Trying to build a gender balanced business

4 people engaged in conversation about gender diversity

Written by Jon Rhodes, Co-Founder at Paper, user research and design studio

If you’ve seen anything lately about gender diversity in the workplace, it can be pretty grim reading.

A recent report by McKinsey & Company, taking findings from a decade of research, highlighted that less than 50% of employees believe their company is doing what it takes to improve gender diversity.

The Office for National Statistics reported that men earned 18% more than women in April 2017.

Google says that only 20% of its tech team are women (this increases to 48% for non-technical roles). And, following the gender pay gap report in April 2018, the BBC reported that of the companies to submit their figures, 78% pay men more than women.

As the co-founder of Paper, a user research and design studio, it’s a privilege to have started a business that does things differently. I’m immensely proud of what we’ve achieved in two years. Despite being new and relatively small we’ve stuck to our published principles and challenged ourselves to directly tackle issues like gender diversity. Here are two short examples:

1. One of our principles is that “we value legups and free work”. To deliver on that principle we created; a free-to-attend mentoring event providing digital support and guidance for small businesses, charities, and social enterprises. We’re very lucky to have mentors offer their time and skills and they’re the backbone of this event.

Early on we realised we didn’t have gender equality. In fact nearly all mentors were men and the majority of mentees were women. Admitting things needed to be better was the start of addressing the gender balance. We asked for help through social media and talked and listened at local women in tech events, and 18 months on we have a team of 40 mentors with a near equal gender split.

2. Another example is last year when we started looking for our first employee. We had an opportunity to try a recruitment approach that felt more ‘us’. But being original can present new challenges – our job advert purposefully didn’t have a job title, mention a salary or say whether it was full-time or part-time, and left the application route open to interpretation. We quickly learned that our approach had some inbuilt gender bias.

By giving a broad range of things in the job advert and being slightly vague in the remit of the job it was more appealing to men (who are more likely to think ‘yeah, I can probably do most of that’) than to women (who are more likely to think ‘there’s something on this list I can’t do – I might not apply’).

Again, by addressing the problem and proactively engaging with women in the tech community we learned how to adapt our language and also how important it is to be present in the right channels and associate with credible groups of people. After tidying up the language and republishing the advert, and actively encouraging the people we had met to apply even if they weren’t sure, it had a much better response.

Fast-forward a few months, we’re really happy and proud that Urska joined our team at Paper. Now our thoughts are turning to some of the other unanswered questions this experience left us with and and we encourage you to ask some of the same questions:

  • If language and channel play such an important role how do you make sure that your hiring processes don’t contain biases?
  • How do you personalise the process for people who have very different experiences and user journeys?
  • Diversity is more than just gender, what are the barriers and unconscious biases that might affect who wants to work with us?


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