Not many years ago, most references to diversity were coupled with an allusion to tolerance. And that was not necessarily such a good thing.
Diversity has increasingly come to be associated with positives – and as something that we are distinctly the poorer for if it’s missing. That is the case for workplaces and workforces, as it is with nation states.
The merits of diversity
When Barack Obama delivered a victory speech to the American people to acknowledge his election win and set the tone of his second presidential term, his language extolled the greatness of America and the speech is fundamentally cast in language that exalts the merits of diversity.
This is part of what he said:
“I believe we can keep the promise of our founding, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you live. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, abled, disabled, gay or straight. You can make it here in America if you’re willing to try. And together, with your help and God’s grace,” he said, “we will continue our journey forward and remind the world just why it is that we live in the greatest nation on earth.”
The speech sets out one of the classic arguments for the diversity business case. America is great not because it encourages uniformity and a monoculture but because it celebrates difference in its many manifestations.
A workforce that lacks diversity today would be one which is suspect with regard to its potential for innovation and creativity. It’d be regarded as a workforce that is at a competitive disadvantage to its rivals. Conversely, astute management of diversity is now increasingly recognised as leading to business benefits.
A lack of diversity risks innovation
Two years ago, three Ernst & Young partners were commissioned by the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants to brief its Risk Oversight and Governance Board on diversity. The paper pointed out that failure to adequately address diversity “could present a risk to a company’s ability to innovate, attract clients and partners, or keep pace within its industry”.
The Interim Chair of the Board, Giles Meikle, noted that diversity is “increasingly regarded as a business imperative”, with benefits deriving from areas such as organisational performance and problem solving. Customers are a critical part of the diversity business case. A former HR manager of the Australian Federal Police, Stephen Walker, noted that research by Harris Interactive found that 75 per cent of gay and 42 per cent of straight consumers in the US are less likely to buy products from companies perceived to hold negative views of lesbians and gay men. Walker also drew attention to the business benefits of pink. The gay and lesbian market in the US, he said, has an annual buying power in the order of US$743 billion.
As far back as 2004, he noted The Age reporting that the Australian equivalent of gay and lesbian households commands an annual disposable income of AU$10 billion. Those customer bases are neglected at the peril of business, but they are more likely to be neglected where workplace cultures are not inclusive, and impact negatively on staff retention and customer engagement.
IBM’s diversity experience has been 15 years in the making, according to the Ernst & Young briefing. In 1995, then CEO Lou Gerstner launched a diversity initiative that changed the culture of the company. It created eight taskforces, each focusing on a different affinity group, which was later expanded to 72 diversity councils and 160 employee network groups.
It also made progress in diversifying its leadership. Female executives increased 370 per cent, the number of ethnic-minority executives born in the US increased by 233 per cent, and positive policies for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) co-workers make it an employer of choice. The diversity taskforce groups’ recommendations to the marketing department translated into hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue.
So we have some very positive diversity role models among the world’s top companies and yet we still have much to do in all fields of diversity.
This is an edited version of Wilson’s opening address at the 2012 Diversity and Inclusion Conference, held on 16 November 2012.