If GoDaddy Can Turn the Corner on Sexism, Who Can’t?

A few years after Blake Irving became chief executive of the internet company GoDaddy, he spoke at a conference where the jeers started almost immediately.

Attendees were particularly offended by GoDaddy’s history of sexist television commercials, which featured women in wet bikinis and innuendos so graphic some stations had refused the ads. But when Mr. Irving tried to explain that those advertisements, created by his predecessor, had been discontinued, and that he had been hired, in part, to change the firm’s culture, he was mocked.

“Every time Blake quotes Sheryl Sandberg or calls himself a feminist, throw something at his head,” one person shouted.

Which is why it was surprising when Mr. Irving appeared as a keynote speaker a year later, in 2015, at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing — and received a standing ovation after detailing GoDaddy’s efforts to become one of the most inclusive companies in tech.

By then, GoDaddy had been recognized as being among the nation’s top workplaces for women in tech. The company’s policies on equal pay, its methods for recruiting a diverse work force and its approach to promoting women and minorities had been lauded inside business schools and imitated at other firms.

Today, as Silicon Valley sexism again draws attention, it’s worth studying those shifts at GoDaddy. There’s a regular procession of headlines about sexual harassment scandals at venture capital firms and large tech companies. But learning to address this problem requires studying where things have gotten better, as well. And GoDaddy has become, surprisingly, a lodestar among gender equity advocates — an example of how even regressive cultures can change.

So what did GoDaddy do right?

The answer is more complicated than just stamping out overt sexism. GoDaddy also focused on attacking the small, subtle biases that can influence everything from how executives evaluate employees to how they set salaries.

“The most important thing we did was normalize acknowledging that everyone has biases, whether they recognize them or not,” said Debra Weissman, a senior vice president at the company. “We had to make it O.K. for people to say, ‘I think I’m being unintentionally unfair.’”

Though GoDaddy still has work to do, the company is “evidence that things can change,” said Lori Mackenzie, executive director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford, which has worked with the firm. “Oftentimes, what keeps companies from shifting is believing the existing system is already fair. Blake is really committed to undermining that.”

When Mr. Irving joined GoDaddy in 2013, the firm was succeeding by selling a commodity — website registration and hosting — through outrageous, scandalous ads, such as a 2005 Super Bowl commercial where a woman’s top kept coming undone while observers discussed her plastic surgery. Those ads were deliberately designed to attract attention through controversy. Today, GoDaddy is worth over $7 billion.

The offensive advertising, however, was demoralizing to GoDaddy’s staff, employees from that period say, and the salaciousness, at times, spilled into the workplace. Staff members describe a hard-charging culture where people drank in the office and participated in and gossiped about interoffice affairs. There was a sexual harassment lawsuit in 2009, later dismissed, and websites like NoDaddy.com, where employees described misbehavior.

Upon becoming chief executive, Mr. Irving immediately decreed that GoDaddy would no longer run sexist ads, and reiterated the company’s commitment to combating workplace discrimination. In part, this was good business: Many of the nation’s small-business owners — the customers GoDaddy hoped to attract — are female. Mr. Irving, who had previously been a high-ranking executive at Microsoft and Yahoo, also felt GoDaddy was failing to attract talented engineers and executives — including women and minorities — who were alienated by the firm’s image.

But to genuinely transform GoDaddy, executives decided, they needed to convince the company’s 3,500 employees, most of whom thought of themselves as fair and good people, that even a seemingly impartial workplace can be discriminatory.

“We needed to become the most inclusive company in tech,” said Mr. Irving. “We had to erase the idea that meritocracy is enough.”

Some of the problems applicants and workers faced were subtle. For years, for instance, GoDaddy’s job descriptions were needlessly aggressive, saying the company was looking for “rock stars,” “code ninjas,” engineers who could “knock it out of the park” or “wrestle problems to the ground.”

Moreover, when GoDaddy’s human resource department began reviewing how the company analyzed leadership capacities, it found that women systematically scored lower because they were more likely to emphasize past team accomplishments and use sentences like “we exceeded our goals.” Men, in contrast, were more likely to use the word “I” and stress individual performance.

“There’s a lot of little things people don’t usually notice,” said Katee Van Horn, GoDaddy’s vice president for engagement and inclusion. “But they add up. They reinforce these biases you might not even realize you have.”