WeWork’s new board member has a history of reforming sexist cultures

WeWork announced this week that Frances Frei will join its board of directors, making her the only woman on its board.
WeWork announced this week that Frances Frei will join its board of directors, making her the only woman on its board.
Image: Reuters/Jackal Pan
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There comes a point in the life of many a big, buzzy, controversial unicorn when it’s time to grow up. It happened at Uber, which finally came to grips with the toxic culture it had allowed to flourish, and now it’s happening at WeWork’s parent company, which, on the threshold of a public offering, finally decided to diversify its all-male board by appointing a female director.

Frances Frei is the woman both companies turned to in their hour of need, giving the Harvard Business School professor a reputation as the person to tap when the culture of a fast-growing startup needs to be tamed.

Frei, a professor of technology and operations at Harvard, is a logical choice for WeWork. She’s been consulting with the company on human resources since March 2019. Before that, she had her high-profile stint at Uber, joining as senior vice president of leadership and strategy in June 2017 during the tumultuous era of co-founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick. She departed in February 2018, after the company had stabilized under the stewardship of new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi.

WeWork’s parent, The We Company, this week announced in a filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission that Frei will be joining its board of directors upon completion of the co-working giant’s planned IPO, making her the first and only woman on its board.

Because WeWork is currently in a quiet period until its share sale, Frei isn’t yet giving interviews about the gig. But a look at a few of her previous projects may shed some light into what she’ll be up to in her new role.

The great Harvard Business School experiment

Almost a decade ago, newly appointed Harvard Business School dean Nitin Nohria made a commitment to fix the gender inequalities within the school’s storied MBA program. Turnover was high among female professors; the New York Times reported that one-third of the junior female faculty at HBS departed between 2006 and 2007, and that hiring female professors was also a problem. Meanwhile, male students were consistently outperforming female students. The Times summarized: “Women at Harvard did fine on tests. But they lagged badly in class participation, a highly subjective measure that made up 50 percent of each final mark.”

Frei, as chairperson of the first-year curriculum and as dean of faculty recruiting, played a central role in the efforts to reform HBS. The Times story, which was published in 2013, depicted her as a tireless and optimistic figure who spent her spare time in the evenings reviewing recordings of classes led by female junior faculty, in order to give professors feedback on how to improve their delivery—and by extension, their performance on student evaluations.

Some students interviewed in the story bristled at Frei’s highly involved approach to addressing issues related to sexism and gender—for example, her decision to send an email barring students from wearing Halloween costumes to class in an effort to avoid the perennial problem of “sexy” looks. And Frei was forthright in admitting that, while the grade gap between male and female students had closed for the graduating class of 2013, she and the other administrators who’d pledged to help women succeed at HBS still had a long way to go. “We made progress on the first-level things, but what it’s permitting us to do is see, holy cow, how deep-seated the rest of this is,” she told the Times.

Subsequent updates suggest the school’s continued efforts are paying off. A 2016 story from the Harvard Crimson notes that instating stenographers to track in-class participation had helped address professors’ biased memories of who said what in class. As of 2016, while there were still 69 women to 209 men on the HBS faculty, Frei had led the school in hiring equal levels of men and women for three years running—a first in the school’s history. (The most recent statistics for the 2018-2019 school year show the gap hasn’t budged much; it’s now at 70 to 206.)

The Uber overhaul

When Frei went to Uber toward the height of the ridesharing service’s public crises, she knew what she was getting into. The company “feels for me, given all the bad circumstances, as sanded, and that it is ready to have some education painted on it,” she said in an interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher. “My goal is to make this a world-class company that can be proud of itself in the end, rather than embarrassed.”

Her strategy going in was to coach, diversify, and de-silo Uber’s leadership; provide training to its large pool of inexperienced managers; and address the company’s continuing problems with sexism and sexual-harassment—all circumstances that combined to make the company “a hot mess,” as she told the Harvard Gazette.

Swisher reported that Frei wound up expanding upon this already-ambitious plan, putting 6,000 employees through a Harvard executive education program that she designed for the company and creating a zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy. Frei also showed her commitment to turning the company around by wearing an Uber T-shirt for 250 days straight—a gesture meant to boost internal pride in a company with a severe morale problem.

Once Kalanick was ousted and Khosrowshahi was in place, Frei was ready to head back to Harvard, though she committed to staying on as an advisor. With the new CEO, she told Swisher, “a lot of our biggest challenges are in the rearview mirror.” Meanwhile, in September 2018, Riot Games brought Frei on board as an advisor after a devastating exposé on its own culture of sexism and harassment.

How Frei could help WeWork

Frei’s background in dealing with organizations struggling with sexism could come into play at WeWork. In October, The Times of London reported on multiple allegations of a culture of sexism, sexual harassment, and inappropriate behavior at WeWork, including allegations by a former director of culture who said she’d been groped by two male employees.

The company also is being sued by two former executives over alleged gender and age discrimination; one former human-resources executive said in the complaint, which was filed in June, that only three of 58 pay packages worth more than $1 million in company stock awarded in 2019 went to women. And a recent New York Magazine profile of WeWork co-founder and CEO Adam Neumann detailed the ways in which the company can sometimes resemble a “boys’ club,” including allegations that WeWork’s chief creative officer was dodging meetings with two female employees because he and his wife had agreed not to hold solo sit-downs with members of the opposite sex. (WeWork denies this.)

With this in mind, WeWork looks lucky to have Frei on board. The company, aware that an all-male board is an unbecoming if unfortunately common look for new public companies, also said that it plans to add at least one more director to increase the board’s gender and ethnic diversity within a year of its IPO. But it’s worth noting that two women in the room may not be enough; according to a 2018 report from the executive search firm Egon Zehnder, most boards need at least three women in order for the gender balance to begin making an impact.

Frei’s expertise in the subject of rebuilding trust also may turn out to be helpful for WeWork, which faced a great deal of market skepticism over its proposed $47 billion IPO valuation and is now reportedly considering slashing that valuation by more than half.

The company’s prospectus prompted David Edwards and Helen Edwards, writing in Quartz, to conclude that WeWork’s “exposure to economic risk, out-of-whack valuation, and absolute founder control are simply extraordinary.” CNBC suggested recently that WeWork’s best move may be to delay its IPO, while Bloomberg said that “everything about WeWork is utterly odd,” including its “questionable economics” and the fact that WeWork’s “intricate relationships with its chief executive requires 10 pages of disclosures.”

The aforementioned New York Magazine profile also suggests there may be some parallels to be drawn between Neumann and Kalanick, both founders with the kind of bold, outsize ambitions and personae that can be both an asset and a liability. Certainly Neumann’s recent decision to cash out more than $700 million of his WeWork shares ahead of the IPO did little to boost the confidence of potential investors. And his decision to take $5.9 million in stock to relinquish the trademark “We” to the company—a deal he entered into after changing the company’s name from WeWork to We in January, and which he unwound as the planned IPO invited scrutiny of the arrangement—hasn’t helped matters.

All this means that WeWork will have to put more effort into building and restoring public faith in its leadership and future prospects. In a TED talk given in April 2018, shortly after she’d left Uber, Frei argued that in order to gain trust, people and companies must display three qualities: empathy, authenticity, and rigorous logic. The hardest one for Uber and other Silicon Valley companies, she noted, is authenticity, since homogenous cultures can make it hard for people who represent difference, whether due to their race, gender, sexuality, or other factors, to feel comfortable being themselves.

“It is still much easier to coach people to fit in,” Frei told the TED audience. “It is still much easier to reward people when they say something that you were going to say, as opposed to rewarding people when they say something entirely different than what you were going to say.”

Her track record at Uber and HBS suggests she has a lot of practice saying things that other people within a given institution don’t want to hear. Hopefully, the rest of WeWork’s board will be listening.