How to build inclusive structures for women in tech
As the tech industry continues to grow and evolve, the call for greater representation of women in its ranks only grows louder.
Despite numerous efforts to honour and recognise the achievements of female tech professionals, the industry still struggles to achieve gender parity.
But why are these efforts falling short? One possible explanation for this persistent imbalance is the need for inclusive environments within tech companies. Many female tech professionals and other underrepresented groups have reported feeling unwelcome or undervalued in their workplaces.
An expert in team leadership and management Janine Subgang has motivated and communicated with teams to drive change and improve conflict management. Deeply committed to fostering belonging and inclusivity to enhance team performance, Janine is active in the VC, Crypto, and Startup Scene, and was the interim director at ASIF Ventures and co-founded FriDAO. Here she discusses how to build inclusive structures for women in tech.
Few tech firms actively set out to create toxic or unhealthy work cultures. In many cases, these issues arise due to a lack of diversity and inclusion in a traditionally male-dominated field.
So, what can be done to address this problem? It's time for tech companies to take a hard look at their own structures and environments and make a concerted effort to create a more inclusive culture. By actively striving for diversity and inclusion, tech firms attract and retain top talent from all backgrounds. The hour is ripe for the tech industry to embrace diversity and inclusion as core values to create a welcoming and supportive environment for all.
So why should tech companies do all of this? Why go through the hustle of ‘wasting time’ on ‘soft topics’ when you have a product to build, code to ship, or hyper-growth to ignite?
Inclusive workplaces that foster a sense of belonging and psychological safety benefit significantly. Deloitte estimated that inclusive workplaces are 6 times as likely to be innovative and have 2.3 times the cash flow per employee over non-inclusive workplaces in a three-year period. Teams that listen to different perspectives have more chances to discover something new, and hence innovate. But it's not just about the money – diverse and inclusive organisations also achieve better outcomes in other areas.
Research shows that these organisations experience:
- 70% higher growth (Chief Executive for Corporate Purpose (CECP))
- 36% better profitability (McKinsey)
- 75% faster time to market (Centre for Talent Innovation)
- 19% better innovation (Boston Consulting Group)
There are a few reasons why inclusive workplaces tend to be more successful. When employees feel included and valued, they're more engaged and motivated to give their best work, leading to increased productivity and efficiency. Inclusive workplaces also tend to foster a greater sense of trust and collaboration, leading to better teamwork, problem-solving, and, ultimately, more successful outcomes for the business.
When employees feel like they can bring their authentic selves to work and be accepted, they're more likely to feel a sense of belonging and connection to the organisation, leading to higher job satisfaction and retention, which reduces turnover and recruitment costs.
Finally, tech workplaces that foster an inclusive environment are more likely to attract and retain top female employees as well as other underrepresented groups, benefitting the organisation's overall competitiveness. Women often self-select themselves out of roles and companies that do not seem to have a diverse workforce. By creating a welcoming and supportive environment, tech organisations benefit by bringing different perspectives and experiences to the table, in turn, driving innovation and creativity. Overall, building inclusive structures that foster a sense of belonging and psychological safety has some major benefits for tech businesses as they can tap into the full potential of their talent and drive better outcomes for individuals and the business as a whole.
What are inclusive structures?
Inclusive structures are frameworks that are intentionally designed to promote inclusivity and diversity within an organisation. I call them ‘safeguards against trouble’. These structures can take many forms, from inclusive language policies to open feedback groups.
Inclusive structures focus on actively listening to and understanding the experiences of individuals with different backgrounds. Conflicts and misunderstandings will arise without a conscious effort to consider these diverse perspectives. Inclusive structures help prevent these issues by providing a safe and supportive environment where everyone's views are valued and respected. Scheduling regular feedback sessions, as well as anonymous opportunities to flag conflict and problems, helps build a more productive, stronger aligned team.
Inclusive structures are critical for the tech industry, which has historically struggled with diversity and inclusion. By implementing these structures, tech companies create a more welcoming and supportive environment for all employees, regardless of their background. This fosters a more productive work culture and enables the company to tap into a wider pool of ideas.
So, how do we get there?
As the tech industry strives to increase the representation of women and other underrepresented groups, there are several steps that companies can take to address both structural and cultural issues.
Listen to and act on complaints
It is crucial to create a culture where employees feel comfortable raising concerns and feedback, and for managers to take action on this feedback to address any issues of bias or discrimination. To facilitate this process, tech firms should provide safe spaces for employees to share their experiences and actively seek out diverse perspectives. When the gender ratio is unbalanced, this feedback may initially be perceived as 'false,' as it does not align with the individual's own lived reality.
These complaints, however, are not personal attacks though they may often feel like it. If you are able to listen without prejudice, they can be one of the most valuable things for a team’s success. An employee stating that they feel overlooked, more harshly judged than their male counterparts, or often given gendered tasks for no reason is an invitation for change. Most employees will simply leave and search for companies (or industries) without these issues, rather than taking the time (and risk) to ask for change. Offering feedback indicates that people want to work to improve the situation. For Managers and team leaders, this is the moment to remember that feedback is an opportunity to enhance and potentially change your team’s culture.
Promote structural inclusivity
This involves designing systems, initiatives, cultures, technologies, policies, and workplaces based on behavioural insights, resulting in inclusive outcomes. Many define it as actively creating opportunities for women in leadership and decision-making roles and providing resources and support to help them succeed.
I take it one step further and actively create systems where open feedback and vulnerability are nourished. Inclusivity cannot be created by appointing one woman or PoC (person of colour) into a leadership role, rather it is a culture of listening to and acknowledging each other's differences. Truly inclusive companies understand that an ‘open’ and productive culture is not the default but something that actively needs to be created and monitored. Ensuring diversity at all levels of leadership, including the C-suite, can help create role models and encourage more inclusive decision-making. Measures such as regular feedback sessions on team dynamics and inclusivity are vital to achieving this.
Foster a culture of psychological safety
Psychological safety refers to people’s perceptions of the consequences of ‘failure’ in a particular setting. A ‘safe’ culture is one in which employees are comfortable taking risks and being vulnerable and feel empowered to ask questions and spark new ideas. Creating such an environment means providing a space where people feel safe challenging the status quo, voicing unique views, and criticising leaders for bad behaviour. These may seem obvious (to me, at least), but I’ve seen many teams lack this essential function and suffer in their productivity. Psychological safety makes teams more productive by developing trust, reducing error, and increasing alignment.
Check your unconscious bias
Unconscious bias is a real and pervasive issue, and it is essential for leaders to recognise and address their own biases, actively acknowledging and challenging assumptions and stereotypes. Unconscious bias can be as small as talking over your female employees or as big as falsely giving credit to a male colleague for an idea that originated from a female employee. We all have automatic biases, and it can be uncomfortable admitting that, but working from a ‘not me’ perspective only increases the problem.
Microaggressions are subtle, often unconscious, expressions of prejudice or discrimination that significantly impact the experiences of underrepresented groups. They are difficult to identify, which is why ‘callouts’ on microaggressions can be extremely valuable.
Creating a culture where employees feel empowered to speak up if they experience or witness them is the baseline for change. Equally, having been called out for an act of microaggression or bias should be understood as a tool for positive change and development, not a tool for terror. A game changer for me was to shift the perspective from blame to responsibility. We all grow up in a society that leaves us with stereotypes that activate unconscious biases and can lead to microaggressions.
Sometimes, we are responsible (for our actions, biases, and mistakes) not because we are to blame but because we are the only ones who can change it.
Microaggressions can range from commenting on the looks of female co-workers to jokes about a PoC colleague's ‘real’ origin. All of these erode employees' sense of belonging with a company and create a work environment that feels unwelcoming.
Accept uncomfortable conversations
Creating a culture of inclusivity means being willing to have difficult conversations and address uncomfortable issues. This requires providing safe spaces for people to share and learn from different perspectives and fostering an open and honest dialogue about DEIB (diversity, equality, inclusion and belonging) issues.
I love the approach from Heterodox Academy, where they champion viewpoint diversity rather than category diversity. Members are selected based on bringing a new and opposing perspective, leading to a diverse and innovative team structure, as different viewpoints will more than likely stem from different life experiences, which leads to fresh perspectives. A great team leader or moderator is often necessary to make uncomfortable conversations normal; it’s not about blame, but about exchanging perspectives and increasing team communication. Vulnerability and honesty are real superpowers when everyone is willing to listen and change.
Lead with purpose and values
It is important for organisations to be clear about their values and to consistently model inclusive behaviours. This means actively demonstrating inclusivity in all aspects of the business. Nothing feels more discouraging than seeing big DEIB claims when internally, this is not visible to those in underrepresented communities.
Increase male participation in DEIB agendas
It is important to involve men in DEIB initiatives and recognise their role as allies. It may seem counterintuitive as we are placing the onus on the protagonist to solve issues that are personal to women, however, if the truth be told, we will only make progress by working together. Whenever I have conflicts or problems arising in a team about DEIB agendas and policies, I encourage everyone to look from all sides, while making sure that everyone is heard.
Open feedback channels
Establishing open channels for feedback, such as anonymous suggestion boxes or regular check-ins with managers, help identify and address any issues of inclusivity that may arise. This is another way to create a culture of continuous improvement and encourage employees to speak up about their experiences.
Empowering and inclusive language improves relationships and reduces negative sentiment. Asking employees empowering questions and leading conversations that leave them feeling valued and included increases motivation and productivity.
Here are some practical tips for asking and leading these types of conversations:
- Start by setting the stage for an open and honest dialogue. Lead with example and give others the space to voice their perspective first. A simple trick is to ask for everyone’s feedback and communication style. It gets the ball rolling and makes everyone feel seen.
Use open-ended questions to encourage employees to share their thoughts and ideas. Some examples of empowering questions include:
- How do you like to receive feedback?
- What would you like to achieve, and how can I help you get there?
- How do you see this issue, and what do you think we should do about it?
- I really value your viewpoint, I think I see it differently than you. What’s your perspective on X?
- Foster a culture of psychological safety by clarifying that it is okay to share ideas and ask questions, even if they might be perceived as controversial or challenging. This involves saying things like, "I welcome all perspectives and viewpoints," or "I’m happy for you to disagree with me, as long as we respect each other's opinions."
- Encourage employees to speak up and share their thoughts and ideas, even if they might be different from the norm. Actively seek out diverse perspectives, and acknowledge and value the contributions of underrepresented groups. Show genuine interest in what employees have to say, and be open to hearing feedback, even if it might be critical or challenging. Use active listening and ask follow-up questions to better understand employees' perspectives. This is especially important for team leaders and managers. Try to refrain from justifying your actions. You’re already in a position of power. Try to see if there might be any truth in what was mirrored back to you. Then respond. If you disagree, explain why. And try to ask for their feedback on how to move forward.
- Thank employees for their input, and show them that their contributions are valued and appreciated. Follow up on their ideas and feedback, and recognise their contributions in a meaningful way.
Inclusivity is a journey, and the tech industry has a long way to go to undo some of the cultural biases originating from its male-dominated history. The ball lies with the managers and team leaders of each company. By communicating regularly and asking the hard questions, they can identify blind spots and make adjustments in real-time. In actionable terms, this means scheduling regular reflection and feedback sessions to catch turbulences before they arise, perhaps adopting IT-friendly agile loop mechanisms as well as monthly team and individual check-ins. Don’t wait for issues to bubble under and one day land in front of you or HR. Actively provide a space where even the smallest things can be discussed.
For me personally, I enjoy asking people “why do you think that” or “what made you do that” to invite discussion and improve my understanding of their actions. I once had a colleague that perceived these questions as an attack. We could have waited months until this became enough of an issue to disrupt the whole team, or we could have had a 5-minute chat at our monthly reflection. These things seem small, but employees rarely initiate these conversations if the issue isn’t yet disrupting the process. No one wants to seem overactive, sensitive, or a troublemaker. So it is up to the team leader to create a structure that encourages people to share their views early and prevent issues before they arise.
As we strive to create a diverse and equitable workplace, we must prioritise information sharing and psychological safety for our teams. It's important to keep checking in with our team to ensure we meet their needs. By staying in touch and asking the tough questions, we will move to a more inclusive and equitable future.