Avoiding Tokenism and Developing a True Culture of Intentional Inclusion in Fintech

Aug 29, 2023
Meghan Major

A Perspective from Our HR Lead Meghan Major

This year at Highnote has been significant for two reasons. The first is that we’ve completed tokenization as part of our product roadmap, with the ability to store our customer’s cards in any phone’s digital wallet. The second is that I’m celebrating my first Women's Equality Day after having served one full year as the HR lead at Highnote.

Reaching both of these milestones at the same time has given me an additional reason to pause and think about what this year’s Women’s Equality Day means to me and reflect on why I made the decision to join Highnote.

Cards in digital wallets and gender equity have little to do with each other in literal terms, but the concept of a token and what a token represents unites the two in an intriguing way.

The Concept of a Token

In technology terms, a token simply means something that represents something else. This is what allows us to use encrypted codes that represent someone’s physical card presented in a digital wallet.

When it comes to the sociological sense, making someone or a group of people a token refers to the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort. For example, recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of gender or racial equality within a workforce.

Tech and fintech have come a long way in creating inroads for diverse groups. And yet, the fact remains that fintech has a glaring diversity problem. So when the various affinity observances come around and every company rolls out its messaging, how do we advance true diversity, equity, and inclusion in our industry and avoid using people as tokens?

The State of Women in Fintech in 2023

I’ll start with some kudos for the fintech industry and the strides that have been made, both for women and all other groups not traditionally represented in fintech leadership – though with this being about Women’s Equality Day – I’ll hone in more on women specifically. There are now groups that provide leadership training and mentorship to women, awards, scholarships, accelerators, and a wide range of programs to help advance the position and influence of women in the fintech world.

However, fintech still has a significant diversity problem.

As an industry, it’s been markedly slower to make the sorts of gender equity progress seen in other industries. Nine out of 10 fintech firms have no women at the top, and only 5.6 percent of fintech CEOs are women. Even when women attain leadership positions in fintech, they’re primarily brought onto roles that are already more traditionally female-dominated, such as HR and marketing, as opposed to more male-dominated roles and those that control a P&L (profit & loss statement), such as operations roles.

Note – I’m not diminishing the work or importance of these roles (obviously, since HR has been my passion for many years); I’m only saying that while other industries have been more successful in sweeping changes across both subject matter AND function, fintech is still only in the former.

Coming from almost two decades of experience in human resources, particularly in growing tech start-up teams to almost three times their original size in less than two years as an HR team of one, I knew both the challenge that awaited me and the massive opportunity there was to make an impact in the space. This, and reporting directly to an impressive female COO, is precisely what excited me about Highnote.

My Own Experience

In my first conversation with our leadership, it was clear that they valued people’s experience as a professional in their field just as much as they valued people’s diverse perspectives as a person who may not “fit the traditional mold” as a leader in their industry.

As our CEO, John, puts it, “Why would I want to work with a bunch of people who look and think just like me?”

John (and the rest of the company’s sentiment) reflects a lot of existing research that greater diversity leads to better business outcomes and a better level of employee well-being. But one thing I’ve been genuinely impacted by in my time here at Highnote is how much our diverse perspectives impact not only HOW we build but also WHAT we build.

By hiring for diverse perspectives, we’ve actually impacted the level of intentionality around the types of businesses we serve. Many of our customers are companies that serve those who’ve been traditionally left outside of legacy financial systems, such as hourly workers, immigrants, people experiencing homelessness, and small business owners.

This is significant because rather than marginalized people hoping and praying large companies will reach out of their benevolence to build tools to serve them, we work with communities from the bottom up to build tools that serve and scale alongside them.

Payments impact everyone on a very personal level. Therefore, we owe it to ourselves to create products that impact people using the collective brainpower of various types of people.

How Fintech Companies Can Drive Greater Inclusion

In joining Highnote, I knew this was a company I could contribute to and be given the freedom to drive inclusion.

While no one person or institution will probably ever get it right, the work that has been done at Highnote gives me both pride and hope. There will always be work to be done, but our focus on intentional inclusion is something I feel is worth celebrating and sharing on the chance that it could help another fintech company achieve its own diversity and inclusion goals. So, my advice:

1. Commit to sharing diversity numbers with the team monthly. Maintaining our culture of transparency and communicating that we are making strides to achieve greater diversity, even if it hasn’t fully been achieved yet, makes me believe that our company wants to commit to all aspects of increasing diversity.

2. Hire for transferable skills. When we are considering a candidate, particularly from an underrepresented background who may not meet all of our criteria, my team has done an incredible job of assessing whether these candidates have any experiences that can create transferable skills. This eliminates some of the “pipeline problem” that arises in fintech because unless you make a pathway for these groups of people to obtain the needed skills, the positions will ALWAYS go to the people who already have them.

3. Make sure there is a visible mix of gender during the interview process. When hiring for roles, we often have a three-person panel as one of our steps. On this panel, one of my female colleagues in a senior role will always try to be present. We believe having the women leadership on our team visible, even when they’re not going to be a direct supervisor of the candidate, is essential, as it sends a message to potential hires that someone within our leadership ranks can relate to and identify with them.

4. Provide top-down support for bottom-up initiatives. When it comes to holiday observances that recognize different affinity groups, such as Pride Month or Black History Month, I make it very clear that we do not want to dictate what our company should do. Instead, we affirm that we support our employees in terms of company resources, time, and operational support.

Wrapping it All Up

This Women’s Equality Day, I’m happy to see that fintech has made progress in recent years, but it still has a long way to go. Having seen tech startup growth from every angle and company size, I’m excited by the way Highnote is tackling this problem. Intentional Inclusion as one of our core values is something that impressed me enough to join Highnote and continues to motivate me to stay here. Highnote’s progress proves to me that, with a few practical measures, inclusion can actually be achieved and not just paid homage to. In other words, we can continue to pursue innovations like tokenization by eliminating limiting practices like tokenism.

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