Workplace DE&I in the Berlin Tech Scene
As a journalist living in Berlin, I split my time between media and tech, feeling most comfortable in roles that synthesize these two worlds. While living in Toronto, before moving to Berlin, I worked as a senior editor for an investigative news startup. The long hours, low pay, and lack of accommodation for my struggles with mental illness left me in a state of severe burnout — one I nearly didn’t recover from. After hearing about the tremendous tech scene in Berlin, which boasts diversity, flexible working arrangements, high pay, and an average five weeks of paid time off, I opted for a fresh start and moved there with my best friend, hoping to shift gears and find more fulfilling work. All this, coupled with the low cost of living, made Berlin an ideal place for relocation. I was used to working so hard for so little and wanted to better my quality of life. But after more than a year in Berlin, I’ve learned that this thriving tech scene is still struggling with DE&I initiatives, and I realize now what I took for granted in Toronto.
As a queer, nonbinary person, one of the most important things I look for in an employer is an active commitment to inclusion and diversity—and not the performative kind. It isn’t enough for a company to say they’re doing the work, there must be evidence it’s actually happening. A lot of the time, brands will throw a quick blurb up on their website without providing anything further to substantiate it. All talk and no action. It can be tough for a smaller business to have the kind of statistics that larger ones do. But there’s always a way to demonstrate the actionable steps being taken towards equity in the workplace. I was hoping to find a company with great DE&I initiatives upon my move to Berlin.
Every 20 minutes, a startup is founded in Berlin. There are more than 78,000 people employed at startups here, a 32% increase from the previous two years. It’s the fastest growing sector in Berlin when it comes to job creation. People like me are attracted to the city because of the high density of innovative startups and headquarters of high-profile companies like N26 and Zalando. While these are enticing facts, many people face a wakeup call when it comes to actually working in “Silicon Allee.” On social media, especially Twitter and LinkedIn, I’d read countless success stories of people who had moved to Berlin and found their dream job in the tech scene. While employers in the city undoubtedly offer a better work-life balance, higher wages, and more paid vacation, I was shocked to learn how far behind they are when it comes to DE&I. This is something I took for granted in Toronto, which is the one of the most diverse major cities in the world. But there, I had been pushed to my breaking point and needed a way out. I was drowning trying to make ends meet, never knowing when I’d get a day off or time to rest.
When I’ve applied for jobs in Berlin, a cursory glance at company websites has yielded disappointing insights. I rarely find any DE&I practices whatsoever, let alone visible representation of gender diverse people in management and leadership. According to Victoria Wagner, the CEO of BeyondGenderAgenda, which is a German-based initiative that aims to ensure equal opportunities for executives and managers with disabilities, of any gender, age, cultural social background or sexual orientation, Germany ranks at the bottom of international studies on diversity and inclusion.
In Toronto, I was far more likely to find queer and trans people occupying senior roles, which motivated me to fire off my resume. While working at a multinational law firm in digital marketing, I had a manager who asked me my pronouns and advocated for me in the workplace. This made the process of coming out to colleagues easier to navigate.
Canada has far more progressive internal policies for hiring, onboarding, and the overall fostering of an inclusive work environment for underrepresented employees. In Berlin, during the hiring process, I’ve inquired about DE&I initiatives and received roundabout answers or radio silence, which has been a repeatedly discouraging and flattening experience. The one small thing I’ve noticed that employers do to signal gender inclusivity, which is also required by law, is to list “w/m/d” in the headlines of job postings, which stands for “women/men/diverse.” In 2018, the German government passed a law allowing a third gender category to be listed on identity documents: diverse. However, this often feels more about appearing inclusive than it does about bolstering real inclusivity.
On LinkedIn, for years, my profile clearly stated that I used “they/them” pronouns. On my website, which hosts my professional portfolio, all information about me is written this way too. In emails, I sign off with my name and list my pronouns underneath. Despite this, it hasn’t been uncommon to receive emails back misgendering me and spelling my name wrong. These small details add up and demonstrate to me that a recruiter or hiring manager doesn’t have the time or interest in respecting the identities of prospective candidates. While, in my opinion, this isn’t the most egregious experience of gender discrimination, it feels like my future colleagues will be dedicated to misunderstanding me, which is something I don’t have time for. In September, after having lived in Berlin for more than a year and fed up, I gave in and changed my LinkedIn to read “they/she,” tired of having to correct people or argue with them over my pronouns.
In short, I don’t want to be treated differently or bullied based on my identity. I don’t want to be told I’m fabricating my identity to feel special or for social clout. I don’t want to be ridiculed, belittled, or called a “snowflake.” Sometimes, in the past, as frustrating as it was, it was easier for me to blend in than it was to stick out, but I want to be afforded the same opportunities and to advance in my career based on my professional skills alone. If a company isn’t outwardly taking steps towards making prospective candidates feel safe, what does this mean for their employees? Even the most well-intentioned people can still have unconscious bias towards queer and trans people, while thinking they’re being inclusive.
A little can go a long way. It doesn’t take a lot to stop LGBTQ candidates from feeling alienated in the process of applying to your company. It should be second nature, not a legal requirement, for businesses to encourage trans and nonbinary job seekers to apply for a role and let them know that, if hired, they will be taken seriously and championed in the workplace. Doing the bare minimum is not enough anymore. It’s 2021. With a population of more than 80 million in the country, I dare Germany to step up to the plate and play ball. Employers should go beyond one-liners in job postings and develop comprehensive strategies to ensure that diversity, equity, and inclusion thrives and flourishes on the job.
To this day, I haven’t found the right role, opting to continue freelancing because of my disillusionment with the Berlin tech scene. I’ve found it easier to advocate for myself and manage my mental health on a self-employed basis. Rather than having to tolerate discrimination in a toxic work environment in exchange for a paycheck, I can feel safe and at ease in the comfort of my own home and on my own terms. This doesn’t mean I’ve given up my hopes of one day finding the right fit. Rather, I’m not forcing myself to make something work if it simply won’t.