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CEO - Feminuity

By Fintros — March 2018

Dr. Sarah Saska

Fintros: Let’s begin by addressing how diversity can be leveraged to advance innovation? Why should companies take diversity, as well as inclusion, seriously?

SS: The global innovation economy has arrived and demographics are shifting more rapidly than ever and so it follows that it is challenging to predict what things will look like in the next ten years. Companies that hope to be successful must make a concerted effort to deeply understand the complexity of people.

Understanding people who look, feel, and think differently than we do is at the heart of inclusive design, and fostering this mentality will enable companies to meet that range of needs and wants in this new economy. It is no longer sufficient for a company to allocate a few dollars towards a single diversity training, or to re-write its mission statement to signal a vague appreciation for diversity and inclusion, or to include images of underrepresented groups laughing and smiling on its home page. The world is changing and companies must understand it is now imperative to embed diversity, inclusion, and belonging (DIBs) practices into the heart of their core business philosophies and principles. If they’re merely paying lip service to the public, their DIBs initiatives will likely fail and it’s also likely that aspects of their business with suffer as well.

Fintros: I’m interested in the concept of diversity debt that you often refer to. Given your management consulting work at Feminuity often allows you to partner with tech start-ups that have the advantage of tackling diversity while their organizations are still relatively small, how do you frame diversity as a priority when there are so many issues a young company has to confront and consider.

SS: The framing around diversity debt has been my way of working to meet people where they are; it's my way of trying to leverage language that’s familiar to people as a way to help them to understand the importance of this work.

In the past, I have used this simple analogy to help young companies understand the importance of diversity and inclusion efforts. When I started day trading to put myself through school, the most common advice that I received from seasoned investors was to build a diversified portfolio. While approaches to trading vary, a diversified portfolio remains a steadfast tactic for most investors and serves to mitigate the risks associated with the “all-eggs-in-one-basket” strategy. I’ve followed this advice, for the most part, and I’ve done reasonably well. But the few times that I diverged from this strategy and invested too heavily in a particular commodity, I experienced some significant losses.

The same advice is relevant for companies. If everyone on your team looks, feels, and thinks similar to you, you’re effectively putting all of your eggs in one basket. We build diversified portfolios; why doesn't it follow that we should also create diverse teams? Why hasn’t this longstanding investment approach translated into how we build companies?

Fintros: Agreed, so while scaling start-ups have the ability to tackle diversity from the get-go, what is your reaction to the growing trend of elevating diversity and inclusion officers into the C-Suite at large, complex organizations? (i.e. Big 5, Big 4, 7 Sisters).

SS: Well, there are a few people out there who argue that if you have a dedicated staff member, such as a Chief Diversity Officer (CDO), or related role within an organization, other staff may be dis-incentivized to play an active role in organizational efforts towards improving diversity and inclusion.

I've seen this happen, but I firmly believe that every organization should hire someone who has the expertise to build a holistic company-wide strategy for their organization. CDOs work to ensure that there's buy-in from senior leadership, while also supporting management and more junior staff.They also work to meet all company employees where they are and support them on their learning journies.

It's not enough to pass this work off to an HR team. HR is responsible for protecting the employees in an organization as employees. A CDO is there to protect employees as individuals: as people, as their authentic selves. Would you hire a full stack developer to renovate your house? Probably not. Hire a diversity professional.

Fintros: Shifting focus, what are your thoughts on conscious and unintentional biases in the hiring process?

SS: At Feminuity, as a consulting firm, we try to find the gaps and blind spots in the work that our clients do, so we spend a lot of time vetting out our clients’ hiring practices. I've observed well-intentioned leaders in interviews hire people in their reflection. It is natural that we like people who look, feel, and think much like ourselves, but this practice rarely allows us to build diverse teams.

Fintros: And how do you see the role of technology in creating more just and fair recruiting practices? Is it possible to eliminate human and institutional biases without looking to technology as an aid?

SS: I see a lot of value in using technology to help eliminate institutional and human biases, but we’d be remiss to think about this uncritically because, after all, humans design these technologies and we’ve already seen examples of how quickly human biases become embedded in technology. From AI systems that misclassify racialized people, to those that fail to recognize women’s voices. So long as we are building the technology intentionally and working to de-bias the process, then I think we have a good chance for technology to be an advantageous tool in addressing bias.

Concerning your second question, I think there will always be a need to balance the two inputs: human and technological. Belonging is still an essential piece; we all need to feel like we belong to an organization. That qualitative human side is something that technology cannot easily replace. But those might be famous last words!

Fintros: I hope not! To wrap up, what is one piece of advice for the hiring managers who are looking to support their organizations diversity initiatives at the gate?

SS: In the past year or so, I’ve spoken with hundreds of hiring managers and recruiters, most of whom ask me to recommend a “diverse candidate” for their latest role. While I know they mean well, they also need to remember that people are not diverse; teams are. Referring to people as “diverse” assumes that any two people in the world are somehow the same. “Diversity” refers to a collective, a group, or a team; in this way, “diversity” can only exist in relationship to others.

A candidate is not diverse; they're a distinct, individual person, but a team can and must be diverse. So, it follows then, that women aren’t “diversity,” women are more than half of the population. I’ve heard a lot of companies conflate women and diversity in the past few months. Gender-related initiatives can and need to be part of a company’s over-arching diversity, inclusion, and belonging strategy, but gender is one of many dimensions of diversity it must consider. If we aren't clear on the words and ideas that we’re using, how will we be clear on the solutions?This may sound like a small distinction, but I believe this is a critical distinction to understand.

At a high-level, I think it’s also worth mentioning that diversity, inclusion, and belonging work is incredibly challenging. This work is wound up in all of the complexities of being human so it follows that it is daunting, anxiety inducing, and messy. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and once organizations understand this, it’s a lot easier to get started. Start wherever you can and seek out support.

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