The trick to addressing racism and sexism to leverage our rich Australian population diversity

Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner, who is working together with AFL sports hero and Australian of the Year Adam Goodes to address racism and achieve a fair go for all Australians

Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner, who is working together with AFL sports hero and Australian of the Year Adam Goodes to address racism and achieve a fair go for all Australians

The lack of personal awareness and insight about the systemic issues that continue to undermine a fair go and inclusion for many diverse Australians are holding us back from creating an Australia that in the globalised 21st Century could be great.

This week I was shocked and saddened to hear the reports of LNP Senator Ian Macdonald believing that racism in Australia is isolated, and therefore questioning the role of the race commissioner. 

Thinking back, I really should not have been so shocked!

Coincidentally in a training session last week, I was asked by a well-intentioned participant whether I thought racism existed in Australia, as he similarly struggled to see beyond a few isolated cases. Fortunately, he had an open mind and in a safe space we provided evidence, using data over time and examples, that demonstrated the systemic nature of racism in Australia - that it’s not a generational issue, and that if we don’t all work together to identify and address it nothing will change.

Such evidence included islamophobia across Australian university campuses, the lack of culturally diverse leadership across Australian institutions – corporate, government and politics - despite having lots of culturally diverse talent in the pipeline for decades, and the frustratingly slow progress to achieve a fair go for Australia’s first peoples. These issues remain constant despite Australia being one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world.

So why is progress so slow? Despite an increased understanding that we need to address the problem of a lack of female and culturally diverse leaders in today's world, frustratingly too often we hear reported the wrong solution to the problem. This week, we heard the unhelpful advice from LNP member Jane Prentice, that women and culturally diverse Australians just need to “work harder” to make it– in this case in relation to getting into parliament. 

Despite being well intentioned, this unhelpful advice is a result of ignorance of the impact of intergroup bias that leads to ‘in-group’ favouritism and the selection of ‘mini me’s’. Such unhelpful advice is often given by ‘in-group’ members who have never experienced exclusion, despite us having overwhelming evidence, both in Australia and globally, of systemic and structural barriers in our workplaces that undermine ‘out-group’ members success and inclusion, such as the merit trap

 I agree with Jane that women and people from culturally diverse backgrounds do not want to be tokens or patronised, but the trick is not for them to simply ‘work harder’ at a risk of burn out and stereothreat. The trick is instead two-fold:

·       First, for ‘in-group’ members to gain awareness of their cognitive and personal biases, and to identify with their colleague’s organisational unconscious biases so they can be consciously addressed;

·       Secondly, for ‘in-group’ members to listen with empathy and an open mind to the lived experience of exclusion that diverse groups of ‘out-group’ members still face. With this shared understanding and increased respect, systemic barriers can be identified and removed to deliver a fairer go for all Australians.

Recently we’ve had our eyes opened to the impact of the denial of the existence of sexism in our workplaces, caused by unconscious bias, power imbalances, and a lack of courage by ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’ members to speak up. Finally, with the watershed moment of the #metoo campaign, women were enabled as a group to speak out and share their similar experiences in a way that led to serious action finally being taken; with the previously powerful mogul Harvey Weinstein being arrested this week in New York on criminal rape charges.

As a result, the global community now understands that sexual harassment in the workplace is not an isolated incident, but a systemic pattern of behaviour that was allowed to continue for far too long. Similarly, my experience of racism in the workplace reflects that of Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, who responded to LNP Senator Ian Macdonald’s comment on twitter;

Education is the game changer

So on reflection, I think the universe last week was reminding me of the importance of getting out of our comfort zone and making sure we offer Diversity & Inclusion awareness education. This needs to include unconscious bias training that is leader led, evidence based and reaches beyond the converted to all staff, as a key pillar of an integrated D & I Strategy.

The trick to providing effective education is to engage both heads; through research and evidence, and hearts; through carefully designed storytelling by people with lived experience of exclusion.

In addition, empathy and maintaining momentum are critical to success so that everyone can get on board to deliver the shared goal of diversity of thinking and increased innovation. This can effectively help your organisation to go from good to great, as outlined this week in this excellent Smart Company article.

So to accelerate the pace of inclusion, who should leaders listen to?

I could personally relate to this very insightful article that studied the marginalisation and exclusion of “prickly” leaders and staffers who through history have been referred to and marginalised by too many ‘in-group’ members as “killjoys,” “ice queens,”  “hysterics,” and “ball-busters.”

I agree with this academic researcher that these are the most valuable people to listen to as they understand the D & I issues, yet are too often punished or marginalised because they don’t let things go, they stand up for themselves and others, and they question the status quo of structural barriers and out-dated institutional practices. It is these factors that need to change for Australian institutions to harness the benefits of Diversity and Inclusion, so we can take our diverse organisations and society from good to great.

If you would like help on how to accelerate your good to great journey by leveraging your workforce diversity, you may be interested in these 3 practical case studies of shifting mindsets and workplace culture to greater inclusion.

Image via Australian Human Rights Commission