True diversity or tokenism
I feel hopeless. I am outraged.
Where shall I begin.
I am outraged; outraged that in 2019, we still talk a lot about the need and business case of diversity – but we can’t seem to move the needle. I am outraged that, while we put people on the moon five decades ago, we fail to include different voices in our workplace, our boardrooms, our events, and in conversations that matter most.
I feel hopeless – because it would take 202 years for men and women to reach economic parity, but even then, I am not sure if it will happen. The odds are simply stacked so high against women and people of colour – and others that are not more mainstream.
Quality and diversity is not – and must not be – a trade-off. You can achieve both; saying so would be an insult to all the brilliant female leaders out there, working to make our society a better place. Saying so would be an insult to all those entrepreneurs out there who don’t get noticed because of their lack of resources (time and money), their zip codes, their skin colour, their demographics, or their countries of origin – because they were told – from the very beginning – that they didn’t belong.
Because we, as an industry, are systematically excluding those that don’t look like us.
And this needs to stop. Now.
Take a look around you next time you are in a conference and take note of who you see at the podium. Take note of the moderators and the panelists; take note of the demo presenters and those at the exhibition booths. Having a woman passing out flyers at the booth or be the “clicker” in a demo while men do all the talking is not true diversity. Having a woman as a moderator and four men as panelists talking about innovation in banking is tokenism. Having a woman sitting in on a panel with three other men – and not having a chance to speak a word is tokenism. Having one woman in the boardroom with nine other men is tokenism. Having a female head of human resources – while the rest of the executive team members are male – is tokenism.
Creating an illusion of inclusion and diversity to deflect criticisms of bias is tokenism.
And what we see in boardrooms and in conferences is a reflection of our industry. Despite the awareness, despite the decades of struggles and efforts to change, we have yet to achieve any meaningful parity.
It is time to change the narrative.
How might we solve this, you ask, when there aren’t enough women who are willing to go in to financial services to begin with? How might we find enough female founders to present if they don’t “apply to speak”? How can we hear the voices (and needs) of the other 50% if they don’t truly have a voice?
How might we get out of the cycle then? It is a simple yet complex question.
Human beings are creatures of habit. We tend to gravitate towards people we know, or people that we can identify with.
If you are organising an event, we must look beyond your normal “little black book” and ask people for recommendations. And ask different people at that. You can’t get fresh ideas or find new and interesting voices if you keep fishing in the same pond.
Next, step out of your comfort zone. It’s not easy – I know. Trust me. But it needs to be done. And after that, you’d have much more appreciation for those of us who do that on a daily basis, to try our best to be part of a culture and community that we can’t completely identify with.
Inclusion starts with empathy. Empathy requires compassion and appreciation – for those who are different than ourselves.
The buck stops here
As part of the financial services ecosystem – whether you are a conference organiser, a start-up, a corporate, an accelerator, or a venture capitalist – we all have a part to play. It is time to stop passing the buck or playing the blame game. Stop pleading ignorance.
It is time for us to act together – and turn empty words – not just hearts and minds – into action. It is not only time for us to say: ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. It is now time for us to hold ourselves accountable. We must build a more inclusive ecosystem that truly includes everyone – including those who are invisible – and we must do this together.
Because the status quo is no longer acceptable.
By Theo Lau
She is the founder of Unconventional Ventures, which focuses on developing and growing an ecosystem of corporates, entrepreneurs, and VCs to better address the unmet needs of consumers, with keen interests in women and minority founders.