The topic of diversity and inclusion in the workplace is still an ongoing issue many companies have to make a lot of effort for. I have already gone over why having a diverse and inclusive team matters in the workplace. However, I judged it relevant to go talk to some people working in the field itself.
This week, I interviewed a digital advisor and diversity and inclusion (D&I) ambassador at Microsoft Belgium, Karen de Sousa Pesse. Karen is a key figure in the matter in Belgium. She has over 40,000 followers on her LinkedIn where she shares her experience with D&I and is a voice for many that are victims of discrimination.
Karen spoke to me about her struggles, why she started working in D&I and how she sees the tech industry regarding diversity and inclusion efforts.
Karen’s work is based more on a volunteer basis. “In Microsoft, we have diversity and inclusion groups that are completely devoted to diversity and inclusion. And then you have, per country, an HR person which represents D&I, and ambassadors who are supporting this person leading the strategy. And I am one of the ambassadors,” she says.
Karen’s responsibilities consist of achieving her external engagement. For example, if there’s an event, she’ll go out to speak publicly. But she also supports initiatives internally. For example, when the company is focusing on inclusive hiring.
How Karen defines D&I
Karen tells me that people don't realise that everyone is diverse somewhere. “I started a movement called diversity which now we're trying to formulate and make into an NGO. And one of the main people managing with me is a white Belgian man. I got questioned quite a bit about why he's interested to join. However, if you want to be diverse, it also includes cis-gender white men,” she says.
Then she proceeds to tell me why he was interested to join the NGO. “He used to work in the Nordics. When he moved to the Nordics, he was discriminated against for not being from the Nordics. And when he came back to Belgium, he said it's something he doesn’t want anyone to experience,” she tells me.
For Karen, diversity is not just the external appearance. Diversity is also the diversity of thoughts, equalities, of backgrounds. However, what she likes to focus on is the inclusivity part. She believes that if you make things better for diversity and inclusion in Belgium and then in the Netherlands, and then in the Nordics, and then every other country, everyone can benefit from that.
“And I think that is something that people don't realise. There is a lot of polarisation, in the sense that men feel attacked by the gender equality initiatives, and white people feel attacked by social diversity initiatives. But what we want is to achieve a balance for everyone,” she adds.
What D&I means to Karen is achieving a balance and an actual meritocracy and not the fake one she believes that we currently have.
“It's kind of a trend in some companies – some companies do seem to follow this wave of "yeah we are trying to become diverse and inclusive" but it's just a façade and they don't implement anything,” she says.
The reasons why she’s actively involved in D&I
The Microsoft Belgium D&I ambassador started working on D&I efforts because of the amount of discrimination she faced after coming from Brazil to Belgium
“This is something that I'd like to invest my time in because I'm an immigrant woman in the workplace. Working at D&I is basically about making my life and the life of people I know and surrounding me better,” she says.
I also asked her about the situation back in Brazil and how different it is from Belgium. “I think Brazil has different issues,” she says. “Brazil is still a bit behind in terms of gender equality. If you look at Europe, for example, a lot of comments that you would make towards women in Europe would be completely unacceptable. In Brazil, they won't be unacceptable and it's just things that you'd hear all the time,” she adds.
“People don't know concepts such as microaggression. In terms of gender balance, pay gap, equality, etc. we are still behind and still struggle with the basic things. In Europe, I can say that things, at least for Western Europe, there is increased awareness,” Karen says.
Karen also talked to me about the struggle of people of colour in Brazil who were brought up in the country as slaves many years ago. More than half of the population of the country as identify themselves as black or "pardo”. It’s important to note that Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery in the Western Hemisphere back in 1888. Not many people know but during the 300 years of slavery in the Americas, Brazil imported seven times more African slaves to the country than the USA.
“I think the major struggle in Brazil would be towards people of colour. Because, historically there was very large immigration, especially of slaves to Brazil, and when they were finally released, they were not given the smallest assistance, and they are still the most marginalised community. There is a lot of stigma around it, it's very hard for them to integrate into the job market, to even have access to school, university, and so on,” she says. I suggest you check out this very interesting read about the life of Black Brazilians in Bolsonaro’s Brazil today.
Being a foreigner in tech wasn’t the easiest
I ask Karen if being a woman was harder than being Brazilian in her workplace. “Brazilian for sure,” she says. “I see that my peers, who are female and local from Belgium, don't have half of the struggles that I used to have. They feel quite welcomed into the workforce.
Today, at least in Belgium, it's becoming also quite unacceptable to make remarks against women in the workforce. I think that in this sense, it's improving a lot. I think that Belgium has come a long way. But most of the remarks people do, the microaggressions, the little jokes, they're all towards the fact that I'm Latin America,” she adds.
Storytime: almost arrested in front of Microsoft’s offices
Karen tells me something that happened to her a few weeks ago after I ask her if the discrimination, remarks and micro aggressions are something that follows her every day.
“Just two weeks ago, I came back from a trip to India and I had a lot of henna in my hands, which is a tradition in northern Africa and India as well when you are getting married. But there is a lot of prejudice against northern Africans in Europe. And I was racially profiled in front of the Microsoft office for acting suspiciously. The police stopped. They started to say that I was acting suspicious and that everything I was doing was on camera and they were asking for my documents, but in a very intimidating way.
And I started getting nervous because I never experienced that. I'm Latin American but I can pass as a white person. I'm white. I don't have this direct visible conflict, so the police always left me alone. I can also see how they were constantly looking at my hands, I was like “wow okay this is so unacceptable”. And then I talked about it to a few of my Muslim friends who said "Karen this happens all the time, I cannot count on my both hands how many times the police stopped me and intimidated me". So, that was quite a shock.
But there are a lot of things that happen not only in the workplace but also in society,” she says.
When she became a LinkedIn influencer in D&I
Karen is a D&I ambassador for Microsoft. But she also has a huge platform on LinkedIn where she’s vocal about D&I issues. More than 40,000 people follow what she has to say about it. However, it wasn’t always the case. Karen didn’t feel like she had the security to become vocal about D&I issues until she got a privileged position to be outspoken.
“You need to have support from your family, partner, and work. You can't just afford to go and say things and be fired eventually,” she says. “I think a lot of the people that follow me on LinkedIn, follow me because I became very vocal about it. And a lot of people reached out to me so I can report things that are happening in their workplace. I just couldn't take it anymore. There were so many things happening that were out of this world. I started to kind of, slowly speak up,” she adds.
How speaking up for D&I felt
Karen talks to me about the first time she spoke up about something that was happening at her workplace.
“I remember the first time I spoke up. This was before I joined Microsoft. I cried for three hours because I thought I was going to be fired. It was at this meeting with 20 different men from upper management and two or three women. They were all white. They were all talking about how the company was doing great in the polls, and everyone was very happy about diversity and inclusion.
After listening to them for an hour, talking about how great they were doing, I asked them to speak for five minutes. And I told them: “We are here in a call in which I'm the only person with an immigration background and there are three women in this call, filled with men. When I walk into the office in Belgium, I don't see a single person with a migration background. I know one black woman whom I hired, and I got a lot of appalling remarks because I wanted to hire someone with an Arabic name. Someone even said – oh no I don't want to hire this person because we need people with a Belgian passport to which I replied, well she is Belgian, she has a Belgian passport.
Secondly, for your results to be so good, you need to have a relevant poll and a relevant amount of people voting for it to be relevant. And you can't do that when you only have 5 employees with a migration background”.
And everyone was baffled and speechless about what I said. I think there was this very long silence for like 30 seconds and then the country manager for Benelux who was in the call called me afterwards and send me a text saying he had no idea that this was happening and didn't realise it.
I also shared another story with him about my first day.
I was hired as a junior and I was the only one with a lot of work experience. We were 11 and we were asked to introduce ourselves to the vice president. And of course, since I already had a bit of a CV, he was quite impressed. And I finished by saying – and by the way, I'm from Brazil. To which he replied, "well nothing is perfect, but welcome anyway". And I was shocked and a few people laughed. I could see most of the laughs were awkward laughs. And I started to talk to people and I said "I don't think this is nice", and people were like "don't bother, he's a fun person, he likes to make jokes". Yeah, but I said "this is microaggression" and no one knew what microaggressions were. So that kind of got me fed up.
I spoke up at this meeting with 20+ people and cried for 3 hours thinking they were going to fire me, wondering why I said that and that I should've just kept quiet.
I started to get a lot of feedback after that. People told me "hey I didn't know about that because people don't speak up". That's when I slowly and bit by bit started talking about different issues. I started posting a few things very gently on LinkedIn about struggles that happened to me, or things that I heard.
I started to do a lot of sanitised cases of what has happened to me and started to gather a lot of followers, especially a lot of followers with migration backgrounds who have had struggles. I started to post about their lives as well. So that's kind of how it started. I became some kind of Humans Of New York for the workplace,” she say.
Women doing public speeches feel threatened
Karen is also very often on stage to talk about technology. However, she feels that women don’t feel comfortable being under the spotlight “You don't have a lot of women feeling comfortable doing public speaking. Now there's a lot more work and safety around it, but five years back, a lot of my female friends would feel threatened to be on stage and would say "no I wouldn't want to do anything to risk my career, so I'm not going to go on stage". But these things are changing now” she says.
But I wonder.. why would you risk your career going on stage doing public speaking? In what sense would they risk their career?
“It depends,” she replies. “When you start getting a little bit too visible, there is a lot of judgement – borderline retaliation, jealousy – towards you. This is something that has hit me in my profession as well, I didn't care as much. I lost a lot of promotions because I was too visible and I got an extra workload because people thought I didn't have enough work. Being visible has its good sides and bad sides,” she adds.
No company is doing a good job at D&I
Karen doesn’t think that any company is doing a good job at D&I at the moment. “This is something I even talked about a few days ago,” she says. “5 to 10 years ago if you wanted to stay relevant in the market, you had to move to the cloud, for example, and today if you want to stay relevant in the market, you have to think about the aspects of corporate social responsibility, environmental responsibility, and sustainability, which includes D&I as well.
So I think a lot of these companies are just trying to follow the trend because they want to stay relevant in the market. A few of the companies started that. Microsoft has been at the forefront of D&I since, I think, 2014.
Microsoft is much more advanced in terms of D&I but at the same time, we're talking about a large organisation. Like 500k people and in virtually every geography. When you look at companies in the US, where a lot of awareness work has been done on that, they're doing great but sometimes, they're also not landing these strategies in other countries. So it's a work in progress and I don't think that anyone is doing a great job.
However, I'm talking on behalf of corporations. I think if you have smaller organisations, this can be easier for you to tackle. But there's a lot of willingness. The only thing is that they don't know how to follow. They also made mistakes when they entered the cloud business, and they're making the same mistakes entering the D&I business. But there are going to be a lot of mistakes being made, and I think we just need to keep raising awareness of its importance. We need to keep supporting them in this journey, so fewer people get hurt in the process as well,” she adds.
The initiatives that have worked so far
When I started my research on diversity and inclusion, I had the idea that, nowadays, recruiters are promoting diversity, especially with gender-neutral job descriptions etc. However, Karen tells me it’s a bit tricky and not that simple. “In terms of talent attraction, I think what works best is word of mouth,” Karen says when I ask her about what are the things that give a positive outcome, including gender-neutral recruitment and job descriptions.
“If someone recommends a company because they're very diverse and inclusive, that’s more likely to work. You're already getting attracted to this company because of that. I think that the whole marketing part is, of course, very important but we also need to take a step back and look at the fact that some companies might be hypocrites. They're advertising with people of colour and Muslims, and then you walk into the office, and it's just white men. A few companies advertise about their allyship to the LGBTQ+ but they have offices in countries that are not doing anything about it.
But I think a lot of what these companies are also lobbying for better policies. When a government sees a massive company supporting LGBTQ+ and supporting more women in leadership roles, governments are like "mhm ok, this is coming our way, should we do something about it" and then these companies bring these initiatives to other countries, and then the strategy here, and then it creates pressure for a lot of companies to follow.
So, I think that this is also a very important type of work, I don't want to call it lobbying – but it is borderline lobbying for better policies,” she says.
Karen’s tips on how to measure diversity and inclusion in the workplace
I ask Karen how to measure the D&I in the workplace. “There are quite a few ways to measure them,” she tells me.
“One of them is very important: the employee surveys. How employees feel in the company is I think the key number 1 of measuring it. And another way to measure it is to go externally and ask how people, external from your organisation, feel.
There are also a lot of different ways to gather data. Even though in Europe, I feel like it became harder because of GDPR. But there are still ways to gather what is diversity among your employees, which is also something very important.
So for example you can have data on men, women, and people that identify with other genders; gender fluid or non-binary. You can have data about how you identify racially, and then with this data, which of course should be kept in good hands, you can analyse if your company is doing well or not, and if not, you can look into the issues that they currently have.
But of course, the self-declaration data can also be biased for several reasons. I can imagine that if you're conducting these types of surveys in a country that is forbidden to have a different sexuality than cis-gender, people are not going to feel comfortable putting in an anonymous survey that you're not cis-gender.
So I think measuring is very difficult. And I think that's one of the main reasons we are not going as fast as we should,” she says.
3 things to change for the progression of D&I
To speed up the progress of the D&I, I ask Karen to give me 3 things to change. 3 things that should be changed in societies or companies that would allow progress to go faster.
“I think the #1 thing to change is when you are promoting people into management roles, most corporations look at their ability to land deals and build pipelines, and drive numbers, and the aspect of being able to manage people.
Corporations don’t check if the person being promoted knows about D&I or not. Even though I was going into management roles, they saw all the success cases that I had, but they didn't ask me anything about managing people, D&I, or how to address people depending on their pronouns. They don't talk about that. My tip number 1 is to make a better evaluation of people that are reaching the upper levels of your organisation and if they are well informed about that.
#2 is more towards governments. Looking at your government supporting such initiatives. I think that in Belgium for example, even though there is kind of an uprising far right, the government in place is still relatively central-left but just a tiny little bit. We also have a minister who's transgender and is openly talking about LGBTQI+ issues and we have flags everywhere it's a bit like the government is trying to push that, but is it following in terms of policies? Not quite.
If you're an international student outside of the EU and studying in Belgium, you used to pay the same amount of money as European citizens. And at some point, they decided to change that because they said that students come here, study and leave.
And I found it interesting that this was the excuse. I will accept that you don't want to use the money of taxpayers to pay for international students, but that's not the reason why. As an international student, it's really difficult to find employment in Belgium. It's really hard to find a company that wants to sponsor your visa. A lot of people came to Belgium and wanted to stay badly and they couldn't. They went to the Netherlands or France because they couldn't find a company that would sponsor them. After all, it turns out that in Belgium, for a company to sponsor someone's visa, they need to pay more than 3000 euros gross amount.
Therefore, they scrapped the opportunity for international students to come to Belgium and pursue education for completely wrong reasons. If you're an international student, you need to pay a lot of money to stay here.
As a result, you're filtering the people coming here, and only people that come from rich backgrounds can have access to this education. So a huge inequality is created there because of the wrong reasons. So the government needs to follow its policies. Not only up to corporations to become more diverse and implement more inclusivity, but governments need to follow as well.
Tip #3 would be the change culturally, looking at societies, because a lot of these issues and burdens, they're also just down to the people, I mean imagine the thing that happened to me with the police. After that happened I was just on a break and had to go back to work, and I couldn't work the rest of the day. How do you explain to your manager that situation?
We need to evaluate and for this one, I don't have a solution yet. How are we going to change society to become better and to accept people with migration backgrounds, accept LGBTQI+ and accept even – I mean people neurodivergent, this is also something that is coming up and people are still confused. How are we going to do this massive change management process in society? This is something we need to address but I don't have an answer yet”.
Did we make any progress during the past 10 years?
It felt like we made a lot of progress during the past years when it comes to diversity and inclusion. However, Karen says that it depends. “If you look in the United States, they are going backwards. And in Afghanistan, they went years and years backwards in a week.
And the thing is the progress of getting better is slow and difficult because for getting better, you want to have best practices and convince people that this is the best. For getting worse, you just install a dictatorship and that's it. If you don't want it, you're getting shot. It takes a very long time to make progress and it takes days to go backwards,” she tells me.
The future for D&I 10 years from now on
I question myself how things would be for D&I 10 years from now. I ask Karen how she sees it and how she’d want to see it.
“I want to believe that efforts for diversity are not a thing anymore and if you're the best at what you do, you're going to get the job,” she says. “People say this all the time but they give the jobs to only white men. Even if you're coming from Bulgaria, they're going to see you as an eastern European and they're going to look down on you,” she adds.
I then ask her thoughts about people that say that “Do you want us to go out there and pick underrepresented groups and minorities so we can have a diverse place?”. I believe that is not the case. D&I is just wanting someone who's not going to be judged based on their differences.
“Some people ask me that and I always tell a story about this,” Karen says.
“I have been coaching and mentoring people with migration backgrounds to get a job for the past few years. I coach them through the whole process, prepare them for interviews, find a nice job for them on LinkedIn, apply for the job with them and train them for the interviews.
And this year, recently, a very very good friend of mine who doesn't have any migration background, a white cis Belgian man, told me "Karen, I'm thinking about changing my career completely and I know that you're very good at it, so I'd appreciate if you could help”. I thought, OK, it's going to be interesting helping someone with a profile I've never helped before, let's see how it goes.
So I worked with him because it was a big change. He was going from the military into technical cyber security, he wanted to become an IT, and he didn't have experience in that. So I said ok, let's look for this position and let's train you in this way, have a look at this, and I paired him with a mentor.
Then we went into the first interview, and I told him that this can take quite a long time because he doesn’t have any experience in cyber security. It might take 6 months to get him this job. He told me to not worry. So we sent his CV to a recruiter and two days later, they got back to him, very interested and I was a bit surprised.
We then prepared for the interview with the HR lady and he was very transparent he said “look I don't have any experience in the field, I want to change jobs, but I would love to learn,” and so on. And she was very positive about it which surprised me. She said, "yeah we understand you don't have any experience but the manager would like to see you anyways".
He went into the interview with a manager and it was a great interview. He talked about his experience in the army etc. and the manager said: "Look I understand that you don't have any experience but we like your profile, and we think what you can learn. So we're going to offer you the job anyway".
So, after a week and a half, I got him the new job coming from a completely different background into something else, for which he was completely untrained. I'm telling you in 5 years, I've never seen that.
People will constantly ask me, “oh do you want me to go and get people with migration backgrounds and put them in my organisation just to say that I'm diverse?” And I say no. I want you to get people which don't have the experience, and who don't have the chance and just open the door for them. And that's it. Just open the door for them. Because we are so biased that to think if we open the door for a white cisgender man, he's going to pass with flying colours. But if you do that with a black man, he's not going to go through. So what I'm telling you: just open the door.
Just open the door
I ask Karen if “just open the door" is her biggest advice to companies. “Yeah,” she says. “And this is even the main title of the keynote that I typically do about this issue. Just open the door because there are so many closed doors for people with migration backgrounds. You only need one door to be open for you to break through. Why don't you just open the doors?” she adds.
Karen hopes that doors will be open for people with differences. “We also need to remain aware of biases,” she tells me. “At least in Belgium, if you work with a Belgian guy and he's delivering a bad job, people are going to be like “I don't like working with this guy, he's doing a bad job, let's get someone else”. But if it's a person with a migration background, they're going to be like I hate working with people working with migration background, let's never hire someone diverse again. We're carrying the weight of 7 billion people on our shoulders,” she adds.
Future of women in tech
As I have previously mentioned, women hesitate to join a tech company. There’s a high shortage of women in the tech workforce because of several factors.
“I think that women don't see they can go into these fields,” Karen says.
“The thing is that I think that there are so many hurdles to get into the tech industry, that is just not interesting for women to go through all the crap. I think it takes a lot more resilience for women to work in tech than men.
Women also tend to work a lot more unpaid jobs at home for example, as a mother. If you are mixing the likelihood of not growing, suffering pressure because of being a woman, microaggression, plus extra work because you’re a mother, these things kind of drive women away from tech jobs.
So one of the interesting things McKinsey company is doing now – very big consulting firm – they are launching applications for women. They have vacancies targeting women. They say if you are a woman, you can apply for this vacancy, a business analyst for example. And they have a lot of success in this approach because then women feel like there is a willingness for them to go into this role. And I think that's a bit what is missing.
I mean, it's a series of things. There are so many small things that need to be fixed. How the company is perceived from the outside in, how the company is inside when you get the job, how is the industry, is the industry going to treat you nicely or is it going to be a bloodbath when you get into it?
But we are slowly getting there. If you look at the progress of tech companies hiring women, there is a very big progression. There are a lot of organisations now celebrating that they reached 30-40% women in the workforce. It's not like the progress is not relevant, but it's just that we're trying to quit the inequality that has been going on for thousands of years, not just a decade.
It feels forced, it feels painful, and there's a lot of work to be done. We just need to keep going and I think it's just a matter of time if we keep going like this,” she says.
I still believe there is a lot of conversation that needs to be had regarding diversity and inclusion. Next, I’ll be interviewing diversity and inclusion manager Adina Avram. Adina having as a personal mission to enablement of conscious, human-centred organisations, where employees feel safe to be their authentic selves.