AHRI’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion conference covered everything from intersectional approaches to workplace policies to debunking the ‘merit myth’.
Hundreds of HR professionals across Australia logged on for AHRI’s virtual diversity, equity and inclusion conference this week, proudly sponsored by Dynamic Leadership Programs Australia (DLPA), to hear from a range of expert DEI practitioners.
Over the next few weeks, HRM will bring you more insights from the event. For now, here are three highlights from the day, including some interesting takeaways for HR professionals, managers and leaders.
It’s time to ditch the ‘merit’ argument
“The word itself sounds very solid and reassuring,” she says. “‘We appoint people strictly on merit.’ It sounds like a concept with which no reasonably minded person could quibble.
“[But] I’ve worked in and around politics for about a quarter of a century now, in an age where all parties claim to preselect candidates based purely on merit. And yet, tragically, the landscape is littered with candidates and MPs and, sadly, even ministers who stand in irrefutable fleshy evidence to the contrary.”
This reality is not necessarily driven by those intending to hold women back, she says; even if we have the best of intentions, our brains aren’t as good at assessing merit objectively as we might think they are.
She refers to a social experiment conducted in the 1990s by researcher Monica Biernat at the University of Kansas, where university students were shown photographs of men and women and asked to estimate their height. The subjects posed next to door frames or desks for context.
“Some of the photographs were of men and women of exactly the same height. Photographed next to exactly the same items,” she says. “But the students consistently overestimated the height of the men and underestimated the height of the women.
“They were affected, even [through] objective assessment, by their knowledge that men are, on average, taller than women. That ingrained knowledge was so strong that it overrode the hard evidence reported by the optic nerve – the participants literally did not believe their eyes.”
Our brains are not wired to be objective, she says. Instead, we instinctively base our decisions on previous experience and long-held beliefs. This helps us to make judgements quickly, but also means prejudice can become embedded in our psyches.
“So, it’s no surprise that when this lamentably fallible collection of electric impulses and cells we call the human brain is entrusted with a decision on something far more complicated – like deciding which person is better for a job – we also lapse into subjectivity.”
“You can’t solve an issue for a particular demographic unless they are front and centre in that discussion.” – Keri Le Page, Inclusion and Diversity Lead, Australia and New Zealand, Mars Incorporated
To ‘override’ our natural inclination toward subjectivity, we need to work harder to provide ourselves and others with hard evidence of women’s potential, says Crabb.
Australia has recently made positive strides in this space through the efforts of the Women’s Gender Equality Agency (WGEA). The agency’s newly granted powers to collect mandatory information from large enterprises about the gender balance of their workforces has created a data set unmatched by any equivalent organisation worldwide.
“It was an incredibly rare opportunity to test what has often been theorised – that gender diversity is actually good for business,” says Crabb.
“They got a couple of extremely smart economists to build an analytic model as to whether there was a causal connection between gender diversity and profitability. And guess what: there was.”
The WGEA’s research established that companies who appointed a female CEO increased their market value by five per cent – equivalent to nearly $80 million for an average ASX200 company, she says.
Meanwhile, increasing the number of women in other key leadership positions by 10 per cent or more increased the company’s value by 6.6 per cent.
“The study doesn’t prove that women make better CEOs than men, but it does provide powerful evidence that diverse groups make better decisions than homogeneous ones,” she says.
“We’re so accustomed to thinking of hiring appointments, especially for big jobs, to be all about individual attributes: the ‘first past the post’ system of merit. But smart leaders are realising that ten guys with MBAs do not necessarily make the most meritorious group, no matter how brilliant they individually are. Who you work with is incredibly important.
“Once you get past our cult-like obsession with individual merit, you start to make better decisions.”
When should corporate companies take a stand?
Research from Gartner shows 65 per cent of people want to work for a company that takes a strong stand on social and environmental issues. Gartner goes on to say that HR leaders need to “advocate” for this as part of the employee value proposition.
But this is often easier said than done.
This was a topic that Tamara Pararajasingham, General Manager of Impact and Innovation at Uniting, Rhonda Brighton-Hall FCPHR and James Hancock, co-founders of Making Work Absolutely Human, dove into during their session on the corporate role in DEI.
Brighton-Hall, who also sits on AHRI’s DEI advisory committee, set the scene by referring to Eldeman’s latest trust barometer, which surveyed 32,000 people globally, and showed that Australia is on the verge of being “severely polarised”; 45 per cent of people think that our nation is more divided today than at any point in history.
“There’s a really good piece of research from Associate Professor Ruchi Sinha from the university of South Australia [which says that] subgroups divide trust, break collaboration and hamper decision making. If we can’t have conversations where people are able to join and share different views, that becomes something that will hurt teams and teamwork in every organisation,” says Brighton-Hall.
She went on to ask her fellow panellists a meaty question: ‘Do organisations have a role in participating, or even leading, social and political debates and agendas in Australia?’
Pararajasingham says this should be “no different to any other business decision”.
“You should lead with your strategy, lead with your values and reflect with your people when you make those decisions,” she says.
Hancock believes organisations could do more to make space for these types of conversations at work.
“If not, then what happens is you go home… and you’ve got three people to talk to about it, rather than the 500 or 1000 [people in your workplace]. That means we’re isolating the topics and not driving any change,” he says.
But that doesn’t mean organisations should start spouting opinions about every social issue that crops up. It requires a more strategic approach than that. Brighton-Hall suggests four options to consider:
- You are a powerful organisation that is powerful and important in society. You have an important role in speaking up and therefore should form a view on these topics.
- You have a strong corporate social responsibility agenda, but you don’t need to have a strong view on everything. For example, you’re a company that cares deeply about the environment as it aligns with your business goals and values.
- Your approach is dictated from an ESG and compliance perspective. Your investors and leaders believe that organisations need a solid ESG reporting approach to operate sustainably over time.
- Your organisation should only focus on its business purpose, meaning social issues should be dealt with outside of the work environment.
In many instances, organisations will choose an option that aligns with their appetite for social change. But they may have to choose the option that aligns best with their resources, says Pararajasingham.
“They have limited efforts and time that they can put into things. So it’s about deciding where you will lean in,” she says.
A framework that Pararajasingham uses at Uniting is whether they will lead, support, follow or not act.
“We will lead where it’s aligned with strategy values and the resources we have available at the time. We will support publicly where it [aligns with our strategy and values] but perhaps we don’t have the legitimacy or voice to add anything at this point. And sometimes we will simply follow or not act.
“But something that’s not an option is not to have the conversation about it. Not picking a position is also saying something,” says Pararajasingham.
“The study doesn’t prove that women make better CEOs than men, but it does provide powerful evidence that diverse groups make better decisions than homogeneous ones.” – Annabel Crabb, political journalist
Brighton-Hall capped off the conversation with an important point about collecting a wide range of views to ensure you’re able to come to these often-divisive workplace conversations with an understanding of all sides of the argument – consciously removing yourself from your bubble, so to speak.
“One of the first things people can do to navigate what society looks like right now is making sure you have three or four different subscriptions to newspapers,” she says. “You start to get the perspective that there isn’t a right or wrong answer. The world is complicated and we have to respect that people have vastly different experiences of everything.”
Hancock says this helps to find that important middle ground that’s often missing in these emotionally charged conversations.
“We assume too much, we over-preach and, sometimes, we talk more than we listen. Even when you don’t like what you’re hearing, you need to try and find a way to move things forward.”
The power of lived experience
One of the non-negotiable aspects of an impactful DEI strategy is input from diverse employees, according to Keri Le Page, Inclusion and Diversity Lead for Australia and New Zealand at Mars Incorporated.
“It all comes back to this idea of, ‘Nothing about me without me,’” she says. “You can’t solve an issue for a particular demographic unless they are front and centre in that discussion.”
In a panel session on the value of lived experience, Le Page shared an example of the power of lived experience to not only to make diverse employees feel more included, but also to get an entire organisation on board with DEI.
“We ran a Wear It Purple event [at Mars], and we had pride and diversity people come in and talk about statistics around youth suicide in the LGBTQI+ community, for example – which is really powerful, but it’s also academic,” she says.
“But then, we had four associates, one of whom is one of the most senior people in our organisation, talk about the fact that they were parents of rainbow children and their absolute fierce love for them and their anguish at the barriers they face for being who they are.
“I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house. It was the most moving thing because it was people we know; it was the people that sat next to us, talking about the love they have for their children despite these battles. I don’t think I’ve seen people impacted so deeply as [they were] listening to those personal stories.”
The sensitive nature of topics like this is what makes them so powerful from the listener’s perspective. However, employers should also consider the impact that sharing them might have on the speaker, says fellow panellist Shruti Chandhok, Manager of Organisation Inclusion Culture at the Victorian Department of Transport and Planning.
“[We need] to ensure when people speak about their lived experience – which often can be quite traumatic – that we’ve got the appropriate cultural support in place,” she says. “So, [for example], employee assistance programs that are culturally appropriate for our priority cohorts.”
Want to measure your company’s diversity and inclusion level? AHRI’s Diversity and Inclusion Maturity Model is a great place to start. Benchmark your efforts and drive lasting change in your workplace.
When employees contribute their perspectives at work, the panellists also stress the importance of acknowledging their input and taking swift action to address any concerns they may have. Failing to do this can lead to the very employees you’re trying to help becoming disengaged and disillusioned with the organisation’s mission.
To avoid this, Sugandha Chapman, Senior Manager of Client Delivery at Inkling Group, recommends gathering lived experience input through official, established networks such as employee resource groups or employee advocacy groups.
“It’s [about] having a platform for those voices to be heard in a regular, structured dialogue,” she says.
“So, [there need to be] clear communication channels to those who have authority and the power to actually make decisions and culture changes, so they are heard in ways that [lead to] action.”
Stay tuned for more insights from AHRI’s DEI conference over the coming weeks.