Avoiding Tokenism and Developing a True Culture of Intentional Inclusion in Fintech: A Perspective from Our COO Nicola Morris

Mar 10, 2023
Nicola Morris

This March at Highnote has been significant for two reasons. The first is that we’re adding tokenization to our product roadmap, with the ability to store Highnote co-branded cards in any phone’s digital wallet. The second is that I’m celebrating my first Women's History Month after serving one full year as the Chief Operating Officer of Highnote.

Reaching these milestones simultaneously has given me an extra reason to pause and think about what this year’s Women’s History Month means to me and to reflect on why I joined Highnote in the first place.

Of course, 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

Screenshot 2023-03-10 at 12.48.49 PM.png 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 cards presented in a digital wallet.

In 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 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 – far beyond where it was when I was first starting off my career. And yet, the fact remains that fintech has a glaring diversity problem. So when March rolls around and every company hauls out its messaging on International Women’s Day, how do we advance true diversity, equity, and inclusion in our industry and avoid using people as tokens?

While no one person or institution will probably ever get it right, the experience I’ve had at Highnote, and the experience we still work daily to try to create for others gives me a lot of hope. Highnote is not perfect, and will likely never be, but our focus on intentional inclusion is something I feel is worth celebrating.

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. There are now groups, like Women in Payments, 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. But 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 do 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. The majority of women executives (26%) in the sector hold the position of chief people officer or head of HR, followed by chief marketing officer and chief financial officer.

So, on paper, gains can appear to be made in terms of greater gender equality, but peeling back the layers reveals some tougher truths.

This naturally leads us to the “pipeline problem,” a common sentiment that more fintech companies WOULD hire women to more positions of leadership, but there are simply not enough qualified candidates to be found.

Peel back the layers again, however, and you find a different potential culprit: the underlying culture in our industry. According to research from EY that examined diversity in the fintech industry in the UK, (June 2022) 63% of female respondents to a survey believe their gender impacted how they are perceived professionally, compared to just 27% of men. Additionally, only 80% of women at fintech feel their ideas are acted upon, compared to 94% of men. Finally, when it comes to compensation, 42% of men claimed to have negotiated on compensation, compared to 32% of women, and 69% of men received all or nearly all of what they asked for, compared to 51% of women.

Fintech, it seems, suffers particularly from the “Twitter equal pay bot syndrome,” or, the practice of appearing to champion women and other minorities on a surface level, until one digs into the deeper data - revealing that all may not be as it seems.

My Own Experience


I don’t like to brag about myself, but one thing I will never do is reduce my extensive experience as a payments veteran down to serving as a token. I have built real value for the companies I’ve served.

So when I was first interviewing for a job at Highnote, and I heard the familiar refrain about inclusion, I thought it was yet again another “nice” sounding corporate soundbite, but not one that truly resonated with me as someone whose value as a professional is so much more than my gender.

In my first conversation with our CEO John, it was immediately apparent that this was not the case. Instead, it was clear that he valued my experience as a seasoned professional in the industry just as much as he valued my diverse perspective as a woman leader in our industry. The two were equally important for the overall success of the role. And that’s because the real value of intentional inclusion, as I’ve seen on display here at Highnote, is that each individual, with their unique experiences, brings one more dimension to our organization that would otherwise not exist.

There were other actions I saw the company taking that convinced me there were more than token gestures happening here.

They included:

- Committing 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 trust more that our company wants to commit to all aspects of increasing diversity, and not just waiting for the moment when we look our best.

- Hiring for transferable skills. When we are considering a candidate, particularly from an underrepresented background who may not meet all of our criteria, our HR 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 I had mentioned earlier, because unless you make a pathway for these groups of people to obtain these skills, the positions will ALWAYS go to the people who already have them.

- Making sure women are visible in 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 or I 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 important, as it sends a message to potential hires that someone within our leadership ranks can relate to them and identify with them.

- Providing 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, John and I make it very clear that we do not want to dictate what our company should do. Instead, we affirm that we’ve got their back, in terms of company resources, time, and operational support.

Why Intentional Inclusion Matters

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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 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 down 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 touch everyone and impact every person on a very personal level. We owe it to ourselves to create products that impact so many people using the collective brainpower of many different types of people as well.

Wrapping it All Up

This Women’s History Month, I’m happy to see that fintech has made lots of strides in recent years, but based on all the evidence, it still has a long way to go. Having been in the industry for a long time, I’m excited by the way Highnote is tackling this problem. Intentional Inclusion is something that impressed me enough to join Highnote and has motivated me enough to keep me 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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