Buffett: Gender of leaders shouldn't be an issue in the workplace

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Posted: Thursday, May 2, 2013 12:00 am

Warren Buffett called for equal treatment for women in the workplace Thursday, starting a long weekend of public appearances in Omaha with a live Internet interview and a national magazine essay.

After tracing the history of women being denied an equal role in the U.S. economy, Buffett said he doesn't consider gender in choosing people for important responsibilities and neither should the managers of the 80-plus companies that are part of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., the Omaha investment company he heads.

Although he makes his views known, he said, he does not tell the managers that they should promote more women or make it easier for women to juggle their work and family duties. Berkshire does not have a corporate diversity policy because he doesn't dictate policy to the company managers.

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“They do run their own businesses,” he said.

The lack of such a policy recently placed Berkshire low on a rating of gender diversity by activist investor Calvert Investments.

Buffett pointed out that three of the last five people to join Berkshire's board of directors are women, and three of its six directors younger than 60 are women. His financial assistant, Tracy Britt, 28, is chairwoman of four Berkshire divisions.

As more women take leadership positions in business, he said, the U.S. economy stands to gain.

He said he is speaking on the issue partly because of “Lean In,” a book by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg that urges women to be more assertive in their business careers, and because of workplace policies adopted by Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer.

Buffett's comments came during an interview with Fortune magazine editor-at-large Pattie Sellers, held at the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Mammel Hall. About 150 students and faculty from the College of Business Administration attended.

Buffett wrote an essay on the subject for the magazine's Fortune 500 issue, due out Monday. He will preside Saturday over the annual meeting of Berkshire shareholders, held at Omaha's CenturyLink Center.

During the interview, Buffett, 82, said his sisters, Doris and Roberta, were at least as smart and more “personable,” yet society's main expectation of them at the time was to “marry well.” In contrast, he was expected to have a successful career and had a much wider range of opportunities.

“Women were put on the shelf, basically,” he said, with work outside the home limited to nursing, teaching and secretarial duties. “It doesn't make any sense.”

Buffett said the late Katharine Graham was a superb, successful executive and, at one time, the most powerful woman in the nation, yet she was plagued by self-doubt because she had absorbed society's limiting perceptions of women. “She never fully got over it,” he said.

Sellers asked Buffett why he waited until 2003 to appoint a woman to Berkshire's board of directors.

It's a good question, and I don't have a good answer," he said, adding that because he controlled Berkshire, he made virtually all the decisions and didn't rely much on the directors.

Today, he said, the board of directors' No. 1 responsibility is succession planning, and the three women directors are part of Berkshire's "directors of the future." Later, on the Fox Business Network, he said he hopes the next Berkshire CEO, in 10 or 15 years, is a woman.

Buffett said the gender of a company's CEO doesn't influence his decision on making acquisitions. While he would not nominate a women as a director just because of her gender, "if it were a tossup, it would be a woman." So far, he said, his nominees have been the best people regardless of gender.

Buffett said he has not had to replace many Berkshire managers, but when he does, he does not limit his choices by gender, race or other factors because "talent is scarce."

The Omaha World-Herald Co. is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

Contact the writer:

402-444-1080, steve.jordon@owh.com, twitter.com/buffettOWH

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