, with women comprising about 20 percent of their leadership roles.

When you separate out the technical workers, the numbers are even more grim: Just 10 percent of Twitter’s technical workforce is made up of women, with 15 percent for Yahoo and Facebook.

Ma summed up his corporate philosophy: “In this world, if you want to win in the 21st century, you have to make sure that you are empowering people who are better than you are… I find that women think about others more than they think about themselves.” While some women might argue that Ma is playing to gender stereotypes, none can doubt his commitment to workforce diversity and valuing women’s contribution in the workplace.

Future business leaders in the U.S. would do well to learn from Alibaba’s outstanding corporate culture.

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