Workplace diversity progress hampered by lack of strategic engagement and resources

Media releases

Although the business sector has maintained a commitment to workplace diversity for many years, a new survey reveals many organisations are still at the foundation stage of their diversity programs and have a declining focus on diversity strategy. The survey findings also suggest corporations don’t fully realise the business benefits of inclusive workplaces.

Korn/Ferry International, Futurestep and Diversity Council Australia (DCA) surveyed more than 100 diversity managers and human resources leaders in Australia and New Zealand to learn the profile of diversity functions within organisations and the professionals leading and implementing diversity strategy. The survey revealed a lack of strategic engagement, with 81 percent of respondents believing senior leadership is critical to the success of a diversity and inclusion strategy. However, most senior level managers were only ‘somewhat involved’ or ‘not very involved’. Given the history of workplace diversity, surprisingly 41 percent of businesses indicated they were at the building foundation stage of their diversity program. A lack of commitment to full-time, experienced diversity leaders was evident, with 60 percent of respondents having limited or no background in diversity.

Jacqueline Gillespie, Senior Partner, Korn/Ferry, said CEOs must properly commit to a workplace model that embeds diversity and inclusion in every level of an organisation. “Many CEOs have not been exposed to what true workplace diversity looks like. Our research suggests they view it as recruitment and compliance process, rather than a strategy that helps to grow and engage talent and competitiveness required for business growth.”

Gillespie cited diversity managers’ limited experience in the field as evidence that diversity is not considered the responsibility of senior leadership. Sixty percent of survey respondents have none or limited experience within a similar role before taking on their current responsibilities for diversity, and 40 percent of diversity professionals have less than three years’ experience.

The CEO of Diversity Council Australia, Nareen Young, said the survey findings are one explanation of why progress in some areas of diversity has been so poor, despite legislation.  “Minimal increases in women in leadership positions, persistent barriers to more flexible working and the notable absence of people with a disability and Aboriginal Australians in our workplaces show current organisational approaches are not working. We aren’t going to see a lot of improvement in these areas if organisations don’t value the diversity function, aren’t strategic about planning for it or don’t properly resource it.”  

Responsibility for diversity and inclusion is almost exclusively the domain of the human resources function (82 percent) with small pockets following an alternative model. Eight percent of respondents have a stand-alone team reporting directly to the CEO or senior leadership, three percent of respondents sit within the strategy team, two percent in corporate communications or sustainability and five percent elsewhere in the organisation. Korn/Ferry believes the structural ‘home’ of diversity doesn’t really matter as long the discipline has a voice at the strategy table. “It is often ‘in the moment’ discussions around the boardroom or executive table where careers and reputations are perpetuated. In these moments, active sponsorship of diversity is required,” said Gillespie.

In a promising sign that organisations understand the importance of supporting diversity programs, the next 12-24 months will see an increase in HR capability, talent development, managing diversity and unconscious bias training. 

Age/generation, flexibility, LGBT, mental health, disability, and cultural diversity will also benefit from an increased focus in the next 12-24 months, while diversity strategy, diagnosis and Indigenous will decrease. Gender and related disciplines such as women in leadership and flexibility remain the area of most focus in diversity programs.

Young said DCA’s unique knowledge bank of research, practice and expertise assists organisations across all diversity dimensions. “Our research in areas like age and gender diversity, flexible working and cultural diversity will be particularly relevant given the increased focus on these areas in the next couple of years. Regardless of whether an organisation is just commencing its diversity strategic planning or is well advanced and looking for new frontiers in diversity thinking, membership of DCA will provide many benefits. It can be especially useful for new diversity managers, those organisations that have limited resources in the area or anyone who wants to know what leading practice looks like.”

Gillespie noted that organisations have had a long history of counting the numbers and while this information is critical it has not enabled the analysis of the root cause of the issues: “An adhoc approach to diversity initiatives has often been in absence of any strategic diagnosis of the core issues and without appropriate emphasis on leadership and cultural change. Leadership is key for change and a shift in emphasis toward leadership for inclusion is required. While people from diverse groups benefit from career programs and mentoring, it is vital that organisations also focus on building leadership capability around inclusion. One without the other does not change things.”

“While there are some organisations leading the way on diversity, many of whom are DCA members, a lot of others are in the early stages of thinking about and implementing diversity management. I urge business leaders to take another look at their diversity function to ensure they have the skills, resources and strategic engagement they need to achieve change and harness the benefits of diversity,” Young said.

Results at a glance:

  • 66 percent of organisations had a designated manager with diversity and inclusion responsibilities
  • 62 percent of diversity managers combine diversity with other responsibilities, usually talent and leadership development and human resources
  • Most (54 percent) report to either the head of HR or head of Talent and Culture, while
  • 14 percent report to the CEO
  • 62 percent of diversity teams have two or less members
  • 70 percent of respondents with diversity responsibilities are female
  • 85 percent of diversity professionals are degree or higher qualified
  • 67 percent have career experience in human resources
  • 60 percent of respondents have none or limited experience in diversity before their current role
  • 20 percent of respondents have 10+ years in a diversity-related discipline and 40 percent have less than three years’ experience. Men were 10 percent more likely to have the greatest tenure working in diversity than women
  • 44 percent of respondents had diversity added to their existing responsibilities, 24 percent were internally hired and 32 percent were externally hired
  • Half of organisations are only at the compliance (eight percent) or foundation (41 percent) stages of their diversity strategies
  • Gender and women in leadership not the top priority for diversity and inclusion strategies as they have been in the past
  • Flexibility is the biggest issue for business.