18 Jan 2023
by Gaurav Bhatnagar & Ben Rogers

One-on-One with Alexia Bencini: Cultivating a Culture of DE&I in the Workplace

We spoke with Alexia Bencini, Director of Data Analysis at GWI, about the importance of cultivating a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace culture. Bencini discussed the role of ‘psychological safety’ in the workplace; best practices for businesses hoping to foster an inclusive work culture; and the impact of remote work on DE&I.

GWI is an audience insights technology company. Its SaaS platform and custom data products are trusted by the world’s biggest brands, media organizations, and agencies on a daily basis to gain a deep understanding of their audiences at speed. The company’s flagship survey represents 2.7 billion people globally.

To start, can you share a little bit about your background and journey to GWI?

Yes, absolutely! I’ve worked with data for 14 or 15 years now, partnering with various market research companies. Data is in my blood; it’s an industry I know very well.

I’m from Malta, originally, but moved to the U.K more than a decade ago. My educational background is in psychology, but I’ve always had a passion for data, and the last 15 years of my career have been dedicated to slowly growing into my current role.

My journey to GWI was an interesting one. I’m not just an immigrant, and not just a woman in tech, but a gay immigrant woman in tech. That puts me in a unique category.

I’ve faced some ups and downs and I’ve confronted my fair share of challenges, but this has always been the industry I’ve loved. And there’s no better place to work in data than GWI, where I’ve now been for almost five years. 

Diversity, equity and inclusion is a topic close to your heart. How did you develop a passion for DE&I? 

Well, given my background, how could I not have a passion for DE&I?

I fit into a lot of categories that are historically unusual in the tech sector, and for my entire career, I’ve confronted diversity and equity issues every day.

I want to acknowledge my privilege: I’m a white woman and one of European descent. But I’ve still confronted these issues – both in my own life and through the experiences of my friends and colleagues – and I’m very passionate about addressing them.

Does your DE&I passion relate to your love of data?

Yes, I think the two are related.

At GWI, when we’re conducting market research, it’s essential that our data comes from a diverse audience. If our respondents don’t represent diverse backgrounds and perspectives, then we don’t have good data.  

I think the same principle applies to the workplace. A team can only thrive if it prioritizes diversity. In every aspect of our lives, DE&I principles are important.

How do you think about diversity in the workplace? How might a company support it?

Many businesses assume that diversity, alone, is sufficient. Diversity is better than homogeneity. Diversity is a virtue, in and of itself. I think there’s a lot more to it than that.

Diversity cannot exist without inclusion. If a company hires a diverse workforce, but they fail to cultivate an inclusive culture, all they’ll get is a revolving door of diverse talent. For diversity to thrive, inclusive attitudes and practices must already be in place.

The first step toward inclusion is psychological safety. I like to call it ‘the base of the triangle.’

If a workplace can create a culture around psychological safety – one where team members, regardless of their background, feel accepted and respected – then they can create a culture of diversity, too.

What do you say to someone who struggles to recognize ‘psychological safety’ in practice? What characterizes a ‘psychologically safe’ work environment?

In this case, I think it’s easier to recognize psychological safety by what it isn’t. We all know a fearful culture when we see one.

Are people comfortable admitting their mistakes? Is there a culture of constructive criticism? How are people treated when they say no? Are there positive reassurance mechanisms in place?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, then it’s likely that your workplace’s culture and processes need some work. 

Can you offer some best practice recommendations for a business hoping to foster a culture of psychological safety?

My first and most important recommendation: no finger pointing. Blame doesn’t help anyone. If a mistake is made, turn it into a learning opportunity. What were the decisions or processes that led to the mistake? If you view these issues in a vacuum, and if you blame mistakes on the actions of a single person, you’re not just missing a learning opportunity but creating a culture of fear.

My second tip? Practice active listening. This is so important – especially for people in management roles. We all have our blind spots. There’s so much value in hearing the feedback and perspectives of your team members. If you’re not encouraging the people around you to speak up – and if you’re not listening to them when they do – then you’re not fostering a safe and inclusive work culture.

For a third tip, I’d recommend embracing constructive criticism. Create an environment where people can share difficult truths. An environment where respectful pushback is possible. It’s important that people feel they can speak up without facing retribution or humiliation.

The data analytics industry is very competitive. What are some inclusive hiring practices a data science company might institute to support equitable outcomes?

All companies should take a step back and evaluate their current roles and opportunities. What demographics are underrepresented? Are there any noticeable pay or prestige gaps between groups?

HR teams should be sensitive to these data in their hiring and they should work to address equity gaps in their job listing and interview processes.

Representation is key and I recommend that diverse candidates have the option to interview with diverse personnel. I also think companies should consider distributing questions in advance to accommodate neurodivergent and ESL candidates.

One additional tip: interviewers should ask candidates their salary expectations, rather than expecting candidates to raise this conversation on their own. Many of us are uncomfortable starting a salary conversation, unprompted.

Building an inclusive culture in the age of remote work isn’t easy. This is an issue many of our funds’ portfolio companies face. How have you and GWI navigated this challenge?

There’s no question that it’s more challenging to cultivate an inclusive workplace culture over Zoom. At GWI, we’ve taken a careful approach to this and I believe it’s been effective.

First and foremost, it’s crucial that leadership support remote participation in all business meetings. We know that health is an equity issue, and just because one person is comfortable returning to the office doesn’t mean everyone should feel pressure to do the same. We can’t practice inclusivity if we’re marginalizing team members who prefer to work remotely.

We also tend to refer to teams by their geography – ‘the London team,’ ‘the Greek team,’ and so on. This sends the wrong message. We should emphasize that teams are connected by their purpose, not their geography. It’s not ‘the New York team’; it’s ‘the data team.’

I recommend that people keep their cameras on for video calls. It helps to see and celebrate your teammates’ faces. And we should also accommodate time zone differences, when possible. Leaders shouldn’t line manage by location.

Generally, as long as businesses practice psychological safety, prioritize inclusivity, and hire and promote diverse candidates, DE&I can thrive in remote environments. It’s all about putting values first.

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