Cracking the Diversity Conundrum

Over the Christmas break, a close friend of mine was sharing with me the challenges she faced returning to work after having her first child. Before taking leave, my friend was a highly successful sales leader for a global corporate. Like so many return-to-work-mums, my friend quickly found herself tackling the stigma and unconscious bias of a manager and an organisation ill-equipped to deal with her changing life circumstances.

The recent announcements by Deloitte in Australia and Grant Thornton in the UK of the appointment of their first female CEOs got me thinking. Why is it that some organisations and leaders appear to have recognised the benefits of workforce diversity while others (like the one my friend works for) merely mouth platitudes, while continuing on with rigid work environments and “business as usual” attitudes towards work life balance.

The writing is on the wall for “business as usual” employers

The UN anticipate that advanced economies such as the EU will see their populations shrink by as much as 94 million or 13% by 2050. Amongst the G8, only the USA, Canada and the UK are forecast to grow their populations. By 2020, it is estimated that the world’s population will consist of more than 1 billion people aged 60 and older. These unprecedented demographic pressures mean business leaders will need to push diversity and workplace relations up the management agenda.gender

The Gender Promotion Programme of the International Labour Organisation ( argues that that while globalisation has created unprecedented economic opportunities, it has also deepened social inequalities. Only 54% of working age women participate in the workforce worldwide compared to 80% of men. Further, women continue to dominate the ‘invisible care economy’, which relates to caregiving and domestic work. The ILO argues that although more women are now obtaining paid work, most new employment in developed countries has been in part-time jobs, while in developing countries women have gone mainly into the informal sector and home-based work. Globally, women earn 20–30% less than men and hold only 1% of chief executive positions.

In Australia the story isn’t much better.  Men are nine times more likely to make it to senior executive ranks than women, despite women graduating from university at higher rates than men since 1985. Put simply, Australia’s economy appears to be losing one in every two of its university graduates, which is undoubtedly impacting Australia’s GDP. According to the Grattan Institute, removing disincentives for women to enter the paid workforce would increase the size of the Australian economy by about $25 billion per year (Committee for Economic Development of Australia 2013). Arguably, Australia is at a tipping point, with traditional attitudes towards diversity and workplace relations shifting towards work practices centred on the needs of individual employees.

In the past, Australian leaders have typically pursued a path of least resistance when it came to diversity. Rudimentary workforce diversity management practices were quite commonplace in large Australian organisations until ten years ago. These managerial problems often led to negative cultural norms and biases becoming established, alongside under-investment in systems, and poor measurement and reporting of diversity related metrics .

With recent advances in diversity research, workforce analytics and flexible work practices, today’s leaders can no longer hide behind excuses. Those organisations that fail to promote, retain and train people from a diverse talent pool will underperform. Leaders with outdated attitudes towards diversity and flexible workforce arrangements are likely to become liabilities.

My advice to organisations that are struggling to achieve meaningful progress with diversity issues is simple. Today’s workforce has the highest levels of employment participation ever by women. This shows that some organisations are taking the necessary steps to embrace diversity. However, in order to be successful, diversity can’t just be a word thrown around in the lunch room, it must be built into and aligned with your organisation’s strategy (Richard 2000).

Unfortunately, there is no single recipe for success. It is important that each organisation defines what a diverse, successful workforce looks like for them, acknowledging that client’s expectations have changed from twenty years ago. Regardless of what this vision is, flexibility should play a key part given its link to employee satisfaction, performance and retention.

At the end of the day, what’s a better outcome: losing one of your top leaders, or having that person available with flexible hours?

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