• Zuzanna Fiminska

What startups need to know about diversity

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

This piece was invited by a company that matches start-ups with investors. After initial enthusiasm, the company backed out on the eve of scheduled publication date, saying the piece "went against company values." A strange world where saying "we only hire white able-bodied men" takes less courage than admitting "we've lost interest in your work."

Why you should care about diversity

Conversations around diversity have focused on data and measurable outcomes, including revenue, little has been said about what diversity brings to the table. Diversity isn’t a statistic; diversity is a mindset and we have to shift our thinking from a data-driven approach to one that’s data-informed, but driven by recognising the value of different points of view.

This shift can take us from a box-ticking exercise of letting in people with certain demographic characteristics without delivering change toward a place where we actively seek out and recognise the value of collaborating with people whose backgrounds and experiences are different from our own.

Diversity is a mindset

Diversity expands beyond demographics and cuts across industries, disciplines, and company functions. It brings people together to examine a problem from multiple points of view.

Where different types of expertise work together, the solutions they deliver are more likely to be sustainable and fit for purpose, creating an open and dynamic enterprise that ensures our service or product reaches the relevant people.

It also ensures we deliver value across audience segments.

Whatever you are struggling with in your line of work often has a readily available solution somewhere else – in another country, culture, sector, industry or social group. By opening organisations to different influences, we create a culture of exchanging ideas, and one where employees are valued for what they bring to the table because of their background and not in spite of it.

This is in contrast to employing someone as a data point and expecting them to conform to the majority. The world is a diverse place and by keeping it designed by and for one group, we are dismissing opportunities to grow and innovate.

Where we are and what went wrong

Everybody is talking about diversity, but despite internationalisation of markets, introduction of quotas for representative workforce and never-ending awareness seminars organised by well-meaning HR departments, we remain a world dominated by a single perspective.

Our economies suffer as a result of non-diverse hiring practices, but so do the audiences our businesses are aiming to serve.

Without a representative workforce, our products or services are likely to miss the mark, responding only to a narrow demographic representative of ourselves.

Occasionally, lack of awareness about the needs of our audiences means we fail to reach them altogether.

Diversity benefits the bottom line. McKinsey published a report showing that companies with a diverse workforce are 35% more likely to outperform companies without such initiatives.

Diversity has been shown to drive innovation and increase associated revenue; it has been encouraged by privately and government-funded grants; it has sparked discussions about tying performance bonuses to diversity goals.

As a result, some companies have become skilled at capturing media attention with infographics showing the number of women in senior positions or presenting efforts aiming to close the gender pay gap.

At the same time, only 3% of Fortune 500 companies presented their diversity data in 2017.

All talk no action

Recent research has shown that even though industry leadership is often aware of the need for diversity and the systemic biases that prevent it, few are doing anything to counter them.

As a result, gender double-standards persist while minority employees – if they exist at all let alone occupy senior position – often feel neglected and discriminated in more subtle ways.

What’s important to note is that people with disabilities or chronic illness have been left out of the conversation altogether.

Although it’s illegal in many countries to refuse employment to someone because of their disability, only around half of men or women with physical disabilities were in paid employment in the UK in the third quarter of 2018.

At the same time, just 6% of people with learning disabilities were in paid work. Increasing opportunities for disabled employees in the UK alone is estimated to be worth upwards of £212 billion a year. The spending power of disabled households is estimated at £250 billion.

What diversity means for hiring practices

Equal Opportunities Forms have become part of job applications in many countries. Prospective employees are required to provide information on protected characteristics and though this data is supposed to be processed by a team that sits outside of recruitment, whether this happens in reality is impossible to tell.

Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence suggests that filling in these forms at the start of a recruitment process can make female and minority candidates underestimate the value of their own competencies.

For example, when asked for their salary expectations, female and minority candidates are likely to significantly under-pitch their price compared to the expectations they declare when not asked about their demographics.

If we can’t free ourselves from bias even in our perceptions of ourselves, how can we even begin to expect our hiring manager to be free of bias toward prospective employees?

Studies have shown that recruiters’ response to identical applications is often determined by the likely origin of the name at the top; female and non-white sounding names were often less likely to be shortlisted even though their skills, experience and education matched the profile of the white male candidate.

Tried and tested: Blind hiring

One approach to counteract this is blind hiring, using resumes stripped of information on protected characteristics, including names, allowing items relevant to the job to be considered in isolation. In the 1960s, prominent American orchestras – at the time dominated by white men considered the “only qualified people” – introduced blind auditioning.

Musicians were invited to perform behind a screen increasing the chances of a female musician being hired by 25-46%; more recently, blind hiring has yielded similarly encouraging results in other industries.

Blind resumes, although promising, do not respond to the underrepresentation of people with disabilities within the workforce. Self-proclaimed equal opportunities employers claim not to discriminate based on disability and often ask about access and other ‘”adjustment” requirements that a prospective employee requires for an interview.

People with access needs are often automatically disqualified; many employers and building managers are unaware of how inaccessible their sites are.

Lack of elevator access to offices located above ground floor, gates too small for wheelchairs to pass through, intercoms that leave out people with hearing loss are just a few examples of non-inclusive design that should be on everybody’s radar.

Plato’s Cavemen Spoke English

Working within multinational companies where the official language of communication is English, it’s easy to forget that English isn’t the first, or even the dominant, language for every staff member.

Jokes based on cultural references known to native English speakers alienate colleagues who did not grow up in an English-speaking country.

English-native speakers often under-appreciate the advantage they have when it comes to pitching or presenting in English.

Team leaders need to take responsibility to actively encourage and coach non-native English speakers to become more confident communicators while at the same time ensure that native-English speakers are open-minded listeners and any grammatical or pronunciation errors don’t turn into jokes told behind colleagues’ backs.

Non-native speakers of English shouldn’t stay timid; call out your colleagues and gently remind them that for you English is at least the second and often the third, fourth or fifth language; challenge them to see the world from your point of view.

It’s worth remembering that multicultural teams have to deal with nuances of interaction and communication that don’t always translate easily. There are phrases, gestures and behaviours that some people consider normal, which may be problematic or offensive to someone from another part of the world. At best, they become a shared joke. At worst, they undermine brand credibility.

Beware of diversity within your audience

As a startup founder, you most likely want to deliver a solution to a problem that has either been neglected or solved in a way that needs improvement.

Having a diverse development and marketing team will help you create and deliver a solution that addresses nuanced concerns of different slices of your audience.

They won’t necessarily have the right insights themselves, but they will be able to tap into the wisdom of their communities during focus group meetings as part of scoping and testing.

Understanding the needs of different segments of the populations (and knowing how your product or service resonates with them) is strikingly important in health and healthcare.

Tirshna Bharadia at an MS conference

“Illness isn’t discussed in the British-Asian community. There is an ideal out there and anything that jeopardises that ideal – like a disability or an illness – stays hidden. People delay going to the doctor and once they get there, they need a different kind of support to what works for white British people,” says Trishna Bharadia, a multi-award-winning health activist of Asian descent.

People with sensory loss face additional challenges. If they’re able to get in touch with a service provider – many require phone calls to make appointments – there’s still a long way to a successful visit.

“When you’re getting treatment for something, you get a lot of complex information. Unless it’s in a format you can understand, you can’t look after yourself properly,” says Ramon Woolfe, British Sign Language user. “BSL is not English. Many users of BSL are not skilled readers of English. We need our healthcare delivered in another format.”

Being aware of different needs within each segment of your audience brings you closer to delivering the right solutions.

Know your audience: Reach out!

People with disabilities are unlikely to reach out and suggest adjustments that would improve their lives and increase your bottom line.

In their experience, it’s not worth it; most of the time when they’d tried, they’d been sent away. Many people with disabilities are also masters of adaptation; knowing the world isn’t designed for people like them, they learnt to make do.

This doesn’t mean they don’t want the solutions your business may provide. To understand them, you have to be proactive and reach out.

Having a diverse team – with a broad spectrum of perspectives and experiences – helps you see your blind spots and find the right influencers or key opinion leaders to help you create well-thought-out products and services.

What you’ll often find is that adapting a product to support an audience segment with the most complex needs, in the end, benefits your mainstream audience, too, increasing customer satisfaction and revenue.

Essential mindsets, skills and resources

Diversity is a way of thinking that allows us to see a problem from multiple points of view to deliver sustainable solutions.

The point of engaging with people who look and think differently to ourselves is to exchange ideas, solutions and best practices. This can only be achieved if diversity is at the forefront of company culture – from actively seeking to hire a diverse workforce, through creating inclusive teams, to engaging with difference audience segments to deliver products and services that respond to a diverse set of needs.

None of this is easy, but there are companies that do it well and who are worth studying and emulating.

Other organisations offer guidelines and toolkits and are open to collaboration. While everyone is talking about diversity, it’s living diversity that'll give your business an edge.

Reach out and you’ll get closer to what the market craves – solutions fit for purpose.

Zuzanna Fiminska & Project Neighbours

Oxford, England, UK