I am Felizitas Lichtenberg and currently Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion at SumUp, a leading global FinTech company. Before SumUp, I spent ten years at Vodafone, where my last position was Global Lead for Diversity & Inclusion.
The topic is close to my heart – I was born and raised in Germany. As my father was Indonesian, I experienced early on what it means to be “mixed race” and to grow up in intercultural contexts. Early in my professional career, I experienced the challenges and opportunities that diverse teams have and, even as a teenager, I felt a strong urge to help people understand each other in order to achieve better success.
For me, both professionally and personally, diversity means above all having appreciation and respect for one another and respect for human rights. The bottom line is that it’s about perceiving and respecting diverse perspectives and ways of life. To do this, we must constantly become aware of our own stereotypes and actively question them. In addition, diversity in the professional context means that companies should represent the diverse society, precisely in order to better understand customer needs.
With my work, I would like to contribute something to general equality of opportunity, regardless of someone’s gender, age, sexual identity and orientation, etc. To me, that means creating an environment where every person can give their best, including people with different neurodiversity traits and other abilities – whether introverted or extroverted, or of whatever ethnic background. Diversity for me also means equal opportunities and support for people with diverse social backgrounds.
Privately, it also means to me being open to different paths and life models. We are often quick to judge other people if they are different from us. And we often have certain role understandings of men and women, for example, especially when it comes to the division of household and child care, but also at work. Diversity for me means real freedom of choice and if possible, supporting each other on the way a person wants to go or more generally how a person identifies and wants to be.
I would generally like to see more openness, flexibility and self-reflection. We are still quite conservative when it comes to role models of men and women, and we don’t talk much about gender, role models and intercultural coexistence. Furthermore, we sometimes have quite entrenched structures, starting in the education system. We expect children and adults to behave in a certain way, which people who are neurodiverse, for example, are not good at. Instead of seeing deficits, we should focus on strengths and create an environment where each person can do their best. The central guiding question should be: How can we facilitate a safe and supportive environment for diverse needs?
I would also like to see us support each other and value the strengths that each person brings. I would want us to live shared global values and be open to the world.
A few examples to stimulate a change in thinking here: We should not call women who are successful in their careers and have a family ravenous or “career-minded,” and we should not smile at men who mainly take care of the children or show weakness. It is also inappropriate to ask a person who doesn’t have children why – just because these role understandings are deeply embedded in our society. We should also all be open to people who identify as LGBTQ+, are neurodiverse, or have different ethnic backgrounds or disabilities. And not label something as “gay” or “disabled” when we label something as negative. How many people do you know who are different than you are?
In my opinion, the most important levers are clear objectives and a clear and visible commitment from the management level. It must be tangible and transparent, for example, what the proportion of women and men is in the company and at the various levels or in the individual work areas, or even how many women and men are hired in which roles or leave the company. It is important that the management level is open to the topic and a corresponding change, reflects itself and shows your own vulnerability. Qualitative and quantitative data, for example from staffing processes, compensation, or “focus groups,” can provide important indications of successes and failures on the path to more diversity in an organization.
We can always question ourselves with regard to our expectations of our counterparts. What do we expect from a man, what do we expect from a woman, and how do we evaluate behavior? What do we think about people who are “different” from us, whether by cultural background, skin color, or gender? Every time we go into evaluating and devaluing people, often to validate and valorize ourselves, we can ask ourselves where that opinion comes from. When we witness aggression, discrimination or bullying towards others, we can stand up for them. In order to be able to push for change, conversations and especially actions in the close environment, i.e., in one’s own household and circle of family and friends, are important. In doing so, it is perfectly okay to show one’s weakness. No one is perfect, we are all biased and make mistakes. And we are allowed to learn and go new ways if we want to.
There are various best practices from different companies or countries, including in Scandinavian countries such as Denmark or Sweden. There, it is usually taken for granted that both parents take care of the children equally. In Germany in particular, the proportion of women in management positions is still very low by global standards – and in most cases, this is because the majority of women take on the care work in the family unit, which has a huge impact on their professional careers. Besides, it’s an assumption that this is the only reason, but it’s also rare to see women without children in leadership circles in Germany. One of the reasons for this is that in this country these are largely made up of men, who have and promote their own networks. Of course, there are many advantages to having such a network, but diversity does not promote it. The argument that there are not many women in technical professions is often mentioned. The reason for this is our stereotypical expectations of the roles of a man and a woman. Fortunately, girls are slowly being encouraged to follow other paths, for example through role models in children’s books, and boys are slowly being encouraged to show emotions and be a “working dad,” for example. But the argument becomes obsolete when we look at all the other roles in leadership and staffing. In the whole discussion, the relevance of role models should not be underestimated.
There are also a variety of policies and initiatives that promote the issue. But if these are not put into practice in companies because no one dares to take them up, they unfortunately remain just good ideas and have no real influence.
It is important to create a culture in which each person can express what they need for themselves and in which people are open to difference and do not feel attacked or intimidated as soon as they encounter difference. It is important to create conditions and an environment in which each person can work effectively, remain mentally and physically healthy, and ideally thrive and develop in their work. If a person needs to take a break to take care of their own mental health or pursue caring tasks that cannot be rescheduled, everyone should be given that opportunity to take that time. The trust should be there that the work tasks set will be completed within a certain amount of time, while still allowing everyone the flexibility in their personal lives.
To create such an environment, globally at SumUp, we talk to both managers and all other SumUppers about specific topics such as LGBTQ+, racism, privilege, bias, neurodiversity (such as autism, ADHD, etc….), domestic violence and gender, and mental health. The formats are customized according to the content and target audience. Here is a video summarizing our initiatives. Furthermore, we analyze our representation in the company, including the percentage of women at different levels, the percentage of LGBTQ+ representation, the age distribution and the ethnic background of our SumUpper. The goal is to improve coexistence around the world a little bit.
In my role, endurance is very important. Although diversity has been an issue for many years, a lot of things still move slowly and often the conversations with new people start all over again and with old familiar discussions. A lot also depends on the corporate culture. It is important to listen a lot and continuously and to achieve mutual understanding. We can have influence within our own company and in our immediate environment, and conditionally on the communities outside our company, but we cannot solve the inequalities that do not exist in the world, or at home. But we should not be discouraged. We should look at what we can achieve in detail and what we have already achieved.
Take care of yourself, and take more time for your free time. You can’t please everyone. You can’t save anyone – everyone is responsible for themselves. Many complain, but can’t and won’t change the status quo. Therefore, focus on people with potential and those who give you energy rather than those who want to take it away. Learn to express your boundaries clearly.
I strongly connect the topic of diversity with our environment and social responsibility. We have a responsibility to act now to make life on the planet possible for generations to come. For me, this is primarily about action for the environment on the one hand, and initiatives that create educational opportunities for unemployed youth on the other. At SumUp, for example, we work with an NGO in India and have already reached over 4,000 children there. We also work with an organization that offers Java FullStack courses for unemployed youth. 80% of the participants find a job afterwards. Of course, a fair share of diverse groups (gender, migrants, LGBTQ+) is important to us in the selection process.
We have already achieved a lot and we must continue. When we look at demographic change, including the aging population, financial inclusion becomes increasingly important, especially for women in old age. It’s not just about increasing the number of women “just because it’s the right thing to do,” it’s about financial security in old age. We are getting older, the divorce rate is 40%, and although the retirement age is rising, I don’t think it will be enough to ensure financial security. Already today, many people, especially women of retirement age, are living on the edge of poverty. If one group always takes a back seat due to caring responsibilities or even classic role distributions and the other group can live their career without worry, it will be very difficult for the former group – especially after a separation. The comment “yes, but the man earns more” is often invalid and very often not true in the beginning. As tech jobs become more relevant, we need to act now and show inspiring female role models to girls early on as well.