The topic of gender diversity is having a moment, with no more telling an example than the now-famous quote of our Prime Minister when asked about why he chose to build a Cabinet that was 50 percent women. His answer: “Because it’s 2015.” You could almost see the smile and hear the “Yes!” uttered by millions of working women around the world.
As a woman myself who, against the odds, has spent the last 25 years in tech, gender equality in the workplace isn’t a new conversation. As the CEO of my fourth tech startup, I’ve been asked a number of times how I made it, why there aren’t more women, what it’s like being a lonely woman in a male-dominated industry, how I managed to get venture capital, and so on.
But today, the conversation has broadened. Diversity is no longer limited to discussions around traditional male and female gender roles. Ethnic diversity, expanded gender definitions, sexual orientation, disabilities, age, and other differentiating factors mean addressing diversity in the workplace is becoming more complex than it’s ever been. General awareness around the issue is no longer enough. A groundswell has finally taken root. But why is the conversation becoming so prevalent now?
I believe it’s resulted from the fact that those of us with children under 30 have socialized them with a consistent message that goes something like this:
Millennials, quite simply, have been socialized to expect diversity and equality. They have been entering the workforce en masse during the last decade and bringing an intolerance for bias along with them. Topics that were considered taboo not so long ago, such as mental illness and sexual orientation, are now more out in the open. And it is this perspective that is forcing the organizations who employ them to think about and take action to address diversity. Organizations that don’t move with this trend risk having employees vote with their feet and go to employers that do have a culture that mirrors modern values.
That said, it can still be challenging to create diversity in the workplace. If we go back to our initial gender example, we know that the tech industry continues to be male-dominated. But I don’t think it’s intentional in most cases.
What I’ve noticed through mentoring some local Waterloo startups is that many of these companies started with a group of friends or classmates with similar interests and skills. Often that means a group of male founders. Once these companies reach a certain size, they may realize they lack diversity, but at this point, it may be harder to attract employees who don’t match the current employee demographic. For example, a female employee may be reluctant to be the only woman in an organization.
What this highlights is that creating a culture of diversity takes a conscious effort because we are naturally drawn to people like us. At Axonify, the company I currently head up, we’ve made a deliberate attempt to ensure there is significant male and female representation. Our leadership team is 50 percent women, and 40 percent of our employees overall are women.
We also have an ethnically diverse team, with employees representing a wide range of heritages. And we employ individuals who are just starting their career, all the way up to more mature individuals who have 25 years plus experience. When you open yourself up to considering a diverse team, you end up hiring the best people for the right roles.
There are other initiatives we are working on to ensure we continue to build a diverse culture as we grow. It’s these type of initiatives that, in part, led us to achieve a top ten ranking this year on the Best Workplace in Canada list by Great Place to Work.
While it isn’t easy, here are five strategies that, from my experience, can be a first step towards building a more diverse tech company:
Get your baseline
There is no shortage of accessible data out there against which you can benchmark your company. Go find it, and then see how you measure up. Even if the data isn’t perfect, it will help you understand your own situation. For example, how many female employees do you have? How many are executives? The answers to these sorts of questions will give you clues about where you can focus on changing.
Make it known
Raising awareness with your team that you want to bring more diversity to the organization signals that you value the different perspectives, skills, and experiences everyone brings. You’ll demonstrate a progressive mindset that can be a big win for recruiting and company culture. You’re also empowering current employees to be a part of developing your recruiting strategy.
Provide diversity training
A step beyond raising awareness is providing your staff with the knowledge to understand why diversity can accelerate your company to the next level of success. A recent example was the data published everywhere in February 2017 when the US instituted a travel ban against several Muslim-majority countries. The numbers of billion-dollar tech startups in the US that were founded by immigrants was a lot more (approximately 50 percent) than I think anyone ever realized.
Support initiatives that promote diversity in tech
Recruiting top talent is always difficult, but having a culture of diversity and acceptance can help set your company apart from others vying for the same employees. Support STEM initiatives, fix gender pay inequalities, fund more women-led ventures, and recognize organizations that promote diversity like Venture Out, an organization focused on bringing awareness to opportunities for LGBTQA+ people in tech. These are just a few examples of how you and your company can demonstrate you are truly trying to make a difference.
Observe diverse traditions
Encourage employees to bring food in from their home cultures to share. Celebrate different holidays for different religions, and recognize and be respectful of different practices. Each of these small activities sends a positive and inclusive vibe to everyone in the workplace. It will deepen the understanding between people and create more of a connection than just the work.
Don’t tolerate intolerance
I cringe when I think back to some of the things I’ve heard people say about women, minorities, the disabled, and others in the workplace during the last 25 years under the guise of “being funny.” If you’re in a position of leadership, don’t let these slurs go. Encourage people who witness intolerance to speak up for their colleagues. Make sure everyone knows that everyone is valued and intolerance comes with consequences.
The best way to encourage workplace diversity is to understand it, and embrace it. You’ll find that pretty quickly it becomes “just the way it is” instead of something you have to work on. It will become part of the fabric of your company in the most positive way, and will allow you to find the best and the brightest people who seek you out, because they’ve heard good things. Workplace diversity can actually be a competitive advantage, and who doesn’t want that?
Workplace inclusion is not a static, one-off act of service. It’s an ever-evolving experience that requires the contribution of every employee — regardless of their level of seniority in the organization — to make each other feel included.
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