More than ever, Australians must work together to create an inclusive society

Lisa Annese, DCA's CEO
Opinion pieces
Lisa Annese photo

The new year brings with it new hope and optimism, a chance for a fresh start and an opportunity to reassess the way forward. Or at least that’s the plan.

On one hand, 2016 was a tough year because in many ways it felt as though the conversation about Australia’s diversity became more polarised. Just talking about diversity in the public arena seemed to split people into opposing camps: for and against. But it wasn’t bad when it came to my work at DCA in helping businesses harness the benefits of diversity.

More businesses adopted a diversity policy and many are introducing innovative diversity and inclusion programs, setting targets and identifying senior leaders to bring about change. For example, numerous Australian companies embraced DCA’s #WordsAtWork initiative on inclusive language.

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency also reported improvements in employer action on gender equality. They reported an increase in the proportion of organisations that have a gender equality policy, have conducted a gender pay gap analysis and have a strategy for flexible working arrangements.

But it’s clear there is much more work to be done this year. Now, more than ever, we must work together to create a society that includes rather than divides.

I was severely jolted out of my new year optimism in January when I read about the Australia Day billboard featuring two girls in hijabs which had been removed from a site in Melbourne after threats were made to the company behind it.

While acknowledging the very valid problems Australia Day presents for Indigenous Australians, it made me wonder what sort of people feel so intimidated by young children waving flags that they would threaten violence?

This followed earlier backlash received by Target for its back-to-school catalogue, which featured a diverse range of models, including children with disabilities and from various cultural backgrounds. Many consumers supported the catalogue, but some took to Twitter to argue for a boycott.

These kinds of vile and hateful reactions to attempts to be inclusive are nonsensical. Our society is not homogenous – it is incredibly diverse and getting more so.

One in five Australians has a disability, and there is increasing religious diversity in the nation. Moreover, there is widespread cultural diversity. One in four of Australia’s 24 million people were born overseas; 46% have at least one parent who was born overseas; and nearly 20% of Australians speak a language other than English at home.

Advertising doesn’t exist in a vacuum. As Andrea Ho puts it, “Media is a mirror society holds up to itself.” The Target catalogue and the Australia Day billboard represent the reality of modern Australia. Smart advertisers know it makes good business sense to reflect the communities they serve, as customers who see themselves reflected in a brand are more loyal. This is even more pronounced in communities that have been marginalised or haven’t seen themselves represented in mainstream advertising.

But more than this, we need to recognise the enormous opportunity that diversity offers all of us.

Research shows that people with diverse backgrounds often provide new perspectives, and that’s an essential ingredient for innovation. People with global experience and those with multicultural identities display more creativity and are better problem solvers and more likely to create new businesses and products. Culturally diverse teams can access a deeper and wider knowledge bank, leveraging this to generate new ideas, products and creative solutions.

Leading employers know it makes good business sense to reflect the communities they serve. Matching workforce and customer diversity leads to increased customer satisfaction, increased sales revenue, more customers, greater market share and greater relative profits.

They also know it’s about inclusion. When employees of different ages, genders, cultural backgrounds, sexual orientations and disabilities feel valued and respected, have access to opportunities and can contribute their talents, this benefits everyone.

But businesses still have work to do in key areas. As highlighted by the 600 plus marches held across the globe in solidarity with the historic Women’s March on Washington DC, gender equality is still far from a reality. Women are still underrepresented in leadership roles, and the gender pay gap remains stubbornly high with sex discrimination the single largest contributing factor.

The workforce participation of people with disabilities is around 30% lower than for other Australians, while the gap is 20% for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

People from culturally diverse backgrounds are significantly underrepresented in leadership positions in Australian organisations.

Discrimination and harassment at work is still a problem. During pregnancy, parental leave or on return to work, half of mothers report discrimination, many LGBTIQ people experience widespread bullying, harassment or violence and are unable to be themselves at work, and more than a quarter of mature-age Australians also report discrimination.

Because of these challenges, we should be heartened that businesses are seeking to include diversity in their products, services and advertising.

Within hours of the news breaking about the Australia Day billboard being pulled, a crowdfunding campaign had raised over $100,000, not just to put the ad back up but to put it in every capital city.

Australians know we have a lot to be proud of in our diversity. Let’s make 2017 the year we all embrace diversity as a genuine asset.

This article was first published in Guardian Sustainable Business.

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