Oops I Did it Again...

It’s tough to defend a company that keeps making unforced errors. I’m not going to try.

The latest gaff by Nikon is a whopper. Nikon-Asia posted a page with their D850 photographers. Take a look at them:

bythom nikon no women

Notice anything?

32 men, but no women in the roster. And this just after Nikon management admitted in their annual meeting that they don’t have nearly a representative sampling of women in their employment, then professed that they would take steps to address this. “Address” apparently means slowly hiring a few women at the lower levels of the company so that they end up with 25% instead of 12% women employees.

Now, to be fair, Nikon-Asia did post a page with the four “global Nikon D850 campaign photographers": three men and one woman. I guess that meets Nikon management’s 25% guideline, but one has to wonder how sincere Nikon is. (NikonUSA has 24 ambassadors, 7 of which are women, or 29%.) Nikon-Asia also pointed out that they “invited” some women to join them for their presentation that kicked off this promotion, but those women couldn’t make it. 

I’ve called Nikon paternalistic in its decision-making before, but it should be abundantly clear to everyone now. A ring of lost-in-translation older men sitting in offices in Tokyo are making decisions that endorse their own career paths, but they don’t really care much about women, about their customers, or what the social perception of Nikon and its management decisions are.

Now I’m an old white guy, not exactly the sort of person you’d think would be writing about equality for women. But I’ve watched mothers, wives, and daughters struggle to be perceived equally when they produce equal work, and discriminated against in ways that keep them from even getting that work in the first place.

I’ll say this: the best managers I’ve had have been women (I’ve had a couple of bad ones, too, but then again, we’re talking about equality here, and the women pretty much match my record with men managers in terms of good and bad, too ;~). I believe that my hiring record over my career actually is very close to 50% women, even though most of that career was in Silicon Valley. Many of the best employees I’ve had were women, and I hope that I managed to treat them with equal respect and consideration as I did men along the way.  I apologize profusely if I managed to mess that up somewhere. We all make mistakes from time to time, but it’s what you learn from those mistakes and how you handle yourself when confronted with them that’s the real important thing.

I simply can’t fathom how Nikon can be so clueless. But this isn’t the first time they’ve been clueless.

Remember 2011, when the Nikon 1 was supposed to be the ILC camera that women would like? (Yes, they actually said that in one press conference; I had to go back and look to make sure my memory was correct on that.) After all, you could get one of those Nikon 1’s and its accompanying lenses in a fashionable pink. Well, let’s hope Nikon doesn’t try that approach again, because they just pissed off 50% of their potential customer base. Big time. How do you grow sales when you’re dissing half your potential buyers?

Nikon’s initial statements regarding the issue don’t help any. They’re as non-specific and irritating as a politician caught liking an embarrassing tweet. “This unfortunate circumstance is not reflective of the value we place on female photographers and their enormous contributions to the field of photography” was the leading part of the initial response to the criticism that’s appeared. Okay. The unfortunate circumstance should have been detected and easily avoided by simply not being a bunch of men sitting around trying to sell cameras to customers they never meet. This was not an apologetic statement at all, as it doesn’t actually admit Nikon made a mistake. “Unfortunate circumstance” really refers to the situation that Nikon finds itself in.

Nikon also claims that they invited women to this group, but they couldn’t travel to be present at the introduction of the photographers. Really? You can’t introduce people virtually or via teleconferencing? Plus the 32 men are now celebrated on a Web page, what’s to keep Nikon from adding the invited women in?

“We know the conversation happening is an important one,” the statement continued. “We appreciate the need to continue to improve the representation of women, and recognize our responsibility to support the immense create talent of female photographers.”

There’s no conversation really happening. There’s a backlash happening. The conversation that needs to take place is between Nikon and its customers. A conversation that needed to take place a long time ago with many different types of customers, but never did. “Here’s our latest, buy it” is not an effective corporate strategy. Nikon’s apparent blindness towards woman photographers is just more of that paternalism in a different form. It needs to end. Today.

Virtually all of Nikon’s problems begin with the top management. It’s time someone, probably multiple someone’s, be relieved of their irresponsibility. If there wasn’t a directive issued by Nikon top management to all levels in the company, to all subsidiaries, to all associated partners, that says...

Women, minorities, and foreigners will henceforth be treated equally and with full respect. Any program, promotion, statement, or practice that continues a Japanese-only, male-dominated workforce and messaging will result in those responsible coming up for immediate review and possible termination. We are an equal opportunity employer, and our customers come in all shapes, sizes, sexes, countries, and more.

...then Nikon is already doing the wrong thing.

This starts with the board of directors. Older Japanese men with long-term, back-room kereitsu relationships. Paternal. It continues with upper management that is all older Japanese men who perpetuated the board’s desires by continuing that nationalistic and paternal approach. But it continues downward in the organization everywhere. It’s rare that a subsidiary CEO is not Japanese. That’s because that’s how Nikon grooms those paternal upper managers in the first place. It’s the old IBM management shuffle approach, but  far, far worse, and much more insular because it only applies to Japanese men.

I write about frictions in business. I believe that one thing good management does is identify frictions and remove them. Well, Nikon has so much friction in its business approaches and products now that maybe they should shift markets and make brakes for big diesel trucks and trains.

Insulting women the way Nikon just did is a friction that’s not easily removed. Worse, it occurs in the D850 marketing message, which up to the posting of that page, was going fine. This will be remembered by at least half of Nikon’s prospective customers for a long time. Especially since Nikon hasn’t exactly made a full apology, nor have they indicated how they’ll keep the same thing from happening in the future. 

Hey, maybe Nikon only sells 1% fewer cameras when all is said and done. But 1% is 1%. Does Nikon’s board of directors really believe that Nikon’s management is delivering optimal results? Apparently, as nothing much has changed at the top in the entire time I’ve watched the company closely.

Thing is, the cat’s well out of the bag now. Even the New York Times got into the game with an article on this. So did CNN and the BBC. So has virtually every other big photography and even tech Web site now. Even non-photographic Web sites are picking up on this (even smaller, but influential sites such as Daring Fireball picked up on this).

The world is watching, Nikon. Make a real apology. Show us how you’re going to change your practices so that this won’t happen again. Embrace your customers. Join the rest of us in the 21st century.

Okay, before someone sends their email: yes, I know that the current demographics of ILC camera users tend towards male domination. You see numbers anywhere from 60 to 90% male ownership and use through much of the industry. 

However, this is not an excuse to then simply ignore the minority. We have far too much of that happening everywhere in the world, and it’s wrong wherever it happens. What happens is that things become self-discriminating when you start by saying “we won’t consider both sexes equally because they’re not currently equal.” And again, why would you even want to turn off even one potential customer? 

Men photographers aren’t better than women photographers (or vice versa). I can tell you firsthand that I’ve seen men photographers given opportunities more quickly and easier than women photographers. For no reason other than they’re women. That’s wrong. A company that really wants to make customers for life should be leading the charge to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to be a great photographer and recognized for that. That’s the lesson to be learned here. 

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