Reflections on a decade of driving diversity and inclusion progress in organisations*

After starting in the diversity and inclusion field in the mid-1990s, Dr Katie Spearritt’s passion for making workplaces more inclusive has only grown greater. “When I first started working in this area, it took a lot of explaining to get people to understand what I even did”, she says. 

After holding senior diversity roles at Hewlett Packard in Australia and Asia, Coles Myer (now Coles Group), and NAB, Spearritt established Diversity Partners. And as 2019 marks the tenth year of business for Diversity Partners, Spearritt has led a team of consultants doing diagnostics, leadership education, coaching and facilitation for more than 300 organisations. The work has taken them from mining sites to trading rooms and boardrooms, all the way helping to build awareness of the value of diversity and inclusion in our workplaces.

As she reflects on a decade of driving diversity and inclusion initiatives in organisations, here are Dr Katie Spearritt’s key D & I takeaways:

1. Change is rarely linear; focusing on only one diversity dimension (e.g. gender) at a time can undermine broader inclusion efforts

At one organisation a decade ago, senior managers wanted to focus on progressing gender diversity first, then tackle flexibility, then explore cultural diversity (or other areas deemed a priority by the leadership team). They felt it was better to get some tangible wins on the board (e.g. more women in leadership) and not stretch the already crowded agendas of managers.

Spearritt accepted the view as part of the way things are done in a large company, but on reflection, recognised it was the path of least (cognitive) resistance and undermined the more holistic process of cultural change. “We know more today about how various areas of diversity intersect, and the importance of a broader focus on unconscious bias and inclusive leadership, so that everyone feels a sense of belonging and are valued for differences they bring”, says Katie.

2. The sooner you can connect with departmental leaders, the quicker you help everyone connect the dots

An enterprise-wide commitment is essential to a successful D & I strategy. As Spearritt observed: “There are so many ways we can embed diversity into our organisations – procuring minority-owned supply businesses, providing scholarships for indigenous apprentices, challenging gender and cultural stereotypes in advertising, just to name a few.” There are many missed opportunities to taking a narrow focus to D & I.

3. Those of us driving change hold certain privileges and biases, just as everyone else does

Spearritt was introduced to the concept of the “privilege of oblivion” early in her professional career, but has a far deeper understanding of what that really means today through personal coaching and feedback that’s increased her self-awareness. Recognising diversity within individuals, as well as among groups, in organisations is a key part of effective diversity strategies. As Spearritt has observed over time, “Recognising our own blind-spots is a critical element of any leader, and especially practitioners in our field.”

4. Reflect on how you choose to spend your time and energy

Being a diversity leader in an organisation can be a lonely path with plenty of moments of challenge and discomfort. Spearritt recalls the very moment she sat in the back row of a conference event on gender equality and noticed the audience was nearly all women. The talk was about how we could support women to pursue leadership positions by building their confidence and networking. This gave Spearritt the resolve to engage a different audience, particularly those from dominant power groups, to affect broader change. As Spearritt remarked, “Being clear about your ‘how’ and ‘why’ is essential.”

5. Talking the language of business matters

When you build a strong knowledge of the operational side of the business in an in-house diversity leadership role you find opportunities to speak credibly about the ways in which diversity and inclusion align with the organisation’s values and goals. People listen. “I wanted to amplify the experiences of those who feel marginalised or excluded with influencers and power-brokers, so speaking the language of business matters,” says Spearritt.

Dr Katie Spearritt (at right). Photo: Actuaries Institute (National Conference).

Dr Katie Spearritt (at right). Photo: Actuaries Institute (National Conference).

6. Support is vital and can come from lots of different places

Because you might be the only D & I Manager in a company, seeking support from others in similar positions can be reassuring. This might include joining online groups, attending forums, simply calling up others in similar company roles, to share challenges or try out an idea.

Spearritt has previously been a board member of the Mental Health Council of Australia, another topic that draws out her passion because of her personal experience and drives her desire to pay it forward as much as possible. “There’s no way I could do what I do without the deep support of colleagues, family and friends,” she says.

7. The role of a diversity leader is more important than ever

The role of the diversity practitioner is more important than ever because leaders better understand the benefits of diversity and inclusion for innovation, better decision-making, and attracting and retaining employees and customers.

While D&I has an elevated role in Australian organisations today than in the past, it’s not yet elevated to the level of some American corporations who have Chief Diversity Officers.

For most of her career, Spearritt has heard suggestions that D & I roles will be redundant in future because the function will be fully embedded in the business. But she’s confident D & I roles will continue to require dedicated investment and support to help transform workplaces.

 

*This is an edited extract from an article by Rebecca Hansen for Future Women Academy, April 2019. The Academy is a digital platform with articles, toolkits, tip-sheets and guides for organisations wanting to accelerate their D & I progress.