In It for the Long Haul: Increasing Diversity in Tech Teams with Nadia Fischer
Last Friday, hundreds of thousands of people in Zurich, Geneva, Bern and other Swiss cities took it to the streets to demonstrate for equality and women’s rights. The protests organised by trade unions come almost three decades after a 1991 strike, when women demanded that a constitutional article on equality of the sexes be translated into concrete legislation.
But unequal treatment persists, including lower pay, with women on average earning up to 20% less than men. Discrimination and the difficulty of combining work and family are also issues, especially in the tech industry.
At witty works, Nadia Fischer is tackling these issues with two other women from a professional and educational perspective. The witty works team’s mission is it to finally crack the code for the crucial representation of women in tech and digital teams. In order to create technology by all and for all. They help tech teams to find and keep female talents, a major precondition for creating better products and services, thereby boosting innovation and growth.
We talked to Nadia to dig a little deeper into the topic of diversity and inclusion in Swiss companies.
You have quite some experiences in completely different fields of business. When were you personally first confronted with the topic of diversity?
The first time was around two years after my studies. I studied international relations and then went on to work at the VBS (Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport) even though I don’t have a military track record. A colleague of mine was doing the exact same job, but he was earning more than I did, due to his military rank (which had been transparently communicated). But that was the first time I thought something was off. A few years later I encountered it again when I was working in a big retail company and wanted to relocate to a different country for the company. I already had a kid at the time, but knew that my husband was also supporting that decision. At the time they said it wasn’t possible and that the role wasn’t available, but shortly after that, they sent a man in my place.
Companies with diverse teams are more successful.
You are working with many different companies to help them increase diversity in their teams. Are they open to change processes or thought-patterns according to your advice?
It can be a bit tricky. Organisations are more successful if they have more diverse teams and there are many studies proving this. One of them is the BCG study on diversity and innovation that was conducted in Europe, which concluded that companies with female representation on the board and on all other levels and functions, are more successful, more resilient and more consistent. It’s not a question of believing it’s true — it has been proven to be true. We are being approached by many companies, who learn about these studies and facts and don’t want to miss out on the chances they provide.
There are different types of clients:
- Sometimes you realise quite fast that they actually don’t want to change anything because they think they already got it all figured out. They don’t really feel the need to change anything (yet). And that’s just how it is.
- Then there are the companies that kind of want to change something, but it never really goes beyond lip-service. So they include it in their job postings or on the website, but concrete initiatives are missing. Some big corporations also hire people for diversity & inclusion, but these people then often end up in frustrating situations as they don’t actually have any internal power to create a lasting impact (changing promotion principles, changing hiring and recruiting processes etc.)
- And then there are the companies that really want to tackle the issue: These companies are usually not very big or renowned and for them it’s even more important as it’s not as easy for them to find great talent as for big corporations. They dedicate the time and resources needed to implement a positive change in internal processes and culture.
What frustrates me is people and companies saying they want more diversity, but then nothing happens.
So, does that mean it is harder to incorporate a change in culture and processes when you have already reached a certain size as a company?
Absolutely. Whenever we talk to young startups, we tell them to start working on their diversity strategy immediately — especially when it comes to the hiring process. Biases should be eliminated from the beginning and the whole recruiting process should be neutral. As you grow, pressure grows with you and things have to get done faster. Once the bro-culture has been established, it’s hard to change that. The problem is that they then continue to hire similar people and diversity gets lost on the way. It is much harder to then implement important changes, so it’s better to do things right from the start. That’s also what we teach the incubatees at the CV Labs Incubation Program, where I am a startup mentor.
There is only so much you can do in recruiting. The root of the problem lies somewhere else: In the way we teach girls in schools about career paths and how we already put them on a different track at a young age. What are your thoughts on this and what has to change?
There are various options. I grew up with people saying “Boys are good at math and girls are good at languages”, I think that’s not the case anymore today, as teachers and parents know that these types of stereotypes do more harm than good.
But during the important phase of career choice, we encounter a different problem: Job descriptions. Most of them are addressing men, using male job titles and phrasing. As a young woman browsing job descriptions, even with knack for mathematics and analytics, you don’t feel addressed by them. These job descriptions need to change.
To give you an example: Frontend developers, product designers or UI/UX designers today need more than just technical skills. They need empathy and the ability to look at something from a users perspective. They need to be able to empathise with the end-user to build the best product for them. Additionally, they need to have great communication skills to coordinate with different departments within the company. But you rarely read that in a job description and that’s what has to change.
Additionally, we need more platforms for women. I wish the media would portrait more successful women in different roles as this would help girls and women to find role models, which is important to boost motivation, ambition and self-confidence.
We have the best educated generation of women in the history of mankind. 60% of university graduates are women.
Many people argue they don’t want to hire women instead of men just for the sake of increasing female representation. They are afraid to hire someone less-skilled in the name of diversity or to reach a quota. What’s your take on this?
One has to consider that we have the best educated generation of women in the history of mankind. 60% of university graduates are women — less in tech, although there are many other ways to get great education in the tech industry apart from studying at schools like ETH. In the end the problem lies in the recruiting process. Once you neutralise your recruiting process, you realise that women are just as good, and in some cases maybe even better suited for a role. We tend to hire people, who are like us. If I know someone likes to free-climb in their private time, I establish a connection through that and automatically tend towards hiring this person. But we don’t need more of the same –we need more diversity. And diversity doesn’t come from recruiting processes based on gut feelings. But this is something we can change through neutralising the process and that’s exactly what we’re aiming at with our work at witty works.
And by the way, companies shouldn’t increase diversity just for the sake of it, but actually look at it from a business and profit perspective.
We know today, that for example in investment banking, women tend to perform better. When a man makes profit with a smart investment, his testosterone levels go through the roof. Induced through that high testosterone level, they then start taking higher risks. Now for women, making profit with a trade doesn’t have any hormonal consequences. They stay more calm and focused in that same situation. So on average, female investment bankers actually perform better than their male colleagues in the long-term.
How is Switzerland doing in terms of diversity?
Not well. If you look at the recently released OECD scale on glass-ceiling, you find Switzerland on rank 26 out of 29. Possible reasons for that might be the fact that it is possible in Switzerland for a woman to stay home, while the man brings home the money. Additionally, our system makes it very hard for women to go back to work after having started a family. Childcare is incredibly expensive (up to 50% of a full time salary), then we have the so-called marriage penalty* and thirdly, only women get paternal leave after the birth of a child. Men only get one day. And that certainly doesn’t help breaking traditional gender roles — even if couples are trying to.
Take Sweden as an example: They addressed these three issues on a political level (childcare, taxes for married couples and parental leave for both parents) and that’s when things started to change visibly.
It is important to create a framework in which all women and couples can make their own decisions on how to organise themselves as parents. Some women are happy to stay at home to take care of the family — which is a full-time job itself. But they shouldn’t be forced to do that because the system and framework (which includes companies) make it so incredibly hard for them to re-join the workforce.
What has to change for us to do better on diversity and inclusion?
It all starts with the companies. And that’s where we start with witty works when consulting them. We have to be aware that we have created male company cultures over the last century. After the industrialisation, the companies we have today, were built on that capitalistic, male culture and on the idea of people being 100% available for their employer. That also means that while at work, all you are is a worker and not actually a human being at work. You are there to deliver your work. What gets lost in that system, is the person as a whole, as a human being. But if you accept your employees as actual human people with strengths, weaknesses, personal matters, ambition, ups and downs, you will see an increase in productivity. Companies, who have started incorporating more flexible working models and reasonable part-time roles, have more motivated and productive employees because they feel welcome and accepted as a whole.
Today, in most jobs, you don’t have to be sitting 8.5h a day in an office to do your job and that’s actually a big chance for a big talent-pool that has been having a hard time finding exciting roles: Motivated, talented and skilled mothers and fathers looking for part-time or flexible job positions that allow the compatibility or personal and professional responsibilities.
So yes, the change starts with the companies and they have to do more than just lip-service. They have to walk the talk and lead by example and live the culture they want to foster.
Like always, change takes time. What we do is educate people, who want to listen and we show them how to incorporate that change and how that change will also help their business in the longterm. No matter how open and progressive we think we are, it’s important for all of us to recognise that we all have unconscious biases and that we can all improve the situation by addressing these, educating ourselves and drive change in company cultures and processes.
About Nadia Fischer
Nadia is a founder of witty works. She originally studied International Relations at IUHEI in Geneva but got bored with politics. Often travelling and even managing a hotel in the pampa of Chile, she finally moved into tech because that is where innovation happens. First as Head of Marketing in a San Francisco based startup, she then became Scrum Product Owner and Business Developer for the Swiss based web agency Liip. From her role as Head of Product Owners at PwC, she got specialized in agile coaching for corporate digital transformations.
Her conviction: “My daughter’s life will be determined by technology. But unconscious biases of mainly male programmers will create a future that neglects the needs of her and all other women. With witty.works I want to change that.”
About witty works
Our Mission: witty works’ mission is to finally crack the code for the crucial representation of women in tech and digital teams. In order to create technology by all and for all. We ensure that tech teams find and keep female talents, a major precondition for creating better products and services, thereby boosting innovation & growth.
Why We Started: We, the founders, all have worked in tech teams and have experienced ourselves that diverse teams develop better products. And its more fun working in a diverse environment. By now, research has proven that impression: Diverse teams are more innovative.
Secondly, the world will be technology driven. It is not safe to have these technologies created by only one main socio-demographic group. To make sure that the needs of the whole population are taken into account, we need diverse teams who consider different perspectives. Thus making sure that we create a future for all.
*Currently in Switzerland when two people get married their incomes are combined and taxed jointly, meaning they can lose out compared to cohabiting couples who are taxed separately and therefore each have a tax-free allowance.