How do we make the emerging FinTech industry more inclusive and diverse?

Last week, Ada’s List hosted a breakfast with Rise London on the topic of how to increase female representation in financial technology, and how to make the industry more diverse and inclusive. The group didn’t mince words, and we had an honest and frank discussion, the headlines of which I think a lot of people will benefit from.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the session:

The accelerator model isn’t built for women

Many female entrepreneurs in FinTech are women with many years’ experience, possibly with families. The current model of a 3, 6 or 9 month accelerator attracts people (mostly younger men) who have the capacity to go through an aggressive, time-intensive module (often working 24/7) for their startup. This attitude doesn’t work with women, and nor, usually, does the schedule. In addition, women at that stage largely do not prefer to be surrounded by an environment of alpha males, which typically forms the bulk of the community in such accelerators. Accelerators also promote themselves as intense programmes, not doing anything to attract qualified female entrepreneurs who might not enjoy such an environment - there is a lot of data to show that women only typically apply for jobs if they feel they meet 100% of the criteria, and if applications for these programmes indicate they need to have the aggressive mentality they don’t have, they might not bother.

Don’t talk down to women

The women around the table narrated a couple of instances where qualified and talented female entrepreneurs were talked down to by older male investors. It’s rarely the same for male entrepreneurs, who get coached by the same men rather than talked down to.

Team diversity matters

The diversity of teams matters when you’re building a business without doubt - there’s a lot of data to support the fact that diverse businesses are simply more successful. But beyond that, diversity in teams in the venture world is as important. When due diligence is being done, for example, if the make-up of the team is young and male, there might be a tendency to put through startups with a similar demographic composition. Currently the number of female VCs is also pitiful and is an indicator of how extensive the problem is - only 7% of partners in the top 100 VC firms are women, according to research by Crunchbase.

Building a digital culture

While building businesses from the ground up, it’s important to think about how to build a digital culture. How do we think of aspects of human rights, strategy, development, design and more while building a company that people want to work at? How do we invent a new culture of financial services? Following on from the point above, how do we establish a due diligence process that looks at the culture of the team, not just the finances of the team (I’d wager that if people had looked under the hood of Uber from a culture perspective, the more discerning VCs wouldn’t have poured money into what is now a leaking hole).

What’s the incentive for men?

It has been said, and continues to be, that it is important to involve men in the conversation about increasing diversity in businesses, because otherwise we are largely preaching to the converted. We discussed what the incentive might be for men to do this. Recently, for example, workaholism was celebrated in an episode of the Apple-backed TV show ‘Planet of the Apps’, something they rightly got criticised for. That sort of culture shouldn’t be celebrated, and as part of that we need to incentivise men to celebrate quality of life, not working-till-you’re-dead. This is especially important because in most companies it is men who have political clout and power. The question then becomes, how do we motivate men to uncover unconscious bias in a manner that makes them want to take action on it? There are plenty of unconscious bias training sessions now - Facebook and Google especially have some great modules online - but it’s also been said that most people who turn up to those sessions are those who already have an interest in changing themselves.

Don’t gender employee needs

We also spoke about how it is important to recognise that everyone has needs outside of work - they may be for caring for children or parents, or just to play a game of football. One FinTech startup who attended is trialling flexible working where they don’t care about your work hours and what you do as long as the work gets done. That way we don’t need to ‘gender’ needs outside of work - after all, both men and women have parental responsibilities. Unfortunately it is usually the mother who takes on the bulk of caring duties, but potentially policies like this will encourage men to take on a bigger role at home.

Creating inclusive cultures

One of the participants spoke about how she worked in a FinTech startup founded by two young males, but the culture of the company was very inclusive and they made a special effort to make sure that women didn’t feel out of place. We then discussed whether it is a generational thing: do companies run by older men have a propensity to be less inclusive as they are less aware of the issue?

Being intentional during hiring

One of the participants worked for a FinTech startup that had a female co-founder and a high percentage of women on the board and on the executive team. She spoke about how as a computer science graduate she was one of a handful of females in her graduating class, and admitted there is a smaller pool of female technical talent to choose from. However during the hiring process, where she sits in on all interviews, the team makes sure that they try and hire for diversity across not just gender but cultures - and they seem to be succeeding.

On a related note, we spoke about how we might avoid gendering job descriptions. Talking about a ‘learning organisation’ is more likely to attract women, for example. Talking about output of roles instead of focussing on specific skills or working hours is also more likely to attract women. (There are already tools like Textio which can parse your job descriptions for gender-biased language).

Equally, someone mentioned how it important for individuals to set boundaries. As a senior member of the team, she refused to work during weekends on principle, even as she worked overtime when needed during the week, because for her weekends were sacred. If more CEOs who are not as empathetic as they need to be hear things like this from employees they count on, it might help things change for the better for everyone. Of course, this is likely to work only for very senior employees.

Women, help other women

Unfortunately sometimes it is the case that women don’t help other women enough. We all know what Madeleine Albright said about there being a special place in hell reserved for women who don’t help other women, but the experience of some women in the room indicated that there are - still - some senior women who do not extend a helping hand to fellow women.

Policies need to change from the top

We didn’t get to the answer for this, but we spoke about how alongside developing policies, we need to develop metrics and KPIs to hold people accountable for ensuring diversity and inclusion in businesses. If anyone has any suggestions, give us a shout!

Huge thanks to Amina Ahmad at Rise London for hosting the discussion and presenting it with us. Rise is Barclays’ open innovation programme, and in London is rooted in its new workspace in Luke Street, where many FinTech startups have made their home.

June 17, 2017
Anjali Ramachandran