30 Jun 2019

Digital Nation Viewpoints: Kate Burns, CEO at Brave Bison


Kate is one of Europe’s best-known internet advertising pioneers, becoming Google’s first employee outside the US in 2001. She joined Google as Director, UK, Ireland and Benelux after spells at Alta Vista and DoubleClick. She later worked for Bebo as Vice President and MD Europe and as CEO of AOL Europe. A successful tenure as European GM at BuzzFeed followed before she joined Hambro Perks, where she headed up the accelerator’s tech media division. Kate is now the CEO at Brave Bison.

How have you been affected by the tech industry’s gender pay gap?

When I was hiring a leader for my team at Google and it came to negotiating his salary, his basic salary was more than double my basic. I was told, not exactly that I had to ‘suck it up’ but that I had to accept hiring people that were better than me, that “it was just accepted”. The thing was, I was never asked to hire a woman that was paid more than me.

When I left AOL and gave my leaving speech I referenced the fact that it took two men to replace me. These two men were both being paid significantly more. I’m talking millions each, yet I was paid a fraction of that.

Over the years I spoke to my lawyer about being open about this disparity and we discussed the implications and the potential outcomes. I was, at the time, too scared to blow the whistle because I was advised that I might not ever be hired again. In fact, it’s only now I’ve effectively left executive life and am working as a consultant in a different kind of field that I feel able to talk about this. Even now, if I was working for one of my previous employers, there’s no way I would be so open.

Even hearing about the Google movement recently [of employees walking out in protest of sexual harassment allegations], I had to ask myself ‘could I do that?’ Even now I’d have to think twice. We are still unfortunately a long way from solving the diversity issue in our industry and it’s doing huge harm.

How do the best companies build a unique company culture?

KB: I feel really strongly that culture comes from within. It is something that needs to be created rather than enforced, you can’t force culture from the top down. During my time at Google it was something that was never imposed. It came instead from democratic hiring.

When it came to launching international Google offices Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin, Google’s founders] wanted to retain a maniacal approach to hiring the right people. From their side it was very much about wanting the best people from the best universities with the best grades – which was something I actually felt passionately against. I cut against the grain on that one because I felt otherwise we were just going to be a bunch of elitists. I was the first leader to hire two people that didn’t actually have degrees, and I was told that if they didn’t work out I must be prepared to lose my job. They more than worked out.

It all comes down to attitude. You can’t bottle a good attitude so that for me, across all of my positions as a leader, is the secret sauce. That’s a real positive trait that I learned at Google that I’ve taken with me.

How important is flexibility in today’s working culture?

I’m in the lucky position of being able to retain my independence, earn money and not have to go back into executive life. I enjoy the freedom of spending more time at home, having a better quality of life.

However, I know this is a privileged position and unfortunately the tech industry is still resistant to the types of flexible working we desperately need to attract and retain the talent we need to support it.

 Mary Portas has been vocal recently that women especially should feel they have the strength to demand flexibility when speaking to potential employers, but I still think there’s a stigma attached to asking for flexible working or just being able to pick the kids up from school. 

Just as we’re starting to talk more about the gender pay gap and diversity in the workplace we need to talk about more flexible ways of working. It’s so important that flexible working should be top of the priority list of every CEO, founder and board in the tech industry.



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