Editor’s Note: This article has been contributed by guest writer Michaela Jeffery-Morrison
It’s European Diversity Month, which represents the European Commission’s long-term commitment for diverse workplaces and inclusive societies. This year’s theme is ‘Assessing diversity and inclusion’, and as Helena Dalli, the EU’s Commissioner for Equality, has urged organisations to think long and hard about whether diversity policies are delivering. It’s an essential part of any serious approach to DEI – or any serious approach to anything: to step back and look at the results. In our urgency and determination to create better futures, we can all too easily fail to critically engage with what we’ve done so far and look for room for improvement.
And the truth is that the European tech scene has some room for improvement. In fact, it has a well-known diversity problem. According to the Cornerstone Report, published by an angel investment network focused on investing in businesses run by Black and diverse founder-led teams, Black founders are underrepresented in pre-VC and VC funded cohorts; 75 percent of founders come from advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds (and hardly any founders come from families living on welfare entitlements); and VC funding is more likely to go to founders who have been to the most exclusive universities. Though women make up just 22 percent of all tech roles across European companies, they made up 41.6% of layoffs between October 2022 and February this year. And in the UK, female startup employees earn 70p for every £1p their male colleagues earned in 2022.
Addressing Europe’s diversity problem
Though I’ve used the word ‘diversity’ in this article, it’s really a shorthand for a much more complex idea. Human beings are almost endlessly diverse, and the needs of one underrepresented community will often differ starkly from those of another. All DEI action, in startups or bigger companies, has to start with this understanding. There isn’t a quick fix – a single strategy or initiative that will make your organisation more diverse. Yes, there are things we can do; but it’s so important not to group together, first, such disparate qualities as religion, background, education, bodiedness, age, culture, geography, and neurology, and second, the enormous diversity within those categories. Sometimes, in our well-meaning rush to move the needle, we forget this.
Start by making space
A wise person once said that to solve a problem, you should look not to add as a first step, but to take away. And this is true of any good DEI approach. What limits diversity, even in startups, are often assumptions, biases, and historic practices and behaviours that are exclusionary. The language in senior level job postings tend to be skewed towards male applicants, for example. Even asking for a candidate’s name and personal information on an application can exclude Black and Asian people. An inflexible working structure can exclude some disabled people or those with chronic illnesses. And well-meaning culture-boosting activities can isolate neurodiverse people, or those with social anxiety.
Develop a tailored strategy
Creating space – by considering how historic behaviours, assumptions and unconscious bias might be excluding people – is a really positive starting point. Only then can you pursue a comprehensive diversity strategy. It’s important to remember that this will be different for every startup. Context is all-important. But it might include such things as diversity training, leveraging diverse job boards, highlighting your approach to diversity on your website, and putting your recruiters through unconscious bias training. It might also involve taking a harder line on discrimination by inviting team members to call out exclusionary language when they see it, and to give you constructive feedback on how you can make the workplace more inclusive. Mentoring schemes – something that we’ve run with real success as part of our events – can be a fantastic way to bridge the gap between junior and senior team members, too. They can help to develop emerging talent, encourage the exchange of practical skills, and give mentees support in the form of advice based on lived experiences of any barriers to inclusion.
The good news is that, across Europe, there are initiatives boosting the numbers of women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and LGBTQ+ people building startups. In France, there’s Diversidays, which promotes diversity in digital. In Finland, there’s Inklusiiv, which challenges fast-growing tech companies to publish diversity data. And in Germany, there’s WOW Dinner, a networking dinner series promoting D&I in tech. There are many other examples.
But to return to where we began, you can never know for sure what’s working unless you assess your progress. So it’s vital to put in place the right infrastructure to gauge it, to look for weaknesses, and to course-correct if necessary. Qualitative – non-numerical – measurement shouldn’t be neglected, and anonymous surveys can really come in handy for this purpose. And if this approach is taken, one that involves making space, putting in place a tailored programme, and then carefully measuring results, then things will change – and have already changed for this reason in many, many organisations.