Monthly Archives

May 2021

Something curious (and wonderful) is happening in DEI

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I’ve been in the field of diversity and inclusion (D&I) for almost 15 years now — not as long as many, but long enough to have observed some of the significant trends and changes that have happened over time. The latest trend I’ve noticed (which I welcome wholeheartedly) might sound a little odd at first:

D&I is becoming human again.

D&I has always been about people and the way we interact with each other in the workplace and society; so you would think that, by definition, it is at its very essence a very people-centric topic.

So what do I mean?

The “early days”

When I first joined the field, this humanistic or people-centric element was pretty front and centre. Inclusion was first and foremost about equity; about ensuring fair and just treatment for everyone. This was a hot topic for us, and we talked about it all the time. It was a major moment of realisation for people in our programmes – the revelation that we should be aiming for equal outcomes, not treating everyone the same.

Of course, we spoke about the business case back then, but the data wasn’t so strong at the time – it was to some extent, a principle of faith that could be adopted by business leaders based on the fact that they intrinsically believed in fairness but needed the business language to justify some of the effort and investment.

The pivot

However, in the late 2000s, the business case got a big and sudden boost.

Suddenly, there was research available in every corner: McKinsey & Co published their first Women Matter paper in 2007; Scott Page published his pivotal book “The Difference” in 2008; the late Katherine Phillips published some of her most pivotal papers on diversity and decision making in 2009. The evidence piled up and became impossible to ignore.

All of a sudden, we went from doing sessions that were largely about equity into a deep dive into this evidence, spending 1-2 hours with leaders and executives to put across a single point with undeniable certainty: diversity and inclusion is good for business.

From an innovation, revenue generation, cost-saving and productivity perspective: it’s good for business. From a customer insight, talent attraction and retention, risk and compliance perspective: it’s good for business. With data to prove it.

And this messaging worked. The 10 years since has seen dramatic growth in executive buy-in for D&I, and our company with it. It’s not because people no longer cared that it was in the interests of social justice and that it was the right thing to do, but it was much easier to pursue these noble goals under the guise of doing what is right for the company and for the shareholders. We could do well by doing good.

Something lost

Now I am not suggesting that everyone took this tack. There were still thousands of people around the world focused on dismantling sexism, racism and all other -isms in the workplace simply because they were wrong and diminished the inherent dignity of every human being – no economic justification required.

This was, and still is, something I believe in deeply myself, but this didn’t always carry water in the corporate space; it was the business case that drew the energy and investment needed from executives to make real changes that would, as a result, create fairness and inclusion.

The drawback was that we didn’t talk about equity nearly as much. By equity I mean taking steps to ensure fair outcomes for people who have faced systemic biases and historical disadvantage, so that they substantively have equal opportunity to achieve the same outcomes as people who are born with certain privileges.

This is different to equality which is the basis of most anti-discrimination legislation, which suggests that simply by not preventing anyone from accessing any opportunity, programme or job application, we are providing substantive fairness. But all the real-world evidence shows this is not the case – we all need to do much more to understand the lived experience of others and why those of us who experience certain privileges have an obligation to level the playing field for those who do not.

There were times in this last decade when I did question whether we and our clients had strayed too far off the path, that our language about D&I had become too sanitised, even if it was getting some of the desired results.

The second pivot

And then 2020 happened, a pivotal year for so many reasons: the pandemic, of course, but also another year of explosive growth in interest in D&I.

This time, however, it’s been driven by purely humanistic reasons. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is the foremost symbol of this, a global movement that recognises that it’s not enough to be ‘not racist’, we must also become anti-racist. The last few years have seen society become increasingly “woke” to the need for equity and as such the expectation being placed on businesses to respond appropriately is much, much stronger.

And it’s not just race – this energy has infused all aspects of intersectional diversity, from gender identity to cultural background. Executive leaders are once again standing up en masse to say: We will do this regardless of the business case because it is simply the right thing to do.

In 2021, I have heard CFOs stand up and say: “The numbers don’t matter”; the Global Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Benchmarks, which we contribute to, were renamed to add “Equity” into the title; and multiple clients have remarked how significantly the conversation has changed.

So what now?

Our programmes – while still backed by strong empirical science and a compelling commercial basis – are now being infused with anti-racism and anti-sexism skills-building and this is being wholeheartedly embraced by all participants.

The business case is still there. Let’s be honest, many people still need it and major investment is still required – but Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) is very much more human today than it has been for a while.

The turning point for Australian women: Insights from the Federal budget

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The federal budget delivered last night may well mark an important ideological and psychological shift in the attitude towards women in the parliament and other power centres in Australia. Unlike past years when platitudes have been the order of the day and lip-service has been paid to the rights, interests and apprehensions to the female part of the population, we now see some real and worthwhile movement.

These include: $ 1.7billion over 5 years for childcare; $ 535m for women’s and girl’s health; $ 261m for family, sexual and domestic violence services; $ 129m for women’s legal centres over 4 years. The government has been stung by the ferocity of the reaction to their ham handed response to stories of sexual violence in high places. They understand that in the post- #MeToo world there is a political price to be paid in defending male assumptions of impunity. Apart from this, one hopes also that there is recognition that to promote long-term sustainable growth, Australia must unleash the economic potential of its women.

Time will tell whether the budget was an aberration or a turning point for the women of Australia.

Employee wellbeing and inclusivity in the new norm of remote-working

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How to get the balance between home and office working right? And how to encourage team cohesion, inclusivity and idea-sharing when employees are scattered in different locations? This is the conundrum now facing employers across the globe. By and large, employees do not want a return to five days a week in a central common location, citing better efficiency working without distractions and less time wasted in commuting-but not all employers are convinced.

Amazon and Goldman Sachs are expecting their teams to return to “an office-centric culture” Nevertheless, many employees now regard work from home as essential and therefore a workplace right. But as Harvard Professor, Amy Edmondson asserts “…sorting out future work arrangements… will require managers to rethink and expand one of the strongest proven predictors of team effectiveness: psychological safety

Symmetra has been impressed to see how many executives and managers in its global clients have taken these ideas to heart and are assiduously striving to reinforce psychological safety in all areas of team interaction as remote working has become the norm.

Uncovering the roots of systematic racism

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The murder of African-American, George Floyd by a white policeman (now proven) has re-ignited a long-simmering debate in the USA about the systemic and institutional features of racism. President Biden said: “…we can and must do more to reduce the likelihood that a tragedy like this will never happen again”. More broadly, issues of systemic discrimination, harassment and violence extend far beyond the borders of America and include attributes such as gender, sexual orientation and disability apart from race.

A UK government report which concluded that the system “…is not rigged” against people of colour has been furiously denounced as a whitewash by ethnic minorities in that country as well as a UN group of experts. In reality, there are no pat answers or simplistic solutions to dealing with institutional and systemic hazards and barriers faced by diverse groups. But governments and organisations must grasp the nettle.

In Australia, the government, in not accepting the recommendation of the AHRC to make employers pro-actively responsible for reducing workplace harassment has ignored the core element to systemically transform a functionally ineffective legal regime. We must do better.

‘Women’s work penalty’ in accessing flexible work arrangements across Europe

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By: Heejung Chung
(European Journal of Industrial Relations, January 2018)

The demand for flexible working has been increasing globally. This applies across all sectors of the economy and it is sought by both genders although females remain statistically the major applicants. The reasons why employees of either gender wish to exercise control over their working hours may vary widely. However where need is the motivating factor it is assumed that women who continue to bear the greater share of family demands will have easier and more extensive access to flexible work arrangements.

This article, written by Dr Chung of the University of Kent, examines the accessibility to non-statutory flexible working ( ie discretionary grants of flexible work) for employees in various sectors of the economy. The two types of non-statutory family-friendly arrangements considered were flexi-time and taking time off during working hours for personal reasons.

The conclusion arrived at is that women in the European economies and particularly those in the low wage sectors are not able to achieve work autonomy via flexible work arrangements. Focussing on female dominated industries such as care work, primary education and jobs which are mainly clerical, Dr Chung found that workers in these industries could access flexible work only half the times compared to male workers or female workers in other industries. The argument sometimes made that many females are compensated for being at the wrong end of the gender pay gap by being awarded non-monetary benefits such as flexible work opportunities is not borne out in fact..
Gathering data from 34 European countries where men and women worked in sectors where gender numbers were more or less balanced, the author found that both groups have access to work schedule control. In male-dominated industries, the position of female workers regarding flexible work opportunities is no worse than working in gender-neutral environments.

However remarkably in female- dominated industries, particularly those characterised by a low wage structure the picture dramatically changes. In these female-dominated industries,it was found that the women had decreased opportunities to access flexible working. So those who need flexible working the most are denied it. This conclusion is consistent with American research where typically female jobs are less likely to gain investment from employers in terms of working conditions and female workers are less likely to be granted autonomy in their work.

A similar issue appears to exist in Australia. In its 4-yearly revue of modern awards-Flexible Working Arrangements ( 2018) the Fair Work Commission accepted ( amongst other things ) the following evidence:

  • The most common reason for requesting flexible work arrangements is to care for a child or children
  • There are strong gendered patterns around the rate of requesting and the kinds of alterations sought
  • A significant proportion of employees are not happy with with their working arrangements but do not make a request for a change (“discontented non –requestors”)
  • The fact that a significant proportion of employees are discontented non –requestors suggests that there is a significant unmet employee need for flexible working arrangements.

The explanation offered by Dr Chung in a follow-up article is that employers are more inclined to offer flexible working to high skill workers in top occupations because they consider that these employees will use flexible time profitably for the company but they do not trust lower paid workers in the same way. Low paid female workers, according to Dr Chung stay where they are because they have no choice.

The Serena Cartoon: A Classic Case of Unconscious Racial Stereotyping

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The cartoon by Mark Knight, published by the Herald Sun newspaper, depicting an on-court rant by Serena Williams, has, as most people now know, evoked a storm of criticism, particularly from the African-American community. A defiant doubling-down from the cartoonist himself as well as the newspaper ensued; followed by a spirited defence of the cartoon from a number of commentators.

Williams is portrayed in the cartoon with thick lips, wild hair and what is presumed to be a vaguely Africanised physiognomy, not having any particular resemblance to Williams herself. She is shown as being in a state of un-selfconscious rage.

Renown author J. K. Rowling commented: “Well done on reducing one of the greatest sportswomen alive to racist and sexist tropes…”

The defenders of the cartoon have responded with generalised comments about the freedom of the press and rejecting what they see as “political correctness”. In addition their counter-arguments can be summarised in the following points:

  •  The cartoonist, Mark Knight has no history of racism;
  • Mark Knight has emphatically denied any racist intent and said his aim was just to be funny;
  • The cartoon simply makes use of the fact that Williams has a large body-frame and happens to be black;
  • It is common practice for public figures to be lampooned by exaggerating their physical features;
  • Williams’ behaviour was unacceptable and she deserves to be taken down

These statements, in our view, all miss the point. Williams, like any other sports figure should not be immune from criticism if she behaves badly in public.

However, a line is crossed when drawings or cartoons resort to the use of generalised features or characteristics (usually of an unsympathetic nature) which historically have been taken to connote a particular race, religious affiliation, gender or other diverse group. This cartoon crossed that line and the subliminal messaging was, naturally picked up most immediately by the group who felt that they as a whole were demeaned by it-African-Americans.

The examples of race-insensitivity and crude racial stereotyping in publications throughout history are too numerous to list. Some are created deliberately for political purposes such as the Nazi cartoons of Jews. Yet others are published as bland matters of fact not realising the distorted images they convey. A recent one of note was the April 2018 edition of National Geographic which surveyed its own coverage over decades of black people. It acknowledged that in the language which it has used and the way photographs had been composed it had been undeniably racist over a long period. Its lead article noted the following:

“There is no genetic or scientific basis for race. It’s largely a made-up label, used to distinguish and divide us”

It may well be true that Mark Knight sincerely believes that no element of racist intent motivated him when drawing the cartoon. But his conscious intent is not the end of the matter. Research and a wealth of data from testing using tools like Harvard’s Implicit Association Test have shown that biases which lurk in the subconscious emerge in all manner of situations, often in the actions of people who emphatically renounce and condemn racially-motivated prejudice. Unconscious bias is universal and by its nature, is undetectable by the person at the time the relevant action is carried out.

The first step in combating unconscious bias is understanding how it arises and then acknowledging that no-one is free from it. We can then take steps to counteract some of the unintentional acts and statements which cause hurt and offence to those who are different from us because of their race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation.

The Power of Parity: Advancing women’s equality in the Asia Pacific

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(McKinsey Global Institute, April 2018)
Read the full article here:

The McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), over the past three years, has compiled a series of reports projecting the economic impact of advancing equality for women across various regions of the world. In its first report in 2015 The Power of Parity: how advancing women’s equality to can add $ 12 trillion to global growth, MGI concluded that every region in the world had the potential to increase its GDP by 8 to 16% merely by leveraging the pent-up abilities of women who were being constrained from delivering their full economic potential. The Asia Pacific Region report is the latest and gives special attention to seven countries, one of which is Australia. The main thrust of the report is that the potential of women to contribute to the economies of their countries is under-utilised in every country in the region, although, of course, there are vast differences between individual countries some of which like Australia are notably much further along the journey to achieving gender parity.

The proposition that the paid work potential of women is not fully realised and that freeing them to play a more significant role in the workplace will bring about significant economic benefits has been a recurring theme argued by many economists. It has also been forcibly advanced by many global organisations including the World Bank, World Economic Forum, OECD and the investment bank Goldman Sachs. The Australian Government too, has acknowledged that advancing female work participation must be a central pillar of the nation’s economic policy. At the G20 conference in Brisbane in 2014 the government committed itself to reducing the participation gap between men and women by 25 % by the year 2025. A Grattan Institute Report (2016) indicated that giving females better work opportunities could boost Australian GDP by as much as 13%.

In its extensive and thoroughly researched report, MGI bringing to bear the skills of a range of seasoned economists and management experts projects the likely monetary benefits to countries in the Asia Pacific if strategies are implemented and structures put in place to accelerate moves towards gender parity. The region as whole could be better off, the report assesses, by an amount of US $ 4.5 trillion and Australia could reap large benefits of US. $ 225 billion. (Using a different form of economic modelling, a just-released report by KPMG: Ending workforce discrimination against women- calculates that Australia could benefit by $ 140 billion in 20 years if it increased female work participation). Understanding how the region could profit from increased gender parity requires a detailed analysis of where the gender gaps exist and how extensive they are. The report makes it clear that economic shortcomings are integrally linked with social disabilities faced by women in the countries of the region. MGI used 15 economic and social indicators to compile a Gender Parity Score for each country. These indicators are combined under 4 main headings as reflected in the graphic illustration below.

The Perils of Ignoring Diversity

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A Case of Inclusion Illiteracy

As much as diversity is incomplete without a culture of inclusiveness, so inclusion is incomplete without encompassing employees as well as customers of an organisation. Customers desire to be inclusively treated by organisations as much as employees do. And like employees they will be extremely sensitive as to how inclusive they perceive a company’s behaviour to be. Many businesses have not accepted this principle and almost every day we see how they are beginning to suffer for it.

Empathising With the Customer

Customers can no longer be seen as the passive recipients of goods and services

A Bain and Company survey of 362 leading firms found that 80% of the surveyed companies believed they were delivering a “superior experience” to customers. But the same survey of customers revealed only 8% would have agreed. Obviously, it is the assessment of the client that matters since he or she will take their business elsewhere if dissatisfied.

Customers in the current environment want to be respected, treated fairly, have a sense of connectedness with the businesses they buy from and sense that their unique value is known and appreciated. In short, the way they experience the transaction is as important as what they actually buy. And just as with employees, if they feel excluded rather than included by an organisation their loyalty will soon evaporate.

Customer inclusion implies a profound understanding of the customer’s needs derived through relationship building rather than direct sales efforts. It involves endeavours to see the world through the eyes of the customer so that the organisation is positioned to cater for the ever-evolving nuances of the customer’s needs and expectations.

A Momentous Failure of Inclusivity

An example of elementary failure to appreciate the need for customer inclusiveness which hit the headlines recently was provided by the Swedish clothing retailer H & M. Here was a classic illustration of how being tone-deaf to diversity and racial and cultural issues could exact a severe reputational as well as financial penalty. As most people know H & M published an advert depicting a young Black boy wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words “the coolest monkey in the jungle”.

The response to this grossly insensitive advert was predictable outrage and condemnation from members of the Black community worldwide and bewilderment from others that a company purporting to present a global brand could allow itself to be associated with such an obnoxious image. Two celebrity collaborators of H & M, The Weeknd and G-Easy immediately terminated their relationships. Many members of the African-American community expressed total dismay at the reckless way the advert had been allowed to impact on their cultural sensitivities. In South Africa where the group had many stores and was hoping to make significant commercial inroads there were widespread public demonstrations causing all H & M stores to be closed. I happened to be in South Africa when the furor erupted and can testify to the palpable sense of outrage that was expressed in the formal media as well as via social media platforms. When I walked past the flagship store in a flashy shopping centre in Johannesburg several days later it was dark and closed but the evidence of the anger which led to rioting through the store and upturning all the clothing racks could be seen through the ceiling to floor glass windows. A few days after the media storm erupted, H & M announced (finally) that it had appointed a global manager for diversity and inclusion. As with all things, what is on the inside will show up on the outside. One can only wonder how a global organisation with more than 4500 stores worldwide and 161,000 employees, marketing a broad range of clothing brands did not have a structure in place to implement diversity and inclusion for either staff or customers. Its gaffe with the monkey advert is almost certainly a sign that H & M has failed to come to grips with what is now a basic truth: that customers will no longer tolerate indifference or, even worse – disrespect.

The Virtuous Circle

Diversity and inclusion has become a multi-dimensional concept. Research by Symmetra and its extensive experience with global clients has brought home to us very forcefully that employee diversity and inclusion and customer diversity, and inclusion when conscientiously and systematically implemented lead to a virtuous circle. They perpetuate each other and act as reciprocal stimuli helping to attract and retain the best people internally and to attract and retain more customers externally. This in turn spurs greater innovation and creativity from employees who aspire to please the customer in a myriad of new ways. And it is this empathy, the ability to truly comprehend the context of customers which enables organisations to design, build and ultimately deliver a product or service that will keep a customer for life and lead customers to advocate on behalf of your organisation.

The insidious outcomes of sex discrimination at work

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Sexual Discrimination at work FI

Christine Holgate is but the latest female victim of the wretched, toxic masculine culture which pervades many of Australia’s political, corporate and sporting institutions. Her tale forcefully related to a Senate committee exposure once again of a culture where male power-plays exact a fearful toll on women: in Christine’s case causing her to contemplate suicide. Women at work are simply not afforded rights which men take for granted.

While the government has been at pains to point out that allegations are not proof of wrongdoing and everyone has right to due process, these principles went out the window in the case of Ms Holgate. Precisely what political machinations lie behind her dismissal is hard to tell, but the suggestions of impropriety which were flimsy to start with have been shown to be baseless.

Much work needs to be done to repair a male culture which ranges from the feckless to the malign, starting in our schools and filtering up into all our workplaces.

The brain science that could help explain sexual harassment

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By: Mary Slaughter, Khalil Smith & David Rock
(Psychology Today, February 2018)
Read the full article here:

This article is a recommended read by Symmetra to raise awareness of those in positions of power in your workplace and those around them as to the profound impact the possession of power can subconsciously have on thinking and behaviour.
The notion that power differentials is a frequent factor which underlies acts of sexual violence and sexual harassment is not new.

However, what is new is the attempt by the authors to map out exactly how possession of power generates cognitive impulses which predispose one to perpetrate acts of sexual harassment.

The authors take as their starting-point the oft-cited work of Pamela K Smith, who studies the effect of power on people’s thinking, motivation and behaviour. Smith’s work led her to conclude that possession or acquisition of power has a profound impact on interpersonal relationships as a result of subconscious cognitive/processes brought about by the sense of power.

Following this theoretical foundation, the authors conducted a meta-study of the literature on power and conclude that there are four major ways in which cognitive effects explain harassment. ‘

  1. Power blinds you to others’ perspectives
    People who lack power are forced to ruminate on what is going on in the heads of powerful people because they are dependent on the powerful for many things. Powerful people are more concerned with their own thoughts, and actions and develop a degree of cynicism about complaints from others attributing hidden agendas to them
  2. Power turns people into abstract thinkers
    The ability to think abstractly increases people’s sense of power and using abstract language make people seem powerful. This type of abstract thinking enables the powerful to distance themselves from the hard-concrete realities of sexual harassment unless faced with questions or challenges in the most direct physical terms as to how they might have engaged in such behaviour.
  3. Power leads to unrealistic optimism about goals
    Powerful people have a difficult time remembering – or even imagining – things that can get in the way of goals. This means that they underplay or even ignore the potential and well-known risks associated with aberrant or unacceptable behaviour such as sexual harassment.
  4. Power leads people to see the world in terms of goals
    The result of this is that they treat others as instruments by assessing how those others might help or be used to achieve goals. This results in inhibitory mechanisms being turned down particularly when the powerful person has a sexualised goal
    The authors conclude that they do not have all the answers as to how power is causally linked with sexual harassment.

Nevertheless, it seems that they have laid the groundwork for further investigation which may lead to more effective ways of countering this pernicious threat to respect and safety in the workplace.