The non-scientific impact of more women at Cogent - Cogent
The non-scientific impact of more women at Cogent

The non-scientific impact of more women at Cogent

Matt Shanks

Matt Shanks

Principal Product Designer & Author/Illustrator for children. I'm out to improve the quality of life for everyone who uses the things that I make.

Cogent’s been producing it’s best work ever lately and here’s some of the reasons why.

There are key moments in my life that I’ll look back on as significant. One of those was when I read Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland in 2012. It changed my life for many reasons. Not only did it give me the courage to pursue a career in art (although I still struggle to think of it as a ‘career’ but I’m working on that), but it gave me an incredible insight in how to think about culture change in organisations.

“The artist’s life is frustrating not because it is slow, but because he imagines it to be fast.” — Art and Fear

Growing organisational culture, like making any form of art, takes time. Waaaay longer than you think. Like, take a guess of how long you think it will take, and then add 100% longer. I don’t know why we think otherwise because it’s even implicit in the verb ‘culture’. You get culture growth when you ‘maintain conditions suitable for its growth’. That ‘maintain’ part is the key. It’s not just maintaining it for 3–6 months. It takes years. Culture, like art, needs a vision. You need to see a version of the completed work in your mind, and then, only then, can you begin the hard, long slog in making it a reality. It takes 2 years to make something as small as a picture book. 3 years minimum to make a 90-minute film. Why would we think that any sort of organisational culture change would be faster than that? In a time when it’s now ‘normal’ to stay in a job for two years or less, there’s fewer and fewer people witnessing organisational culture change at all. If it’s not the perfect conditions when we arrive, if it sucks and you get the shits, then you just leave, right?

Five years in the Cogent petri dish

I’ve just celebrated 5 years at Cogent, my current place of work. It’s officially the longest time I’ve worked for an employer, and, well, a lot has changed in that time. Anniversaries are great milestones for giving yourself a reason to take a breath and think about the big picture. And, when I think about Cogent, there’s one thing that’s been quite remarkable for me: the influence of women on our workplace.

When I joined Cogent, we were about 12 employees. Two of those were female. Now, as I write this, we’ve got a grand total of ten women in a company of just over fifty. The ratio isn’t great, I know, but it’s better than it used to be. And we’re trying really hard to build a culture that teaches us to challenge our unconscious biases and build more inclusive, respectful teams.

This increase in gender diversity has felt painfully slow. And, to be honest, I have no idea whether, empirically, it is slow. But, I’m not here to measure ourselves against other companies. You lose that game every time. The only way you win is to measure against yourself, at a point in time, and play the long game of self-improvement.

I’m here to tell anyone who’s still reading that we’re trying and I’m glad to say that things are changing. We’re putting a lot of effort into building and maintaining the conditions suitable for the growth of diverse and inclusive teams we want to have in our company. Although it’s working more slowly than we collectively imagined, it’s working.

I don’t have scientific evidence or quantitative data to prove all of my points, so here’s just some anecdotal things I’ve noticed that have changed in my perception of Cogent over my time. Although it’s hard to separate all the factors that influence culture, I think that these are specifically down to more women being present in the workplace.

Amelia and Scott, two thirds of our Product Management team at Cogent
Amelia our GM, chatting to Product Manager, Scott.

It’s warmer. And no, I don’t mean temperature.

Warmer? Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. A stereotype to kick it off huh? Well, I warned that this was not going to be scientific but stick with this, it’ll be worth it. See, what I mean is that the office is just a friendlier place to be. Here’s just one example: take mornings at Cogent — that moment when you walk in to the office for the first time?

What I’ve noticed is that there’s just something about blokes. On the whole (and yes, I’m dangerously generalising here so I’ll reinforce that this is about Cogent people) blokes seemed happy to just grunt each other a greeting, and, at a very primal level, that was a satisfactory amount of interaction. It goes something like this, I’ll say, “Hey.” If I’m lucky and someone isn’t wearing headphones yet, I’ll get a reply, “Hey”. Then, headphones go back on and we all get to work. That’s how it used to be. Short & sharp, enough had been said. As guys, no one felt bad, or rude, or ignored. It was enough. It was work.

Nowadays, I walk in to our office and people are making eye contact with me. They’re asking how I am with genuine interest. They’ll put their computer to sleep and give me their full attention for a few minutes as we get to know each other a bit more. The questions about the weekend are different, our conversations are much more wide-ranging. Occasionally, if it’s been a while since I’ve seen someone, I get a… gulp… hug!

Now, I should say that it’s not just women greeting me this way. Men are doing it too. And yes, I get an occasional hug from a bloke (but it’s very rare). It’s also turned me into a hugger. But I digress.

The most important thing to take away from this is that the ‘norm’ has changed. Now, when a new employee starts on day one, it’s not just ‘Hey’ and off to work. It’s all the other stuff too. Their impression of ‘what you do at Cogent’ is vastly different from what it would have been five years ago.

For example, some newbies to Cogent reading this post will probably think, “Woah, Cogent used to be like that?! I just can’t imagine that.” Which is a great thing because that’s what we’ve been trying to do, for five years.

Better ideas, and more of them.

If you’re a male in tech, you’ll be familiar with the following. You’re in a product team and there are four white males (1 product manager, 2 devs and a designer), sitting around trying to decide which feature to play next, how to build it, how much research is needed and how long it’s all going to take. Everyone bats around their own version of events, talks about “this cool thing that Slack does now” or “Have you seen the latest visualisation on Strava? I love it!”

Mark, our CEO, clearly thinking about new Strava features. Courtney, our Head of Marketing, probably doing the complete opposite.
Mark, our CEO, clearly thinking about new Strava features. Courtney, our Head of Marketing, probably doing the complete opposite.

Well, lo and behold, it turns out that women, (indeed anyone who is not profiled by Google/Facebook etc as a white male), experience the internet (and life) a bit differently. They use different websites, different services and are even advertised to differently. Here’s a link to one example, but there are hundreds.

So the ideas that women have, the references from different domains that they call on to make their points, are very different from what we’d normally get with just a team full of blokes. And it benefits everyone. Not just in a product team, but in managerial and strategic roles in the company also.

This variation in life experience is what underpins all the literature around why companies should have diverse teams. It will no doubt apply to the inclusion of any member of a historically-discriminated group in to a team (e.g. race, ethnicity, able-bodied, gender identity etc). All I want to call out right now is that I’ve witnessed this, for real, in our small little company. It’s both exciting and motivating.

The Cogent leadership team working on strategic company goals
The Cogent leadership team working on strategic company goals

Apathy. There’s far less of it.

I’ll be honest and say I didn’t expect this one at all. I also haven’t seen it referenced in any of the studies on building diverse teams. But, I’m at the point in my career where I’ve done my 10,000 hours. While there’s always more room to grow, it can (and has been) fairly comfortable over these last few years for me in software. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still learning and trying hard to push myself but I’ve had other vocations, like a career in writing and drawing for children, pull my attention away a bit. Cogent has been more supportive than any other company I can imagine in helping provide space for this new career in my life and still practice design at an expert and enjoyable level.

But, just like when you hire any new person in to your company and their enthusiasm is infectious, so too is a more gender diverse workplace. At least, it has been at Cogent. I don’t know if it’s been that way for everyone, but it certainly has been for me. I’m greeted with a friendly series of hellos and conversations in the morning (by women and men), and I see new and interesting ideas being brought to the table at every meeting because of the variation in life experiences. Because of this I feel more motivated than ever to make great, new, and interesting work. I walk in to meetings looking forward to seeing what the brilliant minds of our women and men will produce together. I’ve even started writing conference submissions again. Something I haven’t done for years.

Discussions at the Treehouse
Discussions at the Treehouse

What it all comes down to is that we’re producing better work

When you put just these three changes together, I think that I am, and that Cogent is, producing far far far better work than it has ever done. Especially compared to five years ago. The evolution to get us to this point has felt painfully slow. People who have come and gone wouldn’t have witnessed any change at all because they weren’t here for long enough. And yes, we’ve got sooo far to go, not only on gender diversity, but the inclusion of many historically-discriminated groups in to our teams and company.

But, right now, I feel super lucky that I’ve been here for just long enough to even begin to see the changes we’re making take effect. I can’t wait to see where it goes next, even if I have to wait a little longer than I think I’ll need to.

Thanks to Andy Nicholson and Kathryn Ross.

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