StoriesDiversity and inclusion10 March 20216 min

#WisdomWednesday: Let’s get to work on inclusion

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On March 8th we celebrated International Women’s Day, a moment to stop and consider where we are on women’s rights. Meanwhile recent hate crimes have shown us that we still have a long way to go when it comes to building an inclusive society. So how can startups contribute to creating more diversity and inclusion? Here’s some thoughts on how we can get to work.

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The benefits of diversity & inclusion are undeniable

Just in case you need a refresher, we’ve explained in this blog how diversity strengthens your organisation and in this one how it makes your company more agile. While diversity is more about who you have on board, inclusion is about how you value their contributions and perspectives. Research has shown time and again that a diverse and inclusive workforce gets better results and brings in more revenue. For startups looking to scale internationally, having people with diverse backgrounds on the team helps them connect to a variety of audiences and adapt to new markets. Bringing different viewpoints together drives new ideas, fuels innovation and makes companies more change-ready. Not to mention that it makes employees feel more engaged and committed, boosting the company’s reputation.

Start it @KBC startups like engagement platform Citizenlab don’t need to be convinced that more diversity and inclusion is the way forward. Founder Aline Muylaert remarked on the increased focus on diversity among entrepreneurs: “I’ve noticed a trend among startups, partly thanks to Start it @KBC, which puts a lot of emphasis on diversity. At Citizenlab we’re also working on improving our balance. It’s not just about the gender of your employees, it’s also about embracing a more feminine way of doing business and interacting with each other.”

It also hasn’t been lost to companies like dashboard solution that a culturally inclusive workforce helps companies think global. “We consciously hire people of different cultures and backgrounds to better serve people around the world,” says CEO Karel Callens. Fortunately the startup scene in Belgium is becoming more and more international, thanks to communities like Start it @KBC that draw international startups looking to use Belgium as a home base. Forty nationalities and counting!

Still lots of work to do

On International Women’s Day, Start it @KBC mentor Dewi Van De Vyver (CEO van Flow Pilots and ICT Woman of the Year 2020) and our CEO Lode Uytterschaut made a passionate appeal to entrepreneurs and business leaders to push for more diversity. Too many companies, young and old, are still a boy’s club. While it’s clear that complementarity between genders leads to better results, the business landscape just isn’t changing fast enough. Of course it starts with business leaders wanting to see the problem.

Did we expect the glass ceiling would have been completely shattered by now? Not really. But we didn’t expect the regressive developments of 2020. A rise in xenophobia and hate is sending chills through society. Inclusion still isn’t really on the radar for a lot of organisations. Juries and speaker panels are still made up of 80% men. All you have to do is open a Belgian business magazine and compare the number of photos with men and women. The gender quota is still under fire. We still have a long way to go.

The good news: there has been progress over the past years too. There’s no shortage of awards, events and conversations about diversity. Attendees do tend to be mostly women, who are well aware of the issues facing them. Men don’t feel like they are being spoken to. And not always without reason: female-friendliness starts with creating a genuinely welcoming environment for women, not designing an environment from the male perspective. But we need everyone on board to make the shift. We see the same thing when it comes to race. Often companies think they’ve done enough by checking the boxes, but hiring for diversity is just the start. Allowing a diversity of voices to be heard and giving everyone an equal shot at more responsibility takes a change of culture.

Diversity guru Hassan Al Hilou has lots of experience with this: “In other countries people are very open about diversity in the business world, and it grows upwards in the company hierarchy very naturally. But in the Belgian business world we always encounter the same character: the old white guy. Once I was speaking at a high-level event for 150 CEOs and I only saw two women and not a single non-white. That’s when I started with AGE Consultancy and I now take great pleasure in speaking with companies and analysing their diversity in terms of age, gender and ethnicity.”

Put your money where your mouth is

So how can your company step up their diversity and inclusion game? Start by looking in the mirror. In order to make the cultural shifts necessary to cultivate inclusion, companies have to take a good look at ways they may be stifling the diversity of employees as well as their voices. Do people feel accepted as they are? Do they feel they can speak up and share their thoughts and ideas? How are decisions made and problems solved? How are biases permitted to take hold? Why do you have 50% women on board but only 15% in senior management? Listen to your employees, a mentor or a consultant and getting some honest (and sometimes, uncomfortable) answers will help you grow.

Diversity is a very, well, inclusive concept. It includes age, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, culture, economic background, you name it. So make sure your focus on diversifying your workforce isn’t too narrow. Upping your inclusion factor by allowing for a diversity of voices won’t just help you attract a more multicultural workforce, it will also help you leverage the wealth of perspectives you already have on board: on your team, in your community, among your (potential) customers. Because diversity is not just something you achieve, it’s a mindset. And it starts with you.

How is your company working on becoming more diverse and inclusive? We’d love to hear your voice!