At the beginning of my career the word ‘underrepresented’ wasn’t in my vocabulary. I was a fresh London School of Economics graduate rushing around the Financial Times offices excited to be an editorial intern. Sure, there were hardly any people that looked like me around. Almost everyone was a middle aged posh white guy, but I was used to that. All my experiences of London’s corporate world, from interviews to internships, were dominated by this one type of person.
So, like all my prior work experiences, I sought out the people with whom I shared some similarities. I hung out with the other young folks, people on the grad scheme. I hung out with the other people of colour, many of whom were involved in the diversity scheme that helped me secure the internship. In the company of diverse people, I felt less like the outsider and more like part of the odd bunch. In a good way. I felt safer and more relaxed. I felt like I could be myself, ask questions without fear of embarrassment, and learn and blossom.
When I transitioned into the tech world, the word 'underrepresented' still didn't register. My first tech job was a role in Groupon’s burgeoning London office a year before the record breaking IPO. Forbes had just named us the fastest growing company ever. Promoted to a team leadership role after my first eight months I was managing a team of 4, then 5, then 10. I was 24 years old. As a London-based tech startup with lots of international managers, and hiring more and more people each week, we had an amazing diversity of nationality, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, religion and sexual orientation.
But the leadership was mostly male. I noticed male colleagues getting away with behaviour that many of us women found unprofessional. I noticed male team leaders in my department adopting aggressive management tactics with their teams to great effect. When I copied them with my team, I was labelled "scary". Literally. A direct quote from the company’s first round of 360 feedback. When I questioned my team later at the pub, one of my direct reports said that he used to find me scary, but then he started thinking of me as a guy and that made it OK. The rest of the team nodded in agreement.
I started to wish there were other women in the room, as leaders and as individual contributors, to help me fight against these ridiculous beliefs and misconceptions. Most of my headspace that week was spent digesting this information and stoking the frustration burning inside me. It was valuable mental and physical energy that could have been far better spent helping my clients, solving problems, and making the company money. I started to realise what it meant to be ‘underrepresented’ and the real opportunity cost a lack of diversity and inclusion creates.
When you have an office environment where minority groups are not treated as equals by every employee, you create an additional burden for them. The time and energy they should be spending on their job is instead consumed by the annoyance and discontent of being treated differently. Instead of having the liberty to just get on with it, they are fighting battles. They may be answering questions about their culture or identity when they should be doing value-adding work. They may be thinking about the offhand discriminatory comment a colleague made in jest when they should be doing their work. They may be thinking about which of your competitors would offer a more inclusive working environment when they should be doing their work. This is why diversity and inclusion is so important to me, there is no level playing field until it is achieved.
Abadesi Osunsade is the founder of Hustle Crew, a career advancement community for the underrepresented in tech, and the author of new careers advice book, Dream Big Hustle Hard: A Millennial Woman’s Guide to Success in Tech, available on Amazon now. She has worked at Amazon, Groupon and is currently a part of the community team at Product Hunt / AngelList.