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Choosing to Challenge – Thoughts on International Women’s Day 2021

By Marieke Saeij, CEO, Visma | Onguard

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day on 8th March is Choose to Challenge, and it’s clear that challenging the status quo is still very much necessary if we are to move forward with gender equality.

The events of the past twelve months have created both new challenges and opportunities for women in the workplace, with many of us finding ourselves juggling a new balancing act of childcare, home schooling and working during a period when our physical contact with support networks has been limited. For as many friends and colleagues I have spoken to over the past year and heard positive stories of a refreshed work-life balance, I have equally heard from those struggling to adjust and looking forward to a return to normality, however and whenever that may be.

Looking beyond the specific challenges of the pandemic and inwardly at the fintech industry, it’s clear there is still work to be done to achieve gender equality in the sector. Female representation outside of traditional job titles is still low, and the stats speak for themselves: only 17% of fintech companies have female founders and women account for less than 30% of the sector’s overall workforce.

Challenging the status quo

However, I strongly believe that it would be wrong to just focus on the gender imbalance when considering the work the industry needs to do. There is the much broader issue of a lack of diversity in the sector which also demands attention, and the two go hand in hand. Creating welcoming and inclusive professional environments for individuals from all ethnicities, cultures, sexual preferences and socio-economic cultures is crucial, and we should not make the mistake of ignoring these wider diversity issues.

Marieke Saeij

Marieke Saeij

When we review the reasons for a lack of diversity, a key part of the problem is that our future leaders often don’t recognise themselves in today’s leaders. This extends outwards in all sectors from politics to business, although it is of course worth stating that we have achieved a noticeable milestone in the former already this year with the appointment of Kamala Harris as Vice President of the United States.

Bringing it back to business, organisations that fail to hire leaders from a variety of different backgrounds and mindsets are leaving a role model gap for our younger generations. Without someone ‘like them’ to look up to, we run the risk of brilliant minds and potential future leaders being left hesitant to pursue a career in this vibrant and innovative industry.

Much of this issue stems from an inability for people to look beyond their own upbringing and background when choosing their teams. Consciously or unconsciously, many leaders hire in their mirror image, choosing to work with those that have had the same experiences as them. But in doing so, leaders are making a mistake and setting themselves up for a smaller pool from which to draw ideas and solutions. Having a diverse team often translates to generating diverse ways of thinking, with colleagues that may have a different outlook or viewpoint due to their own lived experiences all working together. This input could ultimately create a better working culture for all.

Taking small but significant actions

Big changes often come about as a result of small but significant improvements – this is a concept we are all very familiar with in the business world, for example, when we look at the work we undertake to finesse a new product or service. And so whilst broad-reaching policies can play a part in encouraging and supporting diversity in the workplace, small but significant improvements are required too, and we’re starting to see this action.

I was particularly inspired recently by seeing that a major supermarket in the Netherlands has introduced a non-binary gender option in their job application form. Whilst a small addition to the hiring process, this sets the tone at the start for a welcoming environment. As a direct result, I’m therefore looking for an ‘X’ to be included in our HR systems so people of all identifications can feel recognised and included in our organisation. It is small changes like this which add up to embedding an inclusive culture throughout a business.

However, company-wide changes and policies are not enough. Individuals have a part to play too. This includes listening to those around them from different backgrounds with different lived experiences, and then applying these learnings in the decisions they make in their personal and professional. It is also accepting our unconscious bias, as it is appreciating this fact that will allow space for difficult conversations to be had, and positive change to happen.

In short, there is work still to be done, but the impetus does not rest with any one person within an organisation alone. True diversity can only be achieved by all working together and choosing to challenge the status quo where we see it being harmful to create an inclusive and welcoming environment for all.

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