Shut up and get moving on diversity and inclusion Featured

Is there too much talk and not enough action when it comes to diversity?

According to an audience poll following a two-hour debate on the question last night the answer is yes.

That's because all this talk is becoming an excuse for not taking action, as the affirmative team argued at the annual Diversity Council of Australia debate in Sydney.

And all this talk has hardly produced much change: the gender pay gap is at its largest in 20 years; women make up just a tiny proportion of senior leadership positions in business and politics; and while Australia accepts and understands the benefits of multiculturalism, such benefits are certainly not being felt in our corridors of power.

More than 75% of board directors of ASX200 companies are male and less than 5% are non-Caucasian, argued Diana Ryall for the affirmative team last night. She said that the tiny uplift we have seen of women in such positions has come as a result of naming and shaming, rather than more talk about the issue.

Meanwhile, media depictions of what a leader looks like continue to run stereotypically in favour of men. Just Google the term CEO for image results and the first non-Causcasian appears in the 27th spot. The first woman -- who has a face, albeit a plastic one -- is Barbie.

Talk provides excuses. It offers an avenue for male leaders still holding on to power to claim they're doing all these wonderful things to aid diversity. But it's ultimately the data that matters and tells the real story.

"The boys have to learn to share their toys. Toys are leadership and power for women and people who are diverse," said Ryall, who heads up Xplore for Success and was formerly Apple's Australian managing partner.

Also speaking for the affirmative, Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane quoted research that found 86% of people in our society believe multiculturalism is a good thing. "Most of us know the difference between champagne and prosecco", he said. We're culturally sophisticated. We've talked. We get it.

And yet of our 226 members of parliament, less than ten come from non-European backgrounds. While people from non-European backgrounds are well represented in the workforce, they're certainly not when it comes to leadership positions, being quoted in the media, appearing as experts on the ABC's Lateline, or even amongst the crowd of businesses represented in the room last night. Soutphommasane added that he's been asked if he works in "IT or finance" when he tells people that he works at the Human Rights Commission, an assumption he believes is being made due to his cultural background.

Third speaker Dr Kerryn Phelps said there's plenty of evidence of talk, but not enough real change to prove the talk has been worthwhile. Marriage equality is not yet a reality in Australia and almost half of people with a disability are living near or below the poverty line.

She said there's no point having a diversity policy unless people are being directly held accountable for it. "Diversity should be a KPI for an organisation and something that's reportable to shareholders and reportable to the board," she said.

On the negative team, author and journalist Anne Summers argued that we're not talking enough about diversity. She said more talk can help create real, permanent change. "We've all seen action that is pre-emptive and destined to fail," she said. "Those charged with making it work know action needs to planned, designed properly, and sold … Men need to sign on and not be resentful. Women need to sign on and not fear a backlash."

Second speaker, Lend Lease global head of diversity Chris Lamb, said the conversation about diversity is missing at the 'grassroots level'. Many of us are “carpet dwellers”, he said. We're in the corporate world where any discussion of diversity is hardly an accurate representation of what's going on in broader society.

He added that too many social issues -- domestic violence in particular -- are fuelled by silence. "It grows because there's not enough talk about the problem. 

Later, former NSW Liberal leader and now CEO of the AICD John Brogden, said we can never stop talking about diversity because there has simply not been enough action. He said more of us need "ah ha" moments, just like the members of the Male Champions of Change claim to have experienced, especially those that refer to wanting equal opportunities for their young girls.

After a long discussion and Q&A hosted by Tony Jones that included panellists sharing their views on quotas, targets and the definition of 'merit', 65% of the audience voted in favour of the argument that there's too much talk and not enough action on diversity.

 

What do you think? Have we talked enough about diversity? Time to just get on with it? 

Angela Priestley

Angela Priestley is a Publisher with Private Media and the founding editor of Women's Agenda. She's an author, journalist and passionate advocate for workplace gender equality and diversity. Her first book is Women Who Seize the Moment.

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