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Uncomfortable Conversations: Talking Inclusion At Web Summit

BY Aislinn MahonNovember 19, 2018

Diverse Group of Women - Talking Inclusivity at WebSummit

What does a “better world” look like to you?

For many of us, a better world is a fairer, more balanced one with greater representation for minority groups. People would be kinder, listen to each other, and ultimately be motivated by passion over greed. When you think of greater representation, you might immediately think of improving gender balance… but it’s not that simple.

This year’s Web Summit started and ended with a call for humans to take action and claim responsibility for the world we have created and for the future that lies ahead of us. Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, spoke at the conference opening about reclaiming a “safe, diverse, open and accessible” world.

So, when it comes to the tech industry, what does that ‘safe, diverse, open and accessible’ world look like? The question played on my mind throughout my Web Summit experience. Gender balance has been at the forefront of Web Summit since the inception of the Women in Tech Programme four years ago. The Programme aims to increase the ratio of male: female attendees through heavily discounted tickets and dedicated content for women – and has done so with great success.

However, after my week in Lisbon, I couldn’t help but feel that it’s time to question whether such gender-specific initiatives are the right way forward. Tech moves at a face pace and as with everything in our industry, there is always room for improvement and progression.

As industry leaders, what can we do to unite people rather than force them apart? And when we do bring people together, are we challenging ourselves to discuss the issues that really matter? Is the creation of “safe spaces” a way of burying our heads in the sand?

 

SILO MENTALITY

According to Web Summit CEO Paddy Cosgrave, 31,000 women registered for Web Summit 2018. Many of these women congregated in the Women In Tech Lounge and attended mentor sessions – myself included. On my daily visits to the lounge, I was disappointed at the low numbers of men present. This isn’t just a Web Summit phenomenon. At Viva Tech in Paris earlier this year, a panel of powerful female business leaders took over the main stage to discuss how to encourage greater diversity in the tech industry – as the largely male audience slowly filed out off the room.

Whether it’s a perception of gender inclusivity as a ‘women’s issue’ to solve or possibly (and more uncomfortably) hostility towards an influx of new talent, it left me wondering whether the focus on women in tech is alienating us more than uniting us. If females continue to operate in a silo, how can we expect change?

The “division of the sexes” issue does not relate solely to industry events. When I asked Web Summit attendees what they felt about such practises, many of them mentioned that they feel it’s necessary to create a safe space where women feel comfortable. I completely get that… but I don’t think it’s a sustainable solution for change. Call it ‘preaching to the converted’ or ‘singing from the same songsheet’ – sometimes we need to push ourselves outside of our comfort zone and have these difficult conversations.

 

PROMOTING UNITY

I wasn’t alone in my thoughts at Web Summit. Several thought leaders also tackled the topic of uniting people in the pursuit of inclusion – here’s some key takes:

  • We should promote a culture of openness where people can discuss issues that matter. We don’t always need to tread so carefully. Females are not the weaker sex and there’s no need to treat us as such. We don’t need to be clapped on stage simply for being there. In the words of Věra Jourová, who serves as the European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality:
    “We are strong enough to take over business. I don’t like the image of the woman as a victim.”
  • It’s time companies get the basics right and look at how they do their recruitment and promotional process from the beginning.

    Once company culture is baked, it’s baked, which is why it’s so important that start-ups get it right from day one.

    Think of how you can make it easy for women to return to the workplace post-maternity leave, and think of how you can allow new fathers to spend time with their children too.

  • We should look at companies that are doing well. Gillian Tans, CEO of Booking.com is an excellent example of a leader that is setting the industry standard. Booking.com share all of their data and talk about initiatives they have introduced to actively drive change in the industry. For example, they sponsor scholarships for STEM to ensure women make decisions at an earlier stage to enter tech. Granted, this is not something that early stage companies can look at, but we can track our %’s and hold ourselves accountable to measurable KPIs when it comes to hiring and promotions. 
  • We should hire people who are different to us, and we should invest in people who are different to us. In the words of Jalak Jobanputra, Founder of Future Perfect VC, we can:

    “Put money into the hands of diverse fund managers. My network is very different to my male partners. As a VC we have the choice: who do we take meetings with? It’s up to us.”

 

CULTURE ADAPTORS

There were a couple of super panel discussions that went beyond the usual “diversity” chat and opened up uncomfortable conversations. The panel I enjoyed the most was the IBM thinkLeaders session, which featured five brilliant women from across the VC, media and international development industries. Together, they explored intersectionality and inclusion in tech, raising these key topics:

  • Preconceptions about women in tech still abound. Lindsey Turrentine, Editor in Chief at CNET.com, spoke being mistaken for the secretary/junior assistant at conferences: “The vibe around me changes when people realise what I do and who I am. Often they assume I am there to assist someone else. Teaching myself to make it very clear that I have something to add and say as I’m leading in this realm is something I’ve had to do.”
  • Inclusion is more complicated than merely rectifying the gender imbalance. Activist Rouba Mhaissen spoke about the very real issue of multifaceted identities – and adapting to a different culture:

“In the Arab world to be taken seriously, women have to act completely differently, and then we have to adapt to the West. How can you be both these identities and still be you?”

  • Jalak Jobanputra, Founder of Future Perfect VC, spoke about the difficulties that her mother faced as an immigrant Indian woman in the USA; “My mother (a doctor in Kenya) was dismissed because of her accent and the fact that she was a brown woman and didn’t grow up in the US. All these attitudes that made it hard for her to blossom… But she never held it against anyone and she got on with it.”

  • UNDP Gender Team Director Randi Davis highlighted the multiple responsibilities women hold aside from pursuing their career: “The biggest challenge for me, which is very common, is balancing your work and life – especially if you have children or elderly parents. One of the key issues we need to look at is the needs of women to come in and out and go on slow-track and still have an opportunity to give into their career.”

Promoting inclusivity in tech goes beyond curating a gender-balanced panel of speakers. Opening up the conversation beyond specific minority groups helps to create a generation of allies who listen, learn and become advocates for all entrepreneurs. As IBM SVP and Chief Marketing Officer, Michelle Peluso reminded us at Web Summit:

“Technology is defined by who helps programme it and code the algorithms.”

Ultimately, it’s everybody’s responsibility to work together to support programmers and coders (and beyond) of diverse backgrounds for the benefit of those using that tech.

 

LEAVE YOUR COMFORT ZONE

Believe all entrepreneurs deserve a fair opportunity to secure funding, regardless of their background? We’re bringing our Fairer Funding Now campaign to Huckletree D2 – and you’re invited to join the conversation.

Meet up with Dublin’s VC community, startup founders and supporters on Tuesday, December 4th to explore who’s helping Ireland’s diverse founders secure funding and what’s currently holding them back. Tickets are limited – RSVP now.

AUTHOR

Aislinn Mahon

Huckletree D2 General Manager