Yesterday, the Women in IT Global Summit took place online, but the calibre of the speakers, the quality of the conversations, and the level of engagement from the audience felt anything but remote – a major theme of the day was remote working and mental health.
Working through COVID-19 peppered the conversations between the day’s hosts and speakers, where mental health during remote working was a popular talking point.
The audience was particularly engaged in the plight of working mothers during the pandemic, including how patience has dropped among colleagues regarding children disrupting working days.
EMEA Diversity & Inclusion Leader at Amazon Web Services, Lindsay Hewitt, moderated the afternoon conversation entitled: “Progress Made & Lost in Equity.” Taking part was Shani Dhanda, a London-based disability activist, speaker, and Virgin Media’s Work With Me Ambassador, and Washington DC-based Zakiya Mabery, who is the Founder of B.Global Diversity & Inclusion Strategic Planning LLC, a company that provides D&I solutions to help organisations achieve real impact.
Remote working and mental health
Hewitt kicked off the conversation by focusing on mental health and remote working during the pandemic. She agreed with the speakers that while remote working can be a leveller, it’s made supporting employees’ mental health harder, which could widen the equity gap for working mothers and those with disabilities.
“I would say right now we’re experiencing four crises. It’s the pandemic, the economic unrest, the civil unrest, and then mental health,” said Mabery. “We need to check on our peers and colleagues. Do they have their camera on when they’re doing visual presentations or learning experiences? Maybe if not, we should do a check to see why not. We still can check on people to see if they’re okay.”
Mabery went on to say that employees with unseen disabilities have been one of the worst-hit groups and advised employers to take notice of “subtle differences” such as changes in their appearance which could indicate if they are struggling:
“I know this all too well, being an individual who self-identifies with multiple disabilities, three of which are mental health impairments. We need to do a better job of checking on individuals to see how they’re doing.”
Dhanda added: “I’m a South Asian woman who experiences disability. To share an example of the South Asian community, there’s a huge stigma in accessing mental health support and services; we don’t even have the correct language to talk about mental health conditions.”
Following the end of the pandemic, all agreed remote working can offer more positives including flexibility which allows a more diverse body of candidates to apply for roles they might never have applied to before due to their unseen and/or physical disabilities.
Another positive of remote working, Dhanda said, was engaging with colleagues on a more personal level than an office environment could ever offer: “I feel much more connected to the people I work with because suddenly, we have an insight into their personal lives, their living space, and who they’re with when they’re working.”
The conversation then moved to the understandings of diversity and inclusion in corporate organisations, and what can be done to implement these aspects more effectively.
Diversity, inclusion and “belonging”
The three participants used the analogy that diversity is “being invited to the party” but inclusion is “choosing the playlist”, and agreed that implementing the former without considering the latter leads to ineffectual implementations.
Hewitt said: “It’s why I and the organisation that I work in consciously make an effort to put inclusion before diversity. You can have all the metrics, you can put all the initiatives in place to hire diverse talent, but if you haven’t addressed the culture of inclusion, you will hire some amazing people. Still, if they don’t feel they can be their authentic self and have an equal seat at the table, they’re heading straight out the door.”
From inclusion, the conversation steered to belonging, which all agreed was an aspect of inclusion. Mabery outlined a lack of belonging as being invited to a meeting but not being encouraged to speak up or contribute. She went on to say that allyship plays a big role in fostering inclusion, where those that are attending meetings or being allowed space to ‘speak up’ should ask why certain people aren’t being included or their contributions considered.
The speakers agreed that using the privilege of voice was key to enacting inclusive change in an organisation while Dhanda said you don’t have to be from a minority group to do it: “Don’t be afraid or let that hold you back” she said. “Because sometimes not saying anything at all is worse than getting something wrong.”
What the next-generation want from employers
From remote working and mental health to the workforce of tomorrow; “Your Future Talent Pool ” was hosted by Vanessa Vakharia, Founder and CEO of The Math Guru, a Toronto-based maths and science tutoring company. The three guest speakers, all based in Canada, voiced their thoughts on what they want from their future workplace.
There was high-schooler, Riya Karumanchi, who is the Founder of SmartCane, a business that provides disabled people with a cane that can detect hazards, navigates, and share its location with the user’s family, friends and carers. Marley Melbourne, the Founder of “Casual” Zine, a magazine featuring young people’s artistic works also joined as did Nicole Ooi, a computer engineering student.
Ooi offered her thoughts on what she wants her future employers to offer: “Other than the obvious answer of saying having a diverse and inclusive workplace, I would say having the opportunity for job enrichment,” she said. “By this, I mean professional development opportunities. In large corporations, entry-level roles can be quite rigid, and their tasks are really laid out. This isn’t bad, but young women are often looking to explore a company and expand their interests.”
One of Ooi’s interests, which Melbourne seconded, was working for a company with a wider social mission that is upheld and proven. “Whatever social or environmental goal they set out for themselves, it’s important for them to hold themselves accountable,” said Melbourne. “I just want it to be demonstrated and maybe to be of an intersectional nature so that it can have some value that’s similar to my own passions and interests as that would make me interested and empowered when working there.”
The conversation then turned to the inclusion of women and ethnic minorities in tech, where Melbourne detailed how she was put off from taking tech courses at school due to the prevalence of stereotypes that the industry is heavily white and male. This, she said, led to her reluctance to pursue any STEM-related subjects at a higher level. Since then, she has spoken to more women in tech and now regrets falling prey to notions that young women like herself aren’t the right fit for the STEM world.
Karumanchi then referred to the “bro” culture problem in Silicon Valley. She said that businesses needed to do more to show women they have the skills to play a role in these organisations.
To find out more about the Women in IT Global and its organisers, click here.