2015: Not the year to waste diverse talent

Lisa Annese
Topics Inclusion
Lisa Annese Chief Executive Officer Diversity Council Australia

As 2014 draws to a close, I have been reflecting on the key diversity issues for the year.  A recurring theme in Diversity Council Australia’s work has been the issue of merit: are we making the most of diverse talent or are there still barriers to recognising and rewarding them on their merits?

Merit based recruitment and promotion processes are fraught topics. For some, hiring and promoting staff on merit alone is the only way to ensure that the most suitable candidate is selected for the role. For others, a meritorious decision making process is inherently impossible as we are all each influenced by our own biases and assumptions.  Yet most of us would agree on one thing – that our leadership ranks are distinctly lacking in diversity in all its forms.

In the lead up to International Women’s Day in March, DCA looked at the latest research on leadership and concluded that many programs aimed at increasing the representation of women are failing to deliver results. Despite some positive trends for women leaders amongst Australia’s largest listed companies, there is still a long way to go before women reach anything like equal representation with men. Relying on the ‘pipeline’ of women leaders to reach the top, adopting programs that aim to ‘fix women’, blaming them for not ‘leaning in’ enough and thinking that merit alone will solve the problem, have not and will not change the picture.

Organisations can create positive change, however, if they focus on programs that actually work. This includes ‘gender conscious’ initiatives such as targeted recruitment programs and women’s leadership development; fixing the culture by moving away from the ‘deficit model’ that says women are the problem; addressing bias of all kinds; and adopting a broader, more gender inclusive definition of leadership capability. It also includes adopting targets and being publicly accountable for them and having a well-resourced, dedicated diversity function.

Our Cracking the Cultural Ceiling research released in August found that, despite being a talented and ambitious group with plenty of merit, leaders and emerging leaders from Asian cultural backgrounds experience significant obstacles to career development and progression, and retention. Cultural bias and stereotyping are major problems. So too is the ‘Westernised’ leadership model that demands a particular style that is at odds with many Asian cultures.

But again, there is a lot that organisations can do to dismantle the barriers for Asian talent if they make the effort.  They can start by focusing on building internal cultural capability, as well as developing a broader view of what being an effective leader looks like so they are not unintentionally filtering out Asian talent.  As Founder and Executive Director at Diverse Australasian Women's Network, Dai Le, said at the launch of the findings, “Employers should look past their preconceived ideas about what leaders should look like and think about the many skills and talents that diverse leaders can offer their organisation, the clients they serve and the business they can build by harnessing this 'cultural wealth'.”

Equal Pay Day this year saw DCA explore the growing body of evidence about the ‘motherhood penalty’ – the impact that bearing and raising children has on women's wages – that is a substantial contributor to the stubbornly high gender pay gap. Raising children accounts for a 17% loss in lifetime wages for women, with the kind of work many mothers undertake not only being lower-paid than the work they did prior to having children, but also frequently not reflecting their abilities, education levels or work experience.

Organisations can help reduce the gender pay gap by ensuring they have strategies in place to support mothers – and fathers – to manage their family responsibilities alongside their paid work. Things like ensuring flexible work is available to all employees at all levels of the organisation, and supporting pregnant women and mothers to return to work and to continue to be valued members of the workforce with the same opportunities as their colleagues are really important.

The DCA and INPEX 2014 Annual Diversity Debate held in November took the opportunity to explore the issue of merit in greater depth. Despite the opposing arguments, it became clear by the end of the night that they all agreed on one thing: everyone deserves a ‘fair go’ and promotion decisions should be based purely on the ability of a person to perform a role. However, both sides pointed to problems of how merit is defined, the way merit is applied in the workplace and the pathways for promotion.

The affirmative team of the debate, arguing that promotion on merit does in fact give everyone a ‘fair go’, emphasised the importance of removing impediments to merit in the first place so that people have equal opportunities to develop and grow - before they ever get to an interview panel.

They argued that the way that our workplace and homes are structured place gendered expectations on women, such as being the primary care giver. These old rules dominate public and domestic life and reinforce existing cultural and social structures ultimately limiting options for women.

So then, how can the pathway to merit be opened? According to Patricia Karvelas, Victorian Editor and Bureau Chief of The Australian, we need to ensure that all supporting structures are improved so that all people can reach their full potential. In particular, she highlighted the importance of equal educational opportunities, and the provision of flexible working arrangements. Only then, when “we provide a road to success that is blind to difference will we ever achieve equality.”

Although many of us would agree with Patricia, the way that merit itself is defined and applied was a point of contention the debate. The negative team, arguing that promotion on merit does not in fact give everyone a ‘fair go’, highlighted that focusing on merit can actually produce more unfair outcomes. This is due to the way that merit is often defined and applied. Dr Jennifer Whelan, former academic and Director of Psynapse, describes that for merit based decisions to be fair, three elements are required:

  1. An accurate definition of what merit is
  2. An accurate measurement of how merit is going to be measured and how much people have of it, and
  3. Ensuring that the final decision is made purely based on the first two elements and nothing else.

Unfortunately, as many of us can guess, humans struggle to make decisions in this way, and this is especially so during recruitment activities.  Hiring processes can be “more akin to a dating process than a selection process” said Jennifer, with an emphasis on ‘soft skills’ which cannot be objectively measured. And without objective measures, we will rely on how someone ‘feels’ to us, and inevitably be influenced by our own biases, assumptions and stereotypes of people.

As the mostly male, middle-aged and Anglo boards of many of Australia’s largest organisations quite clearly demonstrate, merit ends up being defined in fairly self-referential ways that limit diversity and ultimately, merit.

Instead, the negative team suggested that a greater focus be placed on fairness, rather than merit, to produce more favourable outcomes. This is more likely to result in candidates that are the most suitable winning positions and promotions.

Although there could only be one winning team for the debate (the negative team won), the panel clearly agreed on one important thing: that all organisations need to afford their employees and potential employees a ‘fair go’ in order harness talent and reap the benefits of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

As we reflect on this year and prepare for the next, I encourage all organisations to do just that.

Lisa Annese is DCA's Chief Executive Officer

Twitter @LisaAnnese@DivCouncilAus

DCA thanks all of its members, project partners and sponsors for their involvement with and support of DCA throughout 2014.

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