Q&A with Google’s Mel Silva: Women, the walkout, and why leaders need to do more on gender and inclusion

18 months into her time at the top of Google in Australia, and on the eve of International Women's Day, Mel Silva laments the slow pace of change in gender diversity and inclusion across the industry, but is optimistic it can improve.

She speaks to Mumbrella's Vivienne Kelly about the issue, as well as Google being a punching bag for publishers, and she reveals her best and worst day at work.


Mel Silva, managing director, Google Australia and New Zealand (MS)
Vivienne Kelly, editor, Mumbrella (VK)

VK: Do you think the industry is diverse enough? And what other steps do you think we should be taking to make it more diverse?

MS: I guess I can talk about my perceptions of it, I don’t have any data to back it up, but in pockets it feels like the marketing and advertising communities, and let’s just talk about gender diversity obviously because it’s International Women’s Day, but it does feel like it’s quite diverse, however there is a clear problem at the leadership level. And I think that’s where the efforts need to be focused predominately.

The pace of change at the leadership level just does seem too slow.

[There are some things that we do] day in and day out, that make sure that we’re promoting a culture of diversity, and also inclusion, because I think thats a really important factor as well.

Google tries to reflect the people it’s talking to: Silva

I think when I look out at the industry, for me it would be important that our industry bodies are representative of the types of people [in the industry] – so the IAB etc. You want all sorts of diversity, but gender is actually a really, really important one.

For us, it’s also about making sure it’s part of not just what we do internally, but also what we do externally, which is something that the industry can do.

So if you think about the creative that we produce, so Google to promote our products and services, and the talent that we hire to appear in those creative assets, it’s really important to us that we’re showing a diverse and representative group, because our consumers and our partners are all diverse. Australia is a very diverse nation, and we think it’s just really, really important that our creative is representative of the people that we’re trying to talk to.

From an internal point of view, I think we definitely have taken this seriously for a really long time. I think we’ve got more action and less talk, to be honest, because its that classic business thing, if you don’t measure it, it’s not going to move. And five people sitting in a room and talking about data is the first step, but making sure that you have a culture where every single person knows that this is something that’s valued, and importantly why it’s valued, is super important.

Silva: Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes

We talk about our diverse backgrounds quite a lot at Google. So to me, its important that all of our leaders share their story and share their different backgrounds, and that we showcase that leadership comes in all different shapes and sizes.

And we also really champion people speaking up and taking action, not us just talking about it. Because there are some moments that matter here – it’s hiring, promotion, it’s progression – and if you’re sitting in a room and making a decision, you need a whole group of people to stop and look at that slate, and say ‘Hang on. Is this representative of the whole population?’ Or ‘Is there enough women in this pipeline?’ And you actually have to speak up and do that in those moments that matter if you’re going to make any change.

So I think most of all it’s about moving beyond the words, and into the actions, and making it not just a women’s issue, but making it a leadership issue.

VK: You mentioned there the talk versus action, and I think that’s a critical problem across the industry. Why do you think it is that so many people talk about it, but not that many actually act on it?

MS: I think part of it is maybe people don’t know were to start, and I think people might fundamentally believe – it’s quite confronting to think you might have bias in you organisation. So it actually takes a lot of courage to ask those questions, and to say ‘Well why were there only three men in that pipeline [and not more women]?’ It’s hard to have and start that conversation.

And that’s why I make the point that this is a leadership issue, it’s not a man versus woman issue. And it shouldn’t be only the women in the organisation that are making those bold questions, and that are challenging the status quo there.

I mean I am super lucky, my boss, who sits in Singapore, is constantly starting this conversation, and constantly pushing his leadership team to make sure that the practices are there – and not in a blame way, but just in a really proactive and action-orientated way.

So now, we talk quite a lot about those four pillars. How are our processes set up around hiring to make sure that we’re being diverse and inclusive? How are our processes around retention and progression set up so that we’ve got that diversity lens? And more importantly, what are we doing as leaders to drive a culture of inclusion because it’s one thing to have the balance, but if people don’t feel like they’re included then it’s not going to last very long.

IWD isn’t about men versus women: Silva

VK: Where do you want this conversation to be in a year’s time? You mentioned that the rate of change is a bit too slow and potentially a bit frustrating. What should happen over the next 12 months to rectify that?

MS: Look, I think, I’ve actually been lucky enough to sit as part of a gender equity roundtable with some of Australia’s leading CEOs. We’ve got another one coming up in a couple of weeks actually, and we’re getting together and we’re sharing our best practices, and that in and of itself is a very broad group of leaders. So I would love to see something like that in the marketing and advertising community, where we can talk about what works, and what actually drives change in the numbers.

But probably the first step is to share the numbers and look at the data in a different way and have some commitments that we’re going to try and move that needle.

VK: And for you, what has been your best and worse moment as a woman in this industry?

MS: As a woman in this industry?

Well, I’m going to give you an example that might sound really counter-intuitive.

My best and worst day probably was the day of the walkout. [Editor’s note: In 2018, thousands of Google employees walked out of work in protest about alleged sexual harassment, gender inequality and systemic racism.]

It started out as a day where you were really confronted that something that the teams were not feeling happy about something that had happened, and it ended up in a day that felt like there was so much solidarity, regardless of race, gender, background, anything – and so, as a woman it was quite confronting because you could feel that the women at Google felt so strongly about it, but at the end of it, the solidarity across everyone, it was just like a group of humans that got together to say ‘We all support each other’. So that was the best and the worst day rolled up into one.

Look, I’ve got to be honest, I’ve got a bit of a bias here – and that’s part of the issue, being aware of your biases. But we actually had an event [on Wednesday] with 700 Googlers coming in, and just again that feeling of solidarity, and some pride in what we’re doing and what we’re achieving, and how we come together as a group. It was a pretty awesome day.

VK: And looking more broadly, it does feel like within the industry, and across the globe, there’s a lot of bad news stories. There’s a lot of reasons to feel stressed and down – whether it’s the bushfires or coronavirus, or the ad market being down, or consumer confidence being down. How are you feeling about 2020 and what that’s going to look like for yourself and Google amidst all that?

MS: I think you’re right. Even if you just look at the macro numbers, there’s not a huge amount of good news stories. I think for me, when I wake up every morning and come and talk to Googlers, it’s about just really meaningful interactions that you’re having with your customers, and trying to find other opportunities where other ones may be closed down.

So, I think keeping that positive morale and momentum just by focusing on delivering results is really good, and something that we try to focus on quite a lot.

But I do see opportunities out of disruption. I think the space is evolving really fast. There are pockets of growth in the advertising industry that we’re all super excited about – programmatic, video – and so I feel like I’m quite buoyant.

And then outside of just the ad industry, we’ve got some really strong pillars around Grow With Google – the digital skills program that we’ve done for the last couple of years. And some of our diversity and inclusion efforts. We’ve got a Reconciliation Action Plan group, which is in its third or fourth year, and it’s really starting to take shape. The Women At Google, The Gayglers, they’ve all got really good plans.

‘Gayglers’ at Google is one example of diversity and inclusion, Siva says

So I think there are headwinds, but I’ve been at Google for 13 years, there’s been a headwind of some form every year, and the good times actually come from when you solve a really chunky problem and the team comes together, so I’m a very positive person.

I’m confident that the team’s got the resilience and the grit to get through it, and that’s when the good times come.

VK: Speaking of being optimistic, do you ever feel like Google is a bit of a punching bag? Whenever something goes wrong with a publisher or a more traditional publisher, the debate can default to ‘Yea but Facebook and Google…’ For example with the likes of AAP closing, people start talking about the tech giants. Does that ever get frustrating for you?

MS: I think that we’r very aware of the fact that when you are an organisation of our size, it’s going to come with scrutiny, and that’s part of a good free press and a good democracy. So it’s kind of expected to be honest.

But you do need to make sure that your teams are focused on doing the right things, that they have a purpose, and for many people that’s getting good results for their customers, or doing things out in the community around digital skills, or making sure that Google’s an amazing place to work.

It’s of course something that we’re aware of, but it’s to be expected.

Scrutiny around AAP and Google is to be ‘expected’: Silva

VK: Well thank you for this chat ahead of International Women’s Day, Mel. 

MS: Thank you.

The only thing I would like to add, is that the onus really is here on the leaders in this industry to start to make that change. To be the catalyst, and to not just talk about the numbers and not just talk, but to actually anchor themselves in why it’s important, and it’s important because the people that we represent from an advertising and a marketing point of view, all of our clients, all of the consumers who buy the products that our clients produce, are from a really broad and diverse set of backgrounds.

So it starts with how Australia is represented and how the industry is represented, and everybody wins when leaders actually step up and make changes that are actually going to shift the needle, not just talk about diversity and inclusion, but actually change processes and get things done to make the industry more representative.


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