The road to inclusion: Four ways business leaders can promote diversity

Since our ancient beginnings, humans have been on an evolutionary trajectory thanks to adaptive intelligence. This innate ability to adapt to whatever is thrown our way has moved us toward a communal organising structure that will hopefully allow our species to thrive for generations to come.

Businesses are continually challenged by these evolutionary changes and can also profit from them. Evolutionary psychologists Clare Graves and Bill Torbert describe the concept as ‘spiral dynamics’, suggesting each evolutionary stage increases in complexity and societal expectations. These changes start out feeling new and eventually become the ‘new normal’.

Businesses are not keeping up with the evolutionary challenge

The recent global movement toward diversity and inclusion is one of the many changes affecting businesses and the community.

Australia has responded by introducing equal opportunity laws aimed at stamping out discrimination and making our workplaces more inclusive for people of diverse backgrounds.

Diversity and inclusion are becoming our new normal — but there’s still plenty of work to do, particularly in relation to gender parity in leadership roles. Although this issue has been on the public agenda for 20 years, the situation remains surprisingly dire.

Research by the Diversity Council Australia and Deakin University measured the representation of women in leadership roles at ASX companies from 2004 to 2015.

Only 8.2% of directors, 4.9% of senior executives, 4.2% of chief executive officers and 13% of chief financial officers were women — a record high, believe it or not.

Women and men bring different skills to the leadership table

While many businesses are struggling to keep pace with societal changes, those who have are reaping the benefits.

The Leadership Circle founder Bob Anderson recently reviewed ratings data from 250,000 users.

Women were found to have higher creative (leadership competency) scores and lower reactive (fear-driven coping behaviours) scores than men. Leadership effectiveness for women averaged at 53% while men sat at 41%.

However overdue the change, businesses who embrace this opportunity will be stronger for it. So how should businesses approach diversity and inclusion?

Option one: Do nothing and stick to employing people ‘on merit’

Some organisations hold the line on merit-based selection and argue candidates should be chosen purely based on qualifications and experience, regardless of gender.

This approach assumes assessing people against selection criteria can be done objectively, which many experts dispute.

According to Melbourne Business School research fellow Dr Jennifer Whelan, “the insidious nature of unconscious bias and stereotypes means that most people are firmly convinced their decision-making is merit-based when it is not”.

Option two: Establish a gender quota

Proponents of this approach argue individuals and organisations will accept the ‘new normal’ when it becomes law — in much the same way smoking restrictions have, after initial backlash, become routine.

Sydney-based leadership consultant Maude Lindley says inclusive leadership is about more than quotas: “It is actually much more complex and requires a robust discipline of self-awareness, mental agility and transparency which are not natural for the human brain.

“If you are not consciously including, you are most likely unconsciously excluding.”

Option three: Blind auditions

To overcome gender-biased hiring, many symphony orchestras have done away with the long-held tradition of members being handpicked by the conductor.

Instead, they have adopted a blind audition process.

A 2001 UCLA research study found new woman hires increased from 10% to 45% at the New York Philharmonic Orchestra following the introduction of blind auditions.

Unfortunately, Dr Whelan says this approach is “impossible to achieve” in most industries.

Option four: Lead your team in achieving the vision

Create your organisation’s vision for inclusion and lead your employees in achieving it. Author of The 5th Discipline Peter Senge suggests leadership is about having a vision and empowering your team with ‘the how’.

Senge’s perspective provides a powerful yet seldom-used roadmap to move any organisation toward diversity.

When the collective group is invested in finding a solution, they own the challenge and contribute their own ideas, enthusiasm and energy.

All roads lead to inclusion

Regardless of the option you choose, leadership is key to an inclusive workplace.

Embrace diversity and inclusion in your workplace and opportunities for greater success, sustainability and profitability will follow.


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