The Diversity Agenda


Hey Guys, I think we totally missed the point this week…

This week the Diversity Council of Australia (DCA) launched a campaign entitled Words at Work, highlighting the potentially damaging impact of language at work in preventing inclusion. Their Chair and our Australian of the Year, David Morrison, was the face of the campaign which featured this 2 minute video:

It left a bit to be desired in terms of acting and tried to keep things light-hearted by making a few kind of silly jokes, but ultimately pointed out a number of words and phrases used relatively innocuously at work that can consciously or unconsciously, serve to exclude others. The terms the campaign video specifically called out included, ‘girls’, ‘feisty, ‘bossy’, ‘ball breaker’, ‘gay’, ‘abbo’, ‘retard’, ‘poofter’ and ‘dyke’. These terms do not promote inclusivity. Point well made, DCA.

Morrison got up bright and early to appear on the ABC in relation to the launch of the campaign. During his interview he made reference to the use of the term ‘guys’ – which didn’t appear in DCA’s video but did in their supporting guide – as one of the words we’d benefit from expelling from our workplace vocabulary when referring to a group including females.

At this point, the campaign stopped being about the use of exclusive language at work and started being about the use of ‘guys’. News outlets across Australia and the world (I read a NY Times article on the topic!) brandished headlines reading “Australian of the Year/Former Chief of Army wants people to stop using the term ‘guys'”. Predictably, many had an opinion and jumped on the bandwagon:

Words at Work - Guys

A teeny tiny but reflective sample of the feedback on David Morrison’s: Words at Work launch interview.

Language experts were cited as saying Morrison was wrong and the term was gender neutral. Politicians jumped on the bandwagon rebutting his point, proclaiming they’ll keep using gendered terms and cautioning anyone trying to curb freedom of speech. (!?)

I am not going to take issue with use the term guys, I accept that in many contexts it’s used as a gender neutral term, including by me. (I might however argue that it didn’t necessarily start out that way, and perhaps as a society we became used to women being referred to as ‘guys’ and at some point it became so normalised that we no longer took issue with it…) But I am going to take issue with this being ‘political correctness gone mad’, an assault on freedom of speech and the many comments I read that suggested we have bigger things to worry about in relation to equality.

So regularly we are presented with information that declares the perversity of inequality paired with observations and exasperations on the lack of progress being made. Corporates, community groups and governments resolve to address the problem and throw money at interventions and research. That research has taught us to understand unconscious bias. Research has taught us about the power of inclusion… and exclusion. Research has taught us about the many problematic manifestations of stereotypes. And as DCA quite clearly articulated within the first 45 seconds of the video, research has taught us about the impact of words, “how language cuts people out, or cuts them down.” Above all, the research has taught us that inequality is not eliminated with any ‘silver bullet’ because it is reinforced, consciously and unconsciously, in so many aspects of our lives. It is deeply engrained in how we live.

It is entirely counterproductive to aspire to foster diversity, inclusion and equality and yet reject what the research tells us is holding us back. The reality is that creating more equal workplaces and communities will involve some uncomfortable reflections about how we’ve been operating. We will need to address some of the unintentional ways we have been excluding and marginalising people. And perhaps most obviously, we will need to adjust our behaviours in order to create the change to which we’re aspiring.

David Morrison missed the mark this week, but lets not miss the point. There is great power in words to enable or inhibit inclusion and it serves us all to choose them carefully.

The Future of Parental Leave

Mother’s Day this month gave us cause to stop and recognise the wonderful female carers in our lives. Yet as thousands of pairs of fluffy slippers were unwrapped across the country, you’d be forgiven for pausing to consider what it is that Australian working mums actually need most.

There is no shortage of data to quantify the gap between women and men at work. While women make up nearly half (46%) of the workforce and are on average more educated, they fill only 23% of director positions, 15% of CEO roles and experience a gender pay gap in average weekly earnings of 17.3%. When you consider only the full-time annualised total remuneration (salary + super + bonus) of people in non pubic sector organisations with more than 100 employees, the gap widens to 24%. At retirement, average superannuation balances for women are 53% less than those for men.

Despite the considered efforts around reporting, targets and affirmative action, we are not seeing the change aspired. EY’s recent data suggests we’ve actually gone backwards in the last couple of years, estimating at our current rate of progress, it will take more than 117 years to achieve gender parity.

Why the gap? 

Women taking time out of the workforce to start a family is, as you may expect, a contributing factor. While nature necessitates that mums play a critical part in parenting, our policies and practice often disincentivise dads to share the load. Less than 40% of organisations provide secondary carer’s leave and of those that do, it’s often five days. The result serves to compound the stereotypes we hold around the roles of women and men at work and home and feed unconscious biases that can inhibit the progress of women.

What can we do? 

While there’s no silver bullet, one of the best ways we can reduce the workplace impacts on working mums is to un-gender the role of primary care givers and extend parental entitlements to mums and dads in equal measure. If secondary care givers are incentivised (i.e. receive paid leave of equal proportion) to take on the role of primary care giver, we will of course see parenting shared more equally and normalise the practise of both genders taking time away from the workplace to start and raise a family. Creating a culture where work inside and outside the home is shared more equally is pivotal to unwinding the biases we hold around gender, work and parenting.

The way forward

The future of parental leave is offering all parents the same entitlements to care for their children. The pendulum of equality must swing both ways and provide (and encourage!) men with the same opportunity to raise their children. After all, they’re parents too.

Businesses leading the charge

There’s some sensational organisations already recognising the benefits of enabling both parents to take time out to parent.

National Australia Bank offers 12 weeks paid primary carers leave to both parents which can be taken at any time during the first 12 months of a child’s life.

Aurizon recently launched their shared care scheme, incentivising partners who take on the role of primary carer for between 13-26 weeks with half pay for the period. If a mother returns to work at Aurizon and her partner (who works elsewhere) takes unpaid leave of 13-26 weeks to take on the primary care giving role,  the mother receives 150% of her salary for the duration.

Silicon Valley is fast becoming a hotspot for progressive parental leave, a happy result of their local war for talent. Facebook now offers all new parents up to 4 months paid leave. Etsy offers both parents 6 months paid leave. Netflix are leading the pack with up to 12 months paid leave for both parents. These offerings all apply to adoptive parents too.

As policy makers in government and business well know, no change is without challenge. Yet if we genuinely want to see gender parity in less than a century, this is an enormous step in the right direction.

How do you create a diversity advocate?

As a diversity practitioner, one question that’s long captivated my interest is this: how do you create a diversity advocate?

I’m not talking about those people who naturally find their way to advocacy, too often as a result of a firsthand experience as part of the out-group. I’m talking about how you win the hearts and minds of people who don’t see the value of diversity and inclusion.

We’ve all worked with them at some point; leaders who think D&I is a social agenda, a ‘nice to have’ or worst of all – a waste of time and resources.

So how do you change their view?

Certainly, the business case for diversity and inclusion should factor into the conversation at some point. Conclusive organisational data goes a way to winning minds… but rarely hearts. Compelling your audience to not only believe, but actively lead, takes something extra.

When it comes to success stories, what better example to draw upon than our newly appointed Australian of the Year, Lieutenant General David Morrison. With more than thirty years of service in arguably one of the most ‘blokey’ organisational cultures in Australia, when Morrison took the helm as Chief of Army, gender advocacy was not high on the ADF agenda. After the 2011 ‘Skype scandal’ made headlines for all the wrong reasons, then Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, was asked to investigate.

By his own admission, Morrison rolled his eyes when he learned of ‘another bloody review’. Broderick described the initial reception from the ADF as ‘defensive’, ‘passive aggressive’ and after her first meeting with Morrison concluded that she ‘needed to find a lever of change that would have much more impact’.

And that she did. In a demonstration of what made her such an effective Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Broderick found three courageous women who were willing to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault in the ADF. She described them as ‘women who loved the army but whose service had come at an unacceptable personal cost’.

Broderick contacted Morrison and asked him to make time to come and hear the women’s stories – not as Chief as Army, but as David Morrison, human being.

In plain clothes they met at the Human Rights Commission in Sydney and for six hours, David Morrison the person, listened.

I had the privilege of hearing General Morrison speak at the AHRI Diversity and Inclusion Conference several years back. With Liz Broderick on stage alongside him, he recounted the story of this day. He said that he’d been in the Army for more than 30 years, he’d been to war, seen terrible, gut wrenching things in service. But nothing was as haunting as hearing the stories of the three courageous women on that day. In the Australian Story special, ‘Boots and All’, he described hearing ‘stores that not just tore at my heart, but tore at the ideas that I had about an institution that reported to describe itself as one that gave everyone a fair go. They hadn’t been given anything like a fair go.’ He left the meeting upset, but ‘absolutely convinced that I needed to be even firmer in my approach to deal with this’.

By all accounts, it was a life changing moment.

Clearly Morrison has long been a decisive, driven and compelling leader. But it was the courage of three women willing to share their stories, and Liz Broderick’s understanding of the impact they’d have, which created the impetus that would eventually make David Morrison into the incredible diversity advocate he is today.

Now I can’t name a HR professional who’d wish a public sex scandal on their organisation, nor the discovery of a mass of marginalised employees.

Yet unlike even the most artfully-crafted business case, or the most compelling data, there is something about sitting face to face with someone and listening to their experience which will always be hard to ignore.

When it comes to winning hearts and minds, we need to connect leaders with the untold stories of our organisations… and ask them to listen.