four young people of different races and ethnicities looking off into the sunset together

Meri Williams, CTO at Pleo explains the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion – and how to make tech companies a more inclusive environment for everybody.

Diversity is about having a wide range of people from different demographics—for instance, a mix of genders, races, religions, etc. Inclusion is about making all those people feel safe and enabling them to be themselves and become successful in a particular organisation. Diversity is being invited to the party, while inclusion is being asked to dance.

These days, we also talk about equity: people being treated fairly, even if sometimes, paradoxically, that means making allowances to account for different starting positions and belonging is about ensuring a broad range of people feel at home within an organisation. The IT and technology sector is a good example of existing potential for improvement in this field. The sector tends to do okay at attracting lots of different nationalities, but less well at representing women, non-binary folks, people of colour and older age groups. While on the other hand, it’s possible that neurodiversity is overrepresented compared to the general population.

The imbalance of job placements in the IT sector brings with it far-reaching negative effects that manifest themselves at various levels. 

A well-known example is AI and human bias. The performance of computer systems reveals an algorithmic bias, which takes various forms in AI systems, such as gender and racial bias, or age discrimination – a fatal situation, especially as the issue of AI becomes more and more prominent. But how can we tackle this problem? First, we need to make the technology industry more diverse.

Diversity and inclusion in the workplace – how it benefits everyone

Diverse teams – in terms of gender, colour, background and sexual orientation – promote creativity, innovation and efficiency in the industry (McKinsey). The more diverse teams are, the more varied the members’ backgrounds, experiences and ways of thinking – and the broader the range of solutions they develop. Diverse teams are also often happier and more motivated. No wonder, after all, members feel that their ideas and perspectives are valued and that they are in an inclusive environment.

This is also reflected in surveys: as an example, in a study from the cybersecurity industry, 47% of respondents were in favour of more neurodiversity in the next five years. Equally promising is the development of diversity and inclusion: 69% of the more than 300 companies surveyed have been looking at how to diversify their workforce in recent years.

What is an “inclusive workplace” anyway?

In 2023, there needs to be a big focus on inclusive workplace design to ensure that your company is attractive to a diverse workforce. But what is an inclusive workplace? It is a place where all people are treated fairly and with respect, and have equal opportunities for advancement – inclusive of their background, skin colour, gender, age and other factors.

The challenge now is to turn more tech jobs into such places. Some would believe that the programming language unites people and thus facilitates this endeavour. In reality, however, this is not the case; the tech industry faces the same social challenges as everyone else. As sobering as it may sound, the biggest incentive for more integration currently comes from the ongoing shortage of skilled workers. Qualified professionals are still scarce, and excluding someone is tantamount to scoring an own goal.

Checklist for companies: how to ensure more inclusion

In order to create a framework for more diversity, inclusion and equality, decision-makers need to set integrated goals in the corporate strategy. The following points are important milestones:

  1. Introduce communication guidelines: using inclusive language involves all employees and prevents people from feeling (actively or passively) excluded.
  2. Diversity in partnerships: Companies that seek to work with a diverse group of partners are already promoting diversity within their supply chain.
  3. Support diverse communities and voluntary groups: Active involvement in voluntary organisations or foundations that promote diversity and inclusion. Integration, not only supports the cause itself, but also carries the message that the company supports these values to the outside world.
  4. Create support structures for employees from under-represented groups: Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are groups organised by and for employees on a voluntary basis that promote an inclusive work atmosphere in-line with the company’s values. Diversity & Inclusion Officers also support the establishment of more inclusion.
  5. Diversity and Inclusion Training: Because employees may unknowingly harm those around them, training helps them to understand and appreciate the differences between their colleagues and to create an inclusive environment.
  6. Encourage active collaboration with external equivalents of ERGs: Particularly in the recruitment and hiring process, these groups have proven their worth in the past, bringing external expertise into the process. An example from the UK of such external groups is Code First Girls.

Employee enablement – against the backdrop of inclusion, its importance is growing once again

The focus on employee enablement is booming, yet it is still relatively new in many industries. In an environment as fast-paced and highly competitive as the IT industry, employee satisfaction is key. Even in the critical economic climate we have been facing since last year, most developers had plenty of job offers. A positive, empowering work environment is therefore all the more crucial to attract, hire and, most importantly, retain talent from diverse backgrounds. However, there are a few important points to consider:

  1. The goal of employee development is to have an engaged and motivated workforce. Only then will they drive the growth and success of the company.
  2. Equal opportunities for all: The company must ensure that all employees have the same opportunities for development and promotion.
  3. Feedback at its finest: Employees need regular and continuous feedback. They also need a way to share their thoughts and concerns about diversity and inclusion. Only then can managers gauge the current mood and determine which aspects need to be optimised.
  4. Mentoring and sponsorship programmes: These programmes match employees with mentors and sponsors who support them in their professional development.
  5. And last but not least: Targeting diversity in leadership positions. Companies promoting diversity in leadership positions through actively investing in those from under-represented groups, who frequently don’t get the same opportunities as those in the majority because their potential shows in different ways.

Workplace flexibility remains a priority in 2023 – different people have different needs

Workplace flexibility is a key tool for acquiring people from diverse backgrounds. For example, companies make it easier to balance work and life by introducing flexible working time models and the option for remote work. For employees, this is a high priority – not least because of the additional care work that has to be done. Obvious examples include providing alternative options for disabled employees or making parental leave and care leave possible for families without any problems.

Start at the beginning: Rethinking the recruiting process

For inclusion to be a reality in the company, however, more than flexible working hours are needed; decision-makers need to get into the habit of flexible thinking. They need a general openness to candidates with non-traditional career paths and a willingness to consider candidates who may not have all the required qualifications. More importantly, they must be willing to acquire them.

Therefore, it is advisable to involve people without a computer science degree or those who have studied other subjects, are self-taught or have not been to university at all in the selection process. The model of employing so-called “bootcamp students” is also becoming increasingly widespread. They learn programming in a very short time (usually three to six months) and then move into the technical field.

Real commitment to diversity and inclusion starts with recruitment and hiring. Therefore, companies have a responsibility to train HR managers and recruiters in inclusive practices early on. They need to implement equitable hiring practices that minimise the potential for bias as much as possible. One way to avoid bias during the first round of recruitment is through anonymous applications – that is, applications that do not include name, date of birth, marital status, gender, origin and other personal data. This makes the first impression of the recruiter completely independent of external, gender-specific or origin-related characteristics of the applicant. An alternative is to train application reviewers on unconscious bias, so they can consciously fight it when reviewing applications.

But, how do companies attract the attention of diverse applicants? It is advisable to work with organisations that work with under-represented groups, such as the Deutschlandstiftung Integration (German Foundation for Integration), in order to reach a larger pool of applicants.

It’s not just HR: commitment to inclusion runs through the entire company

Summarised again: Companies benefit from an engaged and diverse workforce. From improved creativity and innovation to increased efficiency, it plays a key role in creating an engaging culture for all employees. When employees are valued, respected and included in the workplace, they are more likely to be engaged and satisfied with their work.

The strategic development of a diverse and inclusive corporate culture and the communication of the inclusive message is the basis for achieving the set goal in the first place.

In addition, a regular review of the diversity statistics of one’s own workforce helps to ensure that the company is on the right track to achieve the set goals. After all, if the company is serious about promoting diversity, equality, inclusion and belonging, it should check how representative it really is. As a sector that prides itself on being for everyone, IT companies in 2023 need to ensure that everyone is represented and that everyone is made to feel like they belong and can succeed on their own terms.

About Meri Williams, CTO at Pleo

Meri Williams is Chief Technology Officer at international fintech unicorn Pleo, a cloud-based finance management system that issues smart company cards to employees to automate expenses, pays invoices and provides real-time insights into businesses end-to-end spending. Meri’s role involves leading the technology team, spanning engineering, IT, security, data and analytics, with an especial focus on technical innovation within Pleo’s product.

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