How WeWork stacks up with the big IPOs of 2019 on gender balance

It’s a scene all too familiar.
It’s a scene all too familiar.
Image: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
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After a wave of backlash about its governance and proposed valuation, WeWork’s parent company is reportedly mulling reforms to set investors at ease and smooth the way for a successful initial public offering.

If its earlier move at placating critics is any indication, The We Company is unlikely to do more than the bare minimum to address the concerns (Quartz membership exclusive).

On Sept. 3, the co-working giant bowed to the consternation over its plans to go public with an all-male board of directors. It pledged to add exactly one woman to the group—after it completes its IPO.

How does any company these days—and especially one of the buzziest brands in business, at a company that claims its mission is to “elevate the world’s consciousness“—come to file IPO papers with such a glaring lack of gender balance on the board? It’s a perplexing question.

But if We has been out of step with a prevailing new corporate ethos that at least purports to care about gender diversity and the optics around it, it is still very much on trend in what’s been a busy IPO market this year.

In May, we reported that none of the 10 biggest companies to have gone public or filed to go public this year is led by a woman; the average number of women on their boards is less than two. With the figures from We’s filing, which was not yet public when we first did our tally, the average number of women on the list of the highest paid executives, disclosed in each company’s S-1 filing, is 0.6. (It was 0.56 without the numbers from We.)

Our analysis of the gender breakdown of executives and directors focused on newly public companies with a pre-IPO valuation of at least $1 billion, based on valuation data provided by PitchBook. 

It turns out the recent crop of highly anticipated, male-led IPOs is not that different from those that came up during the late 1990s.

As we noted in May, the number of women in the most senior ranks of management at Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft hasn’t changed much at the companies since they went public—but each has at least one more woman on its board than it had at the time of its IPO.

At We, there are two women on the company’s six-person leadership team: co-president and chief legal officer Jennifer Berrent and chief brand and impact officer Rebekah Neumann, the latter of whom is a company co-founder and the wife of CEO Adam Neumann. 

Upon completion of its planned IPO, We will add Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei, who previously served as a senior vice president at Uber, to its board. Within a year of the share sale, We will expand its board again and add another director, “with a commitment to increasing the board’s gender and ethnic diversity,” according to its amended filing.

We could indeed benefit from having a more gender-balanced board. The company has faced a slew of high-profile allegations regarding gender and age discrimination, as well as sexual harassment claims, with one of the complaints describing WeWork as having a “frat-boy culture that starts at the top.” 

Though its largest investor appears to have grown skittish, We will reportedly kick off its roadshow as early as Monday. A successful offering no doubt would be good news for the wave of influential female bankers involved in executing several of this year’s high-profile IPOs. But it would do little to budge the numbers of women on the boards and senior management teams of public companies.