Over-indexing on action to create cognitively diverse teams

I remember being on a “women in tech” panel a few years back and getting asked a question along the lines of “So, Paula, how long do you think it will be before we can stop having these kinds of panel discussions?” I paused for a while and answered honestly but far too optimistically. “With some of the great initiatives I’m seeing, it looks promising. It feels like things are moving in the right direction”. Wow, was I wrong. Seven years later, and look where we are. International Women’s Day was days ago, and here I am, composing a piece about the exact same topic. 

Things have changed in my world, though. And this has played a big part in uncloaking a whole new perspective about how important it is to over-index on action. I’ve had a beautiful baby girl (Kit) who’s about to turn 1. This has made me think more deeply about what she’ll have the opportunity to do and be in the future. If she wants to be an astronaut, a chess world champion, a cybersecurity expert, or a Nobel Prize winner, there should be nothing stopping her. No perceived ideas about what she should or shouldn’t do—and nothing holding her back. I can only hope that there are role models out there to look up to in her chosen field. After all, the adage holds true: you cannot be what you cannot see. 

Other things that have changed? I’ve co-founded a sci-tech company, Mass Dynamics (MD), and am facing the diversity and inclusion challenge point-blank. We are committed to building the most cognitively diverse team possible because we know how important this is to the long-term success of the company. Why so important? Because cognitively diverse teams ask more questions, find more problems, and ultimately solve more problems.

I hear about companies that focus on gender diversity, with the measure of success being a specific male to female ratio, and my gut instinct tells me that this is simply weird. While gender diversity is fundamental, other kinds of diversity are important too. Women and underrepresented groups shouldn’t feel like they are token team members, “making up the numbers”.

Though small, we have the drive to do big things 

And that’s why Team MD has started a new initiative - #massGeek Office Hours. An opportunity for individuals from underrepresented groups to hang out with any MD team member to get advice on any topic - from coding to mass spectrometry, startup life to data science. It’s the ultimate chance for us to create shared value: MD has the opportunity to hang out with diverse talent and hone our communication skills. And the person attending Office Hours gets the chance to share their challenges, ideas or meet a team doing very important work. And to be honest, we would love the chance to regularly mingle with those outside our direct team - a sense of serendipity that we’ve certainly seen less of in this new COVID-normal world.

So what exactly are Diversity and Inclusion?

Here’s something that may not be google-able. Over the years I’ve heard countless talks about these topics, and it wasn’t until I heard it framed this way that I could start classifying initiatives and goals better in my mind. I now articulate and differentiate the terms as follows:

  1. Diversity - the “what”, the makeup of teams. Some ideas of initiatives to help could include ensuring your organisation is doing everything possible to build a diverse pool of talented individuals in their broader communities. This can be achieved by way of grassroots - for example, appropriately-positioned initiatives in schools (check out Marita Cheng’s TED talk about how we can teach our kids to be makers) or initiatives for individuals that have already started a career (check out Maya Vendhan’s TEDx talk about how you can change your career and change the world and +1 about the women’s bathroom lines being non-existent at tech conferences!). 
  2. Inclusion - the “how”, the culture you have in place to allow diversity to thrive. Some ideas of initiatives here could include ensuring your organisation leads with empathy, has ways for all employees to have their say, and creates a safe space for experimenting and failing. If movies are more your style, you should check out Code: Debugging the Gender Gap. Directed by Robin Hauser Reynolds, it explores the complex reasons why the gender gap exists today and why inclusion is so important to achieve. 

I’ve handcrafted a list of initiatives and organisations that are tackling the Diversity and Inclusion challenge head-on at the end of this post.

But what about the deep-seated culture already ingrained in our psyche? 

There are many reasons why we are presented with the Diversity and Inclusion challenges we face today. One of them, of course, is the fact that, traditionally, women have tended to the family as primary carers.  

In fact, Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS, 2017) data show that one in twenty Australian fathers use primary carer’s leave. While mothers are more likely to use primary carer’s leave, fathers and partners make up 95% of all secondary carer’s leave claims. 

I'd like to share a personal memoir to help explain why it's so important for society to break through this mindset. To set the scene, let's rewind to 2020 - the year we will never forget. The infamous COVID-19 pandemic lockdown changed the way we all lived for over six months. I was a full-time working mum with a newborn and a preschooler who wasn’t allowed to attend childcare. With my husband, Tim, also working full time, it was all about doing enough to survive. At Mass Dynamics, we were closing a pre-seed capital raise and trying to get a federal grant over the line - all while building a product and a business at the same time (with a measly 2.4 FTEs and a whole lot of persistence). Survival, indeed. 

The game-changer for us as a family unit was the decision that Tim would stop working and care for the kids for 6 months. Not only did it allow me to focus on the business, but it gave him the chance to appreciate the mental shift into parenthood I went through five years prior. Another side effect? Our five-year-old Roy, could see firsthand that fathers can be primary carers - an invaluable life lesson at an impressionable age. 

While this experience is not unique to everyone, I urge everyone to try it - even if it’s only a slight shift in routine. It builds empathy and really tests employers to see if they can support families as they create small changes in the way we navigate parental responsibilities. Mass Dynamics is experimenting with some of these approaches - from employing part-time staff who are also primary carers of their kids to being flexible about where an employee is working from, so they can better accommodate parenting logistics. While one of the MD co-founders, Giuseppe Infusini, is now officially full-time at MD, there is flexibility for him to have flexible “work shifts” to ensure he can care for his family. 

I’m incredibly heartened when I read about companies that have introduced game-changing parental programs. From REA Group to Novartis to Deloitte, a growing number of organisations are realising that it’s not only up to women to be the primary family carer. Annabel Crabb put it perfectly in her book, The Wife Drought: “If we are serious about equality, stop worrying so exclusively about women’s ease of access to the workplace and start worrying more about men’s ease of egress from it. Women have trouble asking for pay rises and men have trouble asking for time off.” This book and other useful reads are referenced in the Appendix at the end of this post.

In closing I urge you to take action, today:

  • It’s never been more important to ensure there is cognitive diversity on our teams today. While I have focussed on STEM and startup- related teams, the same rule applies to all kinds of teams. 
  • A great place to start is thinking about diversity as the “what” (the makeup of the team) and inclusion as the “how” (the culture you have in place to allow diversity to thrive). And then quickly get into the frame of action - and don’t be afraid to experiment with something and monitor progress.
  • Consider how you’re encouraging all diversity, not just gender diversity.
  • Support the organisations and movements that are pushing for diversity and inclusion to be an everyday part of doing good business.

True impact takes actions, not words. There’s no better time than now to start influencing the kind of opportunities that are available in the future for little people like Kit. She shouldn’t have to wait the next 100 years for change. Together we can get there quicker. #WhenWillSheBeRight.


Useful books

Over the years, I’ve built up a list of favourite books that have made a difference to me and helped shaped my outlook. I encourage you to check them out and apply what makes sense for you. 

Top initiatives supporting women leaders successful in STEM and/or startup businesses 

If you’re biased for action you may enjoy the work from groups who are “walking the walk”. Should you have the resources, supporting these initiatives could be a great way to contribute to creating change. Whether it’s offering your super skill to pay learning opportunities forward or sponsoring refreshments and pizza at a community event, every bit helps.

  1. YOW! New voices in tech led by Michele Playfair and her team is the culmination of YOW’s efforts to encourage gender diversity in tech conference speakers.
  2. Atto VC, Scale Angels and Working Theory Angels - lead by (respectively) Kate Kendall, Ariane Barker (former CEO, and now Chelsea Newell co-CEO - congrats!) and Rachael Neumann, each helping female founders launch and grow tech companies.
  3. One Roof - led by Sheree Rubenstein with the aim to bring female leaders and entrepreneurs together.
  4. Startmate Fellowship - led by Sophia Witherington. A pathway for talented women to find their sweet spot in a rocket ship startup. 
  5. Code like a Girl - led by Ally Watson - a social enterprise providing girls and women with the confidence to enter and flourish in the world of coding. 
  6. R-Ladies - a worldwide organisation championing the cause of gender diversity in the R (programming language) community
  7. FeMS - a community-led initiative to create a network of support for women in the field of mass spectrometry. 
  8. Champions of Change. A great resource to help men step up and do their part in the diversity and inclusion challenge.
  9. Circle In - led by Jodi Geddes and Kate Pollard. A program providing parents and businesses a means to become more versatile. “When working parents get the support they need, everyone benefits.” 
  10. Tracey Chou has a GitHub repo dedicated to capturing the female numbers in tech. It also houses a google doc that enables companies to expose their respective numbers. While I don’t advocate diversity being purely a numbers game, I find it a useful resource to check out which companies have great gender diversity and note the trends in how they attract and retain diverse talent.

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