Having spearheaded content guidelines as a means of increasing diversity at the ABC, Ita Buttrose proposes how other organisations can achieve greater diversity in their own ranks.
In Love on the Spectrum, an ABC reality dating series released in late 2019, young adults on the autism spectrum navigate the trials and tribulations of modern dating.
Another of the ABC’s newly released programs, First Day, traces the experiences of a 12-year-old transgender girl as she begins her first day of high school, while political drama Total Control follows the career of an Indigenous senator, who faces barriers from within Parliament House and her own community.
The ABC’s objective to bring more diverse content to our screens was recently given a further push when Ita Buttrose, chair of the national broadcaster, introduced new diversity guidelines for content earlier this year.
In advance of her talk at AHRI’s Convention TRANSFORM 2021 this August, Buttrose speaks with HRM about her career trajectory in advocating for greater equality, how the ABC’s guidelines are contributing to a more inclusive and diverse Australia, and what steps organisations can take to advance their own D&I agenda.
Casting our minds back
Well before Buttrose was appointed as chair of the ABC in 2019, advocating for greater diversity and inclusion shaped her career trajectory.
In the 1970s when Buttrose served in high-profile editing positions at Cleo and The Australian Women’s Weekly, progressing the status of women occupied many of her waking hours.
Some of the major issues in women’s rights and liberation at the time, recalls Buttrose, were the right to have a voice, and the right to be granted maternity leave.
While at the Weekly, Buttrose created greater flexibility for working women with children by adjusting their start and end times.
“As a working mother with small children myself, I knew how difficult it was for women to juggle their many responsibilities.
“That’s why I tell women who seek my advice to aim for CEO roles because they come with a power base that allows you to make important changes without seeking permission.”
Buttrose’s time at the helm of these popular publications coincided with the heyday of women’s liberation, and Buttrose was eager to balance male and female representation in her teams to ensure the most diverse thinking and skills were brought to the table.
“When I became editor of the Women’s Weekly [in 1975], I increased the number of men on the staff to 25 per cent and once again witnessed the benefits of using male and female skills to produce a better magazine.”
Back then, Buttrose said there was minimal discussion about improving inclusivity of people from different cultural backgrounds, even though the remnants of the ‘White Australia Policy’ were removed in 1973, and multiculturalism was introduced into Australia soon after.
Nowadays, she says Australians have accepted and support multiculturalism but the benefits to the workplace in corporate boardrooms and in our parliaments, where there is a notable lack of cultural diversity, has been slow.
Progress has also lagged in the media industry, leading Buttrose to comment in a 2019 interview with ABC Radio National: “We do need to be more representative of the country that we represent… You could say that much of the media is white, and we are not all white. We do have to better reflect the culture of Australia.”
She urged the ABC – and media outlets more broadly – to strive towards accurately reflecting the diversity of cultures and ethnicities in multicultural Australia.
And so, she set about doing just that.
Behind the scenes
The ABC Five-Year Plan 2020-2025 includes a “key commitment to look and sound like contemporary Australia”, says Buttrose.
“Our new Commissioning for Diversity and Inclusion Guidelines build on the work we have done to date, by ensuring our screens look like our streets – with more diverse talent, voices, cultures and stories,” says Buttrose.
The guidelines focus on five key areas of representation – gender representation, Indigenous Australians, cultural and linguistic diversity, disability, and LGBTQI+ – and cover the following list of requirements:
- Diversity on screen – what the program is about and/or who is on screen
- Diversity off screen – diversity in key creative, production and crew roles
- Career progression – creating practical opportunities for under-represented groups, such as those mentioned above.
To ensure diversity is front of mind both on-screen and off-screen, producers are required to submit their Diversity and Inclusion Plan at the commissioning stage.
“A broad range of perspectives, people and stories makes us stronger, more creative and better able to engage with each other and the wider Australian community,” says Buttrose.
Placing diversity and inclusion at the forefront of each decision in the creative process has helped to enable programs such as Love on the Spectrum and First Day to come to fruition.
The guidelines have also strengthened the ABC’s employee value proposition.
“We have received feedback from job candidates that our commissioning guidelines and broader diversity and inclusion policies were the reasons that they wanted to work for us.”
Speeding up progress
So how can boardrooms, parliaments and organisations learn from the ABC’s approach and move the dial on cultural diversity?
The first step, says Buttrose, is reframing diversity and inclusion “from an obligation to an opportunity”.
“Ensuring greater diversity and inclusion within the wider screen industry is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. It ensures that we have more authenticity in storytelling and more inclusive decision making.”
It’s also the smart thing to do for a business’s bottom line, as McKinsey’s latest report indicates.
Placing practical strategies as a priority, Buttrose says the ABC’s D&I Plan and Elevate Reconciliation Action Plan 2019-2022 includes “training for staff about how they can be agents of culture change and providing managers with the toolkits and training to foster the right culture. We also ask staff to share their thoughts about what an inclusive culture looks like by holding diversity forums”.
Raising awareness is often an initial sweeping measure that organisations are enthusiastic to explore, but Buttrose urges them to move beyond this solution and instead focus on “effective structural fixes”.
“Setting down guidelines sends a clear signal, both internally and to external partners, about an organisation’s expectations and priorities,” she says, adding that the ABC also offers multiple work placements and opportunities to under-represented groups, including Indigenous creatives and people living with disability.
Recruiting diverse employees is one element, but once employees of diverse backgrounds join your organisation, it’s important to further reduce barriers by creating inclusive onboarding processes.
“Improving representation needs to focus on understanding the barriers to employment; enacting structural changes to address those barriers; engaging all staff to achieve change (while giving priority to diverse voices); and monitoring the success of those actions,” says Buttrose.
Want to hear more from Ita Buttrose? Then register to attend AHRI’s unmissable convention, TRANSFORM 2021.
Secure your place with certainty with the option to move to a virtual ticket or receive a refund if you’re unable to attend in person due to COVID-19 restrictions.