Recent grumblings from certain sections of the media about the appointment of David Morrison as Australian of the Year are not just about cutting down a tall poppy, but are also somewhat hypocritical. Commentators have said that the award ‘ought to reflect and unite this great nation.’ But they fail to acknowledge that David Morrison exemplifies the best traditions of promoting our national values. What, after all, is more Australian than being an advocate for a fair go for all?
For all the whinging about the diversity ‘industry’, they overlook that what workplace diversity is actually all about is giving everyone a fair go. That means a fair go in getting into employment, being treated fairly at work, and being able to work hard and have that work recognised through career advancement. I feel absolutely confident that the vast majority of Australians believe that it shouldn’t matter whether you come from a rich family or one that’s struggling, whether you are a man or a woman, what your cultural background is, whether you have a disability – we all should have the right to a fair go.
The organisation I lead – Diversity Council Australia – is a not-for-profit diversity advisor to more than 300 organisations, across both the private and public sectors, which collectively employ more than one million Australians. Many of these organisations are among Australia’s leading employers and they have shared their delight with us over David’s appointment. What we share is a desire to make our workplaces fairer and more inclusive of difference.
We are incredibly proud to have David as the Chair of our board, an unpaid role that he took up last year following his retirement from the Army. He has been an outstanding voice for a fair go at work and we are delighted that as Australian of the Year he has chosen to continue to advocate for a more diverse and inclusive Australia.
The media criticism has been particularly puzzling given that the business case for a more diverse and inclusive workforce is now well established and widely accepted by industry.
Diversity and inclusion is a key issue for the contemporary workplace with a huge body of global research and data demonstrating the benefits for business. Diverse and inclusive workplaces show improved productivity and profitability, greater creativity and innovation, improved employee wellbeing and engagement and reduced employee turnover, to name just a few. For employers this means very concrete bottom line financial benefits. Increasingly, employers are well aware of the potential return on investment, and have established programs in place.
In Australian businesses, it is no longer controversial or ‘politically correct’ to want to tackle the challenges of diversity and inclusion. It makes basic business sense. But it also makes sense for our broader Australian community and economy.
The fact that women on average earn 17.9% less than men[i], and retire with average superannuation balances that are half of those of men[ii] has massive implications not only for individual women and their families, but for our welfare system, given Australia’s ageing population.
How about that one in two (49%) mothers reported experiencing discrimination in the workplace at some point during pregnancy, parental leave or on return to work? Australian mums and their babies deserve better. And it’s not just about women. Dads also find it difficult to combine paid work with parenting, with some 27% of fathers reporting experiencing discrimination related to parental leave and returning to work.[iii] Moreover, 37% of young fathers have seriously considered leaving their organisation in the last six months because of a lack of access to flexible work.[iv]
Is it also unreasonable to ask why women only represent 15.4% of CEOs or Heads of Business in Australia[v] and people from diverse cultural backgrounds are significantly underrepresented at senior levels in Australian companies, given Australia’s multicultural communities and global markets?[vi] Innovation demands diverse perspectives from our business leaders.
At a time when polls show around three quarters of Australians support the rights of gay and lesbian couples to marry, should we overlook the widespread prevalence of bullying, harassment or violence people experience on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity?[vii]
Our economy and community has so much to gain from the greater workforce participation of people with disability which currently stands around 30 percentage points lower than for other Australians, while people with mental health disability experience the lowest participation rate and highest unemployment.[viii]
And let’s not forget the need to close the work gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people which currently stands around 20% below other Australians’ rate of workforce participation.[ix] Supporting Indigenous people in the paid workforce has enormous benefits for individuals, families and communities.
We cannot escape the fact that these, and many other people in our society, are not given the opportunity to reach their potential; and are not afforded the dignity or purpose that work offers. This is an enormous waste of potential with huge costs to our community and our economy.
David’s appointment as Australian of the Year does not mean that people from these communities, who have real life experience of disadvantage, should not also be heard. But his appointment does represent a very real opportunity for Australia. He is a voice from, as he himself acknowledges, the privileged ‘mainstream majority’ who is prepared to publicly indicate his commitment to diversity. Importantly, however he has demonstrated a willingness to go beyond this to hold his workforce accountable for treating each other with respect and hold himself accountable to that standard as well. He has also demonstrated that he is committed to continually learning about diversity and inclusion including through engaging with less privileged minority voices, and also to initiating conversations about what can sometimes be very contentious issues, respectfully and inclusively.
There is something very powerful about having a man such as David advocate for, and engage with diversity and inclusion. He can speak to others in the mainstream majority and it is possible that they may be more receptive to and able to ‘hear’ his message because of that. Many who have worked in diversity and inclusion circles have argued that having a powerful voice from the mainstream talk ‘with us’ is a breakthrough factor we need. Indeed if men like David do not speak out, many who work in this space would continue to ask – why not?
David has also openly acknowledged his own privilege, of being white and male and heterosexual, and does not overlook this truth. If that can speak to other men like him, then so much the better.
His experience in one of Australia’s most traditional and male dominated workplaces has given him unparalleled insights into the negative impact of inequality and what it takes to create change in an organisation. These are insights that many business leaders are keen to learn from.
Australia needs more men like David Morrison to speak about inequality and diversity, and to challenge the status quo. The fact that so many Australians are still not getting a fair go should give us all something to think about and work to remedy.
Lisa Annese has been Chief Executive Officer for Diversity Council Australia since June 2014.