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World’s first model with Down Syndrome proves diversity is good for business

Our culture moves forward because pioneers – whether they be individuals or organisations – are willing to take the first step in promoting diversity.

Madeline Stuart is one of the fashion world’s rising stars. The 22-year-old Brisbane model has appeared in the pages of Vogue, walked the catwalk at New York, London and Paris fashion weeks, and accrued more than 190,000 followers on Instagram.

She is also the world’s first professional model with Down Syndrome.

Madeline, who will appear with her mother, Rosanne, and journalist Sara James at the AHRI International Women’s Day breakfasts, decided she wanted to be a model after she attended a fashion show with her mother in 2014. Her first modelling shots went viral and made her an international star.

Madeline’s success as a model is challenging traditional notions of beauty in an industry not known for its diversity.

Trailblazing individuals

In 2017, Forbes declared Madeline a game changer in the fashion world for normalising Down syndrome.

“She is showing other individuals with Down syndrome that it is OK to have your own hopes and aspirations,” Sara Hart Weir, president of the National Down syndrome Society in the US, told Reuters.

Trailblazers – individuals and organisations that overturn the status quo – are critical to driving social change, says Lisa Annese, CEO of the Diversity Council Australia.

Change, she believes, requires a plunge into the unknown. “It’s really important to have leaders who are out there being brave, making bold decisions and taking risks – knowing that not all risks will pay off.”

These trailblazers can be individuals, like Madeline, or pioneers in other fields, like Enid Lyons, Australia’s first woman to be elected to the federal lower house; Michael Kirby, the first openly gay man to become a Justice of the High Court of Australia; or Shemara Wikramanayake, Macquarie Group’s first female CEO and fifth on the list of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women in business outside the US in 2018.

Trailblazing organisations drive innovation too.

Annese points to Telstra, which introduced a groundbreaking All Roles Flex policy in 2014 after a successful pilot the year before.

“They were the first organisation in Australia to go out on a limb and do something bold,” she says.

All Roles Flex made flexibility mainstream, permitting Telstra employees to work part-time, outside normal nine-to-five business hours or from different locations depending on their roles.

The company didn’t stop there. In 2017, CEO Andrew Penn announced that all recruitment and interview shortlists should include at least 50 per cent female representation, which saw the number of women on interview lists rise from 35.5 per cent before implementation to 50 per cent in January 2018. It’s this type of innovation that led LinkedIn to include Telstra in the top 20 of its 2018 Top Australian Companies.

A new normal

Flexibility is now the norm at the country’s top employers, from PwC Australia to Woolworths.

“Someone has to start, someone has to be the brave person – or an organisation needs to be the brave organisation – that does something for the first time,” says Annese.

“Once that happens, others will follow, either because the competitive nature of the economy demands them to or because they think it’s the right thing to do.”

Social change can also come from above via policy and legislation, such as the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 or the establishment of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency in 2012.

It is also driven by grassroots movements, such as the decade-long push to legalise same-sex marriage that was finally successful in 2017 after 61.6 per cent of the population voted in favour of the change in the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey.

In Australia today, business is leading the way in diversity, says Annese. Business owners have “seen the value in having workplaces that are progressive, supporting strategies to improve equitable representation of women in leadership, strategies to reduce the gender gap, to minimise harassment and discrimination”.

Good for business

Statistics support the business case for diversity.

According to the DCA-Suncorp Inclusion@Work Index, inclusive teams are 10 times more likely to be highly effective than workers in non-inclusive teams, nine times more likely to innovate, and five times more likely to provide excellent customer or client service.

Inclusivity is also good for staff retention. Workers in inclusive teams are 19 times more likely to be very satisfied with their job than workers in non-inclusive teams, four times
more likely to stay with their employer, and twice as likely to receive regular career development opportunities.

Today, diversity is widely accepted, says Annese.

“There’s been a public reckoning around women and minority groups and the role they play in society – and in power, politics and business.”

However, there are two groups that remain on the margins.

The Inclusion@Work Index shows Australians with disability and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are among the most discriminated-against in the workplace.

They haven’t benefited from the overall movement of diversity in the same way others have, says Annese.

“There’s still a long way to go before we see genuine inclusion in the workplace for those two groups.”

Leading the way on this front are trailblazers who, like Madeline Stuart, are brave and determined enough to tear down some of society’s most entrenched biases, clearing the path for others to follow.

Join Madeline Stuart, her mother/manager, Rosanne, and journalist Sara James in conversation at the AHRI International Women’s Day breakfasts in Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne from 5 to 8 March.

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