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The truth of diversity

The truth of diversity

The push for parity and progress with gender equality in Australia is significant, but where do we stand on a wider diversity scale?

  • Hannah Blackiston
  • June 29, 2018
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Gender has been at the forefront of discussions around diversity for the last few years, particularly in the accounting industry. The big four firms are all discussing gender targets and putting initiatives in place to address gender gap issues.

However, these discussions often skip over the other diversity issues facing the Australian workforce. As a wider picture, there are many facets to achieving diversity and equality in the workplace. Some of these can be harder to correct, because they can be harder to see. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to have a diverse workforce.

The statistics

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 28 per cent of Australia’s population was born overseas. In addition, nearly half (49 per cent) of Australians have either been born overseas (first generation Australian) or have one or both parents born overseas (second generation Australian) and nearly 21 per cent speak a language other than English at home.

A survey of Australian workforces conducted by Hays, a global recruitment agency, found that 49 per cent of employees said that immigrants face discrimination when it comes to gaining employment in Australia. However, when drilled down to a small business level, the statistics improve. Data by marketing company Sensis shows that 61 per cent of small business owners consider their workplace to be diverse. In fact, small businesses are the leading the way in diversity, with one-third of small businesses in Australia owned by migrants.

Clouding this data is the fact that, especially when it comes to smaller businesses, there isn’t any specific data per industry. Small business data can be applied to mid-range firms but doesn’t specifically relate to the accounting industry.

When you move out into other diversity avenues, such as disability, things get even tougher. In a disappointing blind spot, there is very minimal data available for people with disabilities in workplaces. ABS data shows that 2.1 million Australians of working age (15-64) have a disability, and just over one million of those are employed, but there are no specifics around the type of work (full-time, part-time, etc.) or the severity of the disability.

The LGBTI community also faces a lack of data, although as inclusion and acceptance continues, this information may be easier to access. However, research conducted by La Trobe University shows that approximately 39 per cent of LGBTI community members have felt the need to hide their sexuality or gender identity at work.

Why does it matter?

It might seem like an obvious question — “Why does diversity matter?” — but without analysing the topic, we tend to overlook the most important aspects of having a diverse workplace.

“It’s important to have conversations about diversity because not everyone understands the benefits,” says Lisa Annese, CEO, Diversity Council Australia (DCA).

These benefits go beyond the ethical reasons of having a diverse workforce. In fact, a workplace that doesn’t support diversity has actually been proven to be detrimental to the business.

“There’s a huge amount of research that demonstrates diverse workplaces deliver improved productivity and profitability, greater creativity and innovation, improved employee wellbeing and engagement and reduced staff turnover,” Ms Annese says.

“As our [email protected] Index recently found, inclusion is incredibly good for business and for employees. Workers in inclusive teams are 19 times more likely to be very satisfied with their job, 10 times more likely to be highly effective, nine times more likely to innovate and five times more likely to provide excellent customer/client service than workers in non-inclusive teams.”

If it isn’t assessed as a base level, diversity problems can push their way into leadership roles, which further spreads the issue. If a business, or industry, is led by people with similar backgrounds and histories, their lack of difference results in a lack of scope for growth and ideas.

For a consumer-facing business, there’s an even bigger issue. According to Dr Katie Spearritt, CEO at Diversity Partners, a lack of diversity exposes a business to risks.

“We are potentially exposing ourselves to a lot of risk if we’re not able to get a range of perspectives and be more representative of our customers,” Ms Spearritt says. “That’s one of the reasons why more and more organisations focus on diversity, because there’s a lot of research showing that you’re better off with a diverse workforce in terms of how you relate and engage with your customer base.”

Where are the issues?

When it comes to people with disability, Suzanne Colbert, CEO at Australian Network on Disability (AND), says the progress hasn’t been anywhere near the levels it should be at.

“We haven’t made very much progress in workplace participation of people with disability over the last 20 years, which has been disappointing,” she says.

“The employment participation of people without disability sits at around 83 per cent, but only 53 per cent for people with disability, so there’s a big difference.

“In disability, we fall back on stereotypes, but disability can be very diverse. Only around 4 per cent of people use a wheelchair, so stairs don’t have to get in the way.”

This highlights one of the biggest issues facing workplace diversity: unconscious bias. For workers with disability, or anyone from a diverse background, facing these biases from employers or upper management can severely hinder the employment journey.

“Unconscious bias is the key barrier to diversity and inclusion progress, and recognising that we all have biases, is the first step,” Ms Spearritt says.

“We are well past the days of ‘my way or the highway’ and good business thrives on understanding our own biases and our own preferences.”

Another issue is the inability to immediately see the issues. In the discussion of gender, in the majority of cases, it’s possible to see who is male and who is female. Likewise, when it comes to race.

But for religion, sexuality and some disabilities, things aren’t so clear. What this means is that in the regions where workplaces may think they are being inclusive when it counts, there can be issues underfoot that they weren’t even aware of, because they were unable to see them.

Mark Latchford, associate director of Pride in Diversity, says this is a big barrier towards the LGBTI community being properly included in the workplace. Pride in Diversity is the national not-for-profit employer support program for LGBTI workplace inclusion specialising in HR, organisational change and workplace diversity.

“LGBTI people are diverse in themselves. There’s lesbians, gays and transgender. There’s intersex and others. And in some ways, the LGBTI community is an invisible community,” Mr Latchford says.

Because of this, the LGBTI community faces a difficulty around inclusion. If they want their status to be known, more often than not, they will need to announce it themselves. Combining this with historical issues which have long faced the community, a lack of understanding and the hostility which comes from it, Mr Latchford says the community has often turned to “self-editing” to fly under the radar.

“Because of community norms, LGBTI people can undertake a process of self-editing. They might make up relationships, make up activities that they did on the weekend, make up family circumstances and so forth because of the inherent fear of being stigmatised at work,” Mr Latchford says.

How can the diversity issue be addressed?

It can be easy to brush these issues aside and mark them as problems for someone else to fix, but it seems like a forced fix is on the horizon. Diversity targets have been a topic of discussion for a while now, and as they prove to be successful in the inclusion of gender, it seems likely to expect a further rollout addressing the other issues workplaces face.

“Evidence suggests that setting assigned targets — where managers are held accountable and rewarded for achievement where appropriate — is effective,” Ms Annese says.

“Moreover, targets are likely to be more effective where organisations put in place strategies to encourage the acceptance of and commitment to targets by addressing mindsets, culture, systems and processes.”

However, it is worth noting that diversity organisations agree that targets need to be handled with a light touch, because what works for one industry or company may not work elsewhere.

With the likelihood of diversity targets being rolled out across the nation, as they find success in the UK, it’s best to get on the front foot with diversity and make sure your business is already addressing the issues.

Ms Annese adds: “The best place to start is to take stock of your workplace to see how diverse and inclusive it really is. As well as gender diversity, are there people from different cultural backgrounds in your workplace? What about people with a disability or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians? Is your workplace inclusive of LGBTI people? What about people from different age groups?”

In a practical sense, improving diversity in your workplace starts at making sure the job descriptions you use for hiring are appropriate.

“Even the words you use in your job description are important,” Ms Spearritt says. “Just knowing that if you use a mix of words that are associated with male and female characteristics you are more likely to attract a diverse talent pool.

“If you’ve got a whole bunch of words in your job ads, words like dominant, competitive, they are more likely to have a masculine connotation and therefore attract male applicants. Similarly, if you use words like committed, interpersonal, warm, they have a feminine stereotype.”

Another tip from Ms Spearritt is that if you are using an external party for your hiring process, share your expectation with the agency in advance, and indicate that you are looking for diversity in the applicants.

A lot of public organisations will hide specific information when reviewing a CV — demographic details like gender, age, etc. — so the reviewer has the ability to focus on the skills and experience without any unconscious bias coming into play, Ms Spearritt says. Removing names from the CV also allows the reviewer to skip any bias there may be around culture or race.

“The most important thing when selecting any employee is ensuring that the candidate is a good job fit,” Ms Colbert says. This is no different when selecting a candidate from a diverse background; you still want to ensure they’re the right fit for that role.

Ms Colbert adds: “The most important thing is to be really clear about the role. If you’re clear that a role really does require extensive use of the telephone, and there’s no other way to achieve that, by making that clear, then a person who is deaf or hard of hearing who can’t use their voice over a telephone will know not to apply. On the other hand, there are lots of roles where that’s not so important.”

Another tip from Ms Colbert was to ask people their preferred method of communication in the recruitment process, so if a person is unable to use the telephone, their application can proceed.

From a practical point of view, hiring a person with a disability isn’t the task we may presume it is. With only 4 per cent of people with disability using a wheelchair, the common misconception of having to refit an office to make it accessible isn’t necessarily going to come into play.

However, if your new hire does come with physical requirements which aren’t currently met by your office, there’s help available. Job Access is a government initiative which connects employers with the tools they need to make sure workers with disability are correctly included in the workforce. It’s a system Ms Colbert has used personally through hiring a worker with a wheelchair. After Job Access sent out a case manager to access the needs of the worker and the current workplace offerings, a request was put in for a new door, something which was completed, and paid for, by the service.

Language is an easy place to start for employers and workers looking to be more inclusive. Mr Latchford says that particularly for an LGBTI community member, language can be one of the hardest things to overcome in a workplace.

It’s not just for employers; clients benefit from language considerations, too. Mr Latchford highlighted his accountant who doesn’t use gendered terms when asking about family. While it can be hard to embrace these changes into your vocabulary, the benefit to your business in the long run is worth the initial uncomfortableness.

Education is considered the easiest place to start for businesses or employers looking to change. A lack of understanding leads to fear around conversation, which then leaves us sticking to the patterns we know. Without taking that first step into education, the conversations that need to be had in order for diversity to progress can seem awkward or uncomfortable and easier to ignore.

The process of becoming more diverse doesn’t have to be a hard one, says Mr Latchford, and the small steps are the ones that lead to the biggest changes.

He says: “Organisations don’t have to suddenly commit to marching in the Mardi Gras; we’re just talking about small steps to tell employees and future employees that it’s a great place to work.”

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