Female, white, able-bodied, straight and binary. It is not a dating profile for Tinder but a description of the predominant profile of Australia’s workplace diversity and inclusion (D&I) practitioner.
At the start of 2019, twenty years on from the emergence of D&I as a profession, it’s timely to consider whether we practice what we preach – by that I mean, do we reflect the Australian community?
Whilst there is no doubt that D&I practitioners have achieved a hell of a lot, often with little resources and in the face of significant pushback and backlash, it is pause for thought that many of the people who are championing inclusion in most Australian workplaces fit this narrow identity.
So why are Australia’s diversity practitioners so non-diverse?
I am reflecting on a report conducted by the University of Sydney Business School and run in partnership the AHRI and the organisation that I lead, Diversity Council Australia.
The report, Benchmarking Diversity and Inclusion Practices in Australia, looked at many facets of the way the profession works, but I want to focus on why the practitioner profile looks the way it does and by extension, what impact this may have on Australian organisations’ inclusion priorities.
There is quite likely a historical explanation for the gender ratio in the profession: D&I practice in Australia emerged in large part from a rapidly shifting legislative context, which saw the Sex Discrimination Act being passed by the Commonwealth in 1984, followed by the (former) Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act in 1986. This put gender equality front and centre on the corporate agenda, with organisations scrambling to respond by allocating the new role of EEO coordinator (a precursor to D&I managers) to a female staff member, usually someone in payroll or human resource management.
Since then, gender equality has remained the main D&I focus for the majority of Australian organisations and so most diversity professionals have been women – and white, able-bodied, straight and binary at that.
However, it’s the lack of diversity in the other dimensions that really struck me.
While it is true that these figures are not too out of step with corporate representation of such groups, sometimes a lived experience is required to create appropriate actions to improve work opportunities and leadership representation of these under-represented groups. Just as importantly, a leading practice principle of D&I is self-determination ("nothing about me without me").
From this perspective, it is critical that any D&I initiatives which impact upon a particular demographic or identity group should actively involve, and ideally be led by, members of that group.
There is not enough information in the report to reflect on whether there are active barriers to non-white able-bodied women joining the fray but I wonder whether perhaps our profession is falling into the trap of seeing merit in its own image as the leadership boys club we are railing against?
Last year, we spoke to over 230 culturally diverse women who are leaders or aspiring leaders in Australian-based organisations and many spoke of the challenge of being a D&I change agent in the face of so many female D&I practitioners from Anglo-Celtic cultural backgrounds.
For those culturally diverse women who had decided to be change agents in their organisation or industry, a number had been cautioned by female D&I practitioners from Anglo-Celtic cultural backgrounds to "stick to gender or culture".
As one participant pointed out, this resulted in the interests and needs of culturally diverse women falling between the cracks because “in the culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) space, CALD men dominate, while in the gender equality space, Anglo women dominate”. Thus any mention of culturally diverse women and the fact that they face a double or even triple disadvantage is “always left out of the conversation”.
“Many of the very senior women in the gender equality space said, ‘No don’t talk to me about your cultural background – we need to focus on gender. We can’t fix cultural diversity as well!’ So I’ve really struggled to carve out a space in those conversations. They’re asking me to leave my gender or my culture aside so what do I choose?”
And where D&I practitioners are female, white, able-bodied, straight and binary, I encourage them to remember to actively engage with intersectionality. This means partnering on D&I design and implementation to ensure these are underpinned by active and equal partnerships between not just women and men, but also people from culturally diverse and non-culturally diverse backgrounds and so on.
If we, as a community of practitioners, don’t seek to create spaces for people who don’t look like the usual diversity suspects, then are we really any better than the pale, male and stale boardrooms inhabited by those who feel entitled to power because there are more of them than there are of others?
Lisa Annese is CEO of Diversity Council Australia. This piece was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald.