Thinking outside the box: why diversity and inclusion matters in the packaging industry

This is a extract of the keynote speech by Dr Katie Spearritt at the 2019 Australian Packaging and Processing industry (AUSPACK) Business & Industry Conference.

If packaging and processing businesses aren’t paying attention to supporting diversity and building an inclusive work culture, it’s likely they’re missing out on innovation, robust decision-making, safety improvements, sustainability progress, and other commercial benefits.

Diversity and inclusion are not the side-show to the mainstream business agenda they might have once been considered. Today, these are key strategic issues for organisations, whether small or large, in industries across Australia.

Both diversity of thinking approach and diversity of background, such as gender, cultural background, disability, age, religion, role and industry experience, are important to achieve peak business performance.

The biggest benefit for companies that adopt a proactive approach to diversity is their performance improves. The main reasons behind this are that while homogenous workforces and leadership groups often have similar life experiences and ways of thinking, a diverse group is likely to come up with new suggestions, different perspectives and innovative solutions. 

There are a large number of studies that have been done over the last decade that show the greater the gender and cultural diversity in leadership levels in organisations, the better the overall commercial performance.

A diverse team gives us what the business psychology researchers call a ‘cognitive jolt’. In diverse teams, we’re more likely to anticipate different perspectives, listen carefully, and work harder to achieve consensus. This ‘informational diversity’ helps avoids groupthink which we know has a really damaging effect on business. Put simply, diversity in our teams helps avoid an echo-chamber.

Graduates are increasingly assessing an organisation’s reputation on diversity, sustainability and corporate social responsibility. So companies in the packaging sector looking to attract talented young professionals will have an edge over competitors if they can demonstrate their focus and progress on diversity.

Packaging companies need diversity to help ‘think outside the box’, says Dr Katie Spearritt.  Photo: Jade Lim

Packaging companies need diversity to help ‘think outside the box’, says Dr Katie Spearritt.

Photo: Jade Lim

Companies in the packaging sector looking to attract talented young professionals will have an edge over competitors if they can demonstrate their focus and progress on diversity.

With so many obvious benefits for companies with a diverse workforce, there’s a surprising reluctance in some companies to stray from the homogenous teams they’ve long had in place. Unconscious bias is a key reason for this.

Unconscious bias refers to the assumptions and stereotypes we all make based on our life's experiences and our backgrounds. Affinity bias is a very common form of implicit bias - that's our preference to gravitate towards people who are similar to us - and that’s an obvious barrier to hiring and promoting people from different backgrounds. In the workplace it often means we hire mini-me’s – it’s simply more comfortable for our brains. But, rather than a meritocracy, we're more likely to get a mirror-tocracy, and forego innovation.

There are a range of things people can do to become more aware of their unconscious bias and build more diverse workforces.

 To encourage diverse thinking approaches, for example, a leader can explicitly encourage different perspectives and appoint a ‘devil’s advocate’ or ‘leader of the opposition’. Some questions we can start asking are: ‘What is the mix of diversity such as age, gender, cultural diversity in the team? Who is not represented? And does the diversity reflect our customers?’

A good place to start exploring is hiring and promotion policies. Consider how biases such as affinity bias and priming might inadvertently influence the outcomes of those processes. 

For example, certain words in a job description will appeal more to men and certain words will appeal more to women. If you use the word 'expert', the research suggests you're more likely to attract a male applicant. If you use the word 'specialist', you're more likely to attract more women. There are a whole range of words associated with masculine stereotypes -- if those words are in your job description, that's already impacting who's going to apply.

The second area is to think about where you're advertising. Are you advertising in a diverse range of channels or are you just asking some people in your network for recommendations? Because when we're recommending from our circle, often it's same-same type hire.

Also, think about how the job could be done differently. Does it have to be full time? Does it have to be done in an office? Because that limits the sort of candidate you're likely to get.

By making these types of relatively straightforward changes to processes, you’re likely to create a stronger diverse team that improves your company and future-proofs you as your industry and those around you make positive changes.