How To Champion Diversity in Your Startup

Helena Hlas

Oct 7, 2019
minute read

Diversity has become a mixed bag buzzword in business. It’s becoming increasingly clear that diversity in a team is an advantage and any founder pressed with such claims in an interview would struggle to disagree.

However, despite the facts and marginal improvements in the data in regards to the number of women in management for example, it remains that only 20% of the top executive positions are filled by females in Switzerland, and less than 5% as Fortune 500 CEO’s in the U.S.

Although topics in diversity are widespread and apply to ethnicity, age, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, disabilities, and even bodyweight profiles, this week we discussed the female presence in the workspace with Dr. Estefanía Tapias. Estefanía is the founder and CEO of WeSpace, a community, workspace and digital platform inspired by women to nurture leadership, collaboration, and innovation. To make the most of her insight on how businesses can be more conscious of barriers to diversity, and how to use it to make a difference for the better, we’ve distilled the discussion into three sections:

  • The Brotherhood in Boardrooms
  • O’ Sister Where Art Thou?
  • It Takes A Village

To listen to the full interview with Estefanía, click here.

The Brotherhood in Swiss Boardrooms

Much of the challenges to increase the presence of women in the business realm comes from cultural adaptations or lack thereof, of social role distributions throughout Swiss history. In many countries that participated in the Second World War women were left behind to run the business and provide for their family. Without such a dramatic shakeup, to push more women into the workforce in Switzerland, many of the traditional patterns in business and breadwinning remain the same.

Furthermore, the mandatory military service for all Swiss men had historically propagated a notion of brotherhood and primarily male influence in the country. One can easily imagine how this mindset can be mirrored to present day throughout company structures and in boardrooms. Although startups tend to encourage more forward thinking in a deeply historical Switzerland and push for more diversitys, there can still be a bias when it comes to fundraising when the VCs are primarily made up of men who are unconsciously more likely to choose men.

Consider that the canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden granted women cantonal voting rights only thirty years ago! Imagine walking into an office space, where some of the senior members were part of a generation that was forced by the federal supreme court to grant you your rights.

Simply put, the cultural experience or relationship with women others have had, has a crucial impact your own experience as a woman in the workforce.

O’ Sister Where Art Thou?

All psychosocial biases and suffrage aside, where is the tangible limit for women? Why isn’t the brave modern woman pushing herself into the workforce? The answer is few fold:

  1. Parental leave pressure: There is no law granting fathers the right to paternity leave beyond two weeks, inadvertently putting pressure on the mothers who are otherwise gainfully employed, to stay home. A recent government-commissioned study revealed that 10% of women face discrimination after maternity leave.
  2. Cost of childcare often outweighs the income to be gained.
  3. Due to household role distribution, many women seek part-time work which can vary in nature but is likely to lead away from executive positions.

It Takes A Village

A natural argument when it comes to tackling discrimination in diversity is that by focusing on an underrepresented group or giving them special attention we inadvertently feed discrimination; adding fuel to the fire either through sheer force of separation or by implying that since said group need “special treatment” they must be somehow limited in their ability. Neither of these potential outcomes are the intention, so how do we encourage diversity, without making it about diversity?

Community driven incentives

  • Build a community for professional women who can support other women, then build from its momentum community to community.
  • Having role models in all underrepresented groups and, actively using their example through community engagement and through mentorship initiatives can increase morale.

Startups dynamic should develop with culture in mind

  • By nature of its goal of servicing the community and its customers, a startup developing with a strong sense of company and community culture is more likely to support stronger diversity.
  • Because of their fast moving quality, already developed startups shouldn’t be afraid to retrofit and take on employees who will reflect their evolving cultural values.


  • Quotas are a well intentioned initiative and can be very successful in increasing the number of underrepresented groups in the workforce. However, there are favourable and less productive ways to go about its implementation because dramatic and uninformed changes can often create a negative reaction.
  • The introduction of new employees can benefit from a coaching period. This allows the employee to grow before being moved into a new uncharted position where she risks being criticized, without adequate experience, for filling a position for the company’s quota.
  • The more people involved in the growth phases and the more people that see development of the employee putting in hard hours of work, the better.

Practice respect

  • Reflect values that acknowledge that skills are independent of race, gender, or any other constructs.

Equal opportunity to education in and out of the classrooms

  • Teach young people about independence and inoculate competence and fearlessness.

Final Message for Women

JUMP! Try it out! Ask yourself: “What’s the bolder version of my next action?” and do it! The worst that can happen is it doesn’t work but regardless of the outcome you will always learn something.

Final Message for Champions of Diversity in the Workforce

The best product for your business comes from having a diverse team and diverse perspectives behind it. Diversity, of all shapes and sizes allows your product to become universal. Remember that being an advocate for women in the workforce is good for your business, its dynamics and the social startup ecosystem in Switzerland.

Further Resources

Parliament says yes to a two week paternity leave, here.

Watch our interview with Rosemarie Michel here, the second Swiss to be elected president of Business & Professional Women

Click here for more on Gender Equality in the Swiss business ecosystem.

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