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Breaking the cabal – how can we create more diversity in decision-making positions?

By Kim Fischer 20 July 2015 9

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Do you feel that Canberra is a diverse place to live? At work, is your organisation’s board or executive team as diverse as the people it represents?

Most public service organisations make a point of “celebrating Australia’s diversity,” however, the statistics on who reaches the top tell a different story.

While women now make up 40 per cent of all senior executive positions, you are still less than half as likely to be promoted to a senior executive (SES) position in the Australian Public Service if you come from a non-English speaking background. With so many public service jobs in Canberra, this is a serious local issue.

A lack of diversity within decision-making groups creates significant risks. As the Australian Institute of Company Directors noted in April last year, “Diversity [limits] the danger of ‘group think’ that is inherent when a group of individuals from too similar backgrounds dominates…”

From our federal, state and territory parliaments right down to local parents and citizens councils, a lack of diversity will almost always see the “in-group” make decisions, with all good intentions, to the exclusion of others. It can also undercut the legitimacy of the group and in severe cases, lead to public ridicule.

Exposure to diversity also increases our tolerance for others. A 2004 study found that if you mainly associate with people similar to you, you will be less tolerant and accepting of those who are different.

A lack of diversity can prevent organisations and people reaching their full potential. For example, despite being two of the brightest hopes for Australian mens’ tennis, Canberra’s Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic have both come into conflict with Tennis Australia. Tomic has been suspended from the Davis Cup team for publically claiming that Pat Rafter and Craig Tiley have shown him “no respect”.

Even not knowing the full details of the conflict between Tennis Australia and Tomic, it is not hard to draw a line between the different handling of Hewitt’s string of controversies over the years and Tomic with the monoculture that exists on the Tennis Australia board and Executive. As the Roar wrote recently:

“Rafter and Tennis Australia [need to become] more understanding of players of different backgrounds and cultures, and have a broader definition of what both expect from players … There needs to be a mature and professional attitude, something neither Rafter nor Tennis Australia have shown in a long time”.

The AFL has been much more proactive in embracing diversity. After a number of incidents in the 1990s, the AFL implemented strict anti-racial vilification laws and under the stewardship of  Andrew Demetriou implemented a wide-ranging program to increase the diversity of its player base. Its success has been nothing short of extraordinary. As well as having 25 per cent of current players from diverse backgrounds (well above the national ratio of 16 per cent) the AFL sees these efforts as key to increasing the game’s support base into the future.

Greater diversity in groups creates richer debate, encourages more creative approaches, broadens our perspectives on any situation, and increases our tolerance and acceptance for others.

If you are part of a decision making body, consider improving its diversity by:

  1. Be self-aware. Who are the members in your group? Are they representative of the community that you are making decisions on behalf of?
  2. State your intentions. Outsiders are often reluctant to get involved because of bad past experiences. It’s important to both explain that you are looking for a diverse membership and seek broad input on how best to make it happen.
  3. Actively recruit outside the usual suspects. This is not about filling a quota, but about encouraging participation. Build a network outside of your normal contacts. Offer extra training and support. Find low-risk opportunities for people to get involved. Be patient and take chances. And most of all – be open to the idea of taking a different approach.

What have your experiences with diversity been like?

What’s Your opinion?


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9 Responses to
Breaking the cabal – how can we create more diversity in decision-making positions?
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Kim Fischer 12:35 am 24 Jul 15

I thought today’s article in the Canberra Times about ‘white blokes’ was interesting:
http://www.canberratimes.com.au/national/public-service/australian-public-service-led-by-white-blokes-says-university-of-canberras-carmel-mcgregor-20150722-gidmaq

I also think the slideshow with pictures of each secretary also shows a pretty non-diverse group:
http://media.canberratimes.com.au/video-news/video-act-news/why-blokes-are-in-control-of-australias-public-service-6697284.html

vintage123 11:49 pm 20 Jul 15

SunRider said :

Grimm said :

Mysteryman said :

I want people in decision making positions to be there because they are the best candidate for the position, regardless of their background or ‘diversity cachet’. I don’t want them there because they satisfy an arbitrary notion of diversity.

This.
People are generally promoted into these positions on their merits.
How many places do you think are honestly discriminating because of race or gender? And I mean deliberately discriminating. Probably zero.

These quota systems in the name of “diversity” are nonsensical and don’t put the best person for the job in place. If you are suggesting that putting a sub par candidate in a job, just because of their race or their gender is a good idea, I don’t know what to say. And in the public service? You really think our tax dollars should be wasted on employing sub par people into executive positions? I’d rather we get the best person for our money, regardless of what colour their skin or what’s in their pants.

It is a difficult question, because perceptions can really skew a decision maker’s assessment of who is the most meritorious candidate for a particular position.

I will personally never forget the day I resigned from the ACT Public Service, and a very senior manager very seriously and earnestly noted that it made her “sad” when an Indigenous person leaves, because she liked to “educate them”. Such an ill advised comment may have made sense and been slightly less offensive if that manager had the tertiary or other formal qualifications that I possess, but to my knowledge she didn’t.

While people like that are in a position to promote or hire others, there really should be protections in place to ensure diversity.

Someone mentioned the other day that they had applied for an EL1 Disposal Manager Position with DMO recently only to be told they were not able to continue as the position was only open to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander candidates.

I do believe both the Federal and State Governments utilise education and employment policies targeting opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the ACT item is referred to as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment Action Plan 2014-2017.

SunRider 7:29 pm 20 Jul 15

Grimm said :

Mysteryman said :

I want people in decision making positions to be there because they are the best candidate for the position, regardless of their background or ‘diversity cachet’. I don’t want them there because they satisfy an arbitrary notion of diversity.

This.
People are generally promoted into these positions on their merits.
How many places do you think are honestly discriminating because of race or gender? And I mean deliberately discriminating. Probably zero.

These quota systems in the name of “diversity” are nonsensical and don’t put the best person for the job in place. If you are suggesting that putting a sub par candidate in a job, just because of their race or their gender is a good idea, I don’t know what to say. And in the public service? You really think our tax dollars should be wasted on employing sub par people into executive positions? I’d rather we get the best person for our money, regardless of what colour their skin or what’s in their pants.

It is a difficult question, because perceptions can really skew a decision maker’s assessment of who is the most meritorious candidate for a particular position.

I will personally never forget the day I resigned from the ACT Public Service, and a very senior manager very seriously and earnestly noted that it made her “sad” when an Indigenous person leaves, because she liked to “educate them”. Such an ill advised comment may have made sense and been slightly less offensive if that manager had the tertiary or other formal qualifications that I possess, but to my knowledge she didn’t.

While people like that are in a position to promote or hire others, there really should be protections in place to ensure diversity.

Dame Canberra 3:21 pm 20 Jul 15

It’s really important to take steps to improve diversity. A subconscious preference for promoting people similar to yourself (i.e. gender, age, race), means diversity doesn’t happen unless we work at it.

But diversity is only a good thing when it rewards people who actually deserve to be at the top. Overlooking less-diverse individuals who are smarter or more qualified isn’t the right way to go.

One of my friends did debating at uni, and I was really disappointed to continually see debating societies choose diversity over merit.

For one inter-university debating competition, teams were penalised if they didn’t have a certain ratio of women to men. When it came to trials, the top eight ranked debaters were male. They took the top four, skipped the next four and selected the next ranked women (ninth and tenth). They lost.

One the one hand, my friend thought it was good because she had an opportunity to debate (she was the ninth-ranked debater), but she also denied that opportunity to four people who were better at debating, just because of her gender. That’s not fair.

Grimm 3:03 pm 20 Jul 15

Mysteryman said :

I want people in decision making positions to be there because they are the best candidate for the position, regardless of their background or ‘diversity cachet’. I don’t want them there because they satisfy an arbitrary notion of diversity.

This.
People are generally promoted into these positions on their merits.
How many places do you think are honestly discriminating because of race or gender? And I mean deliberately discriminating. Probably zero.

These quota systems in the name of “diversity” are nonsensical and don’t put the best person for the job in place. If you are suggesting that putting a sub par candidate in a job, just because of their race or their gender is a good idea, I don’t know what to say. And in the public service? You really think our tax dollars should be wasted on employing sub par people into executive positions? I’d rather we get the best person for our money, regardless of what colour their skin or what’s in their pants.

vintage123 2:48 pm 20 Jul 15

It is a tricky one.

Especially when you reference specific points of study, for example “if you mainly associate with people similiar to you, you will be less tolerant and accepting of those who are different”.

It is difficult to find people who satisfy both sides of the spectrum. Usually people are somewhere in between. So i guess it’s a balancing beam issue.

To find such people who sit centre at the 50/50 mark (or are you suggesting the board itself sits 50/50) is going to almost impossible.

The best chance of gaining some form of momentum if you beleive it is absolutely necessary would be to include a specific selection criteria which states that a persons exposure and view on diversity is a mandatory criteria to be successful for the position.

But then you get stuck because if you do it for one you have to do it for all – and you end up where you started whereby some people have more exerience and exposure to diversity than others.

A robust selection from a large sample of people is, well it is what it is. Its just that, its a snippet of the current environment and to be honest, if you fiddle too much with selection in order to bias introduction of diversity then i think you are falsely creating something which is not the norm.

Mysteryman 1:38 pm 20 Jul 15

I want people in decision making positions to be there because they are the best candidate for the position, regardless of their background or ‘diversity cachet’. I don’t want them there because they satisfy an arbitrary notion of diversity.

Paul Costigan 12:55 pm 20 Jul 15

Good article – sadly the issue just keeps on having to be addressed.

I have had years of experience in organisations and have had successes and many failures in trying to maintain equity across the boards, juries and other panels.

I recently wrote a short piece on this for my own blog after being approached by someone asking how to handle this in her organisation.

Here’s the link

http://the-southern-cross.com/board-and-speaker-selection/

Testfest 10:51 am 20 Jul 15

Diversity in the SES ranks? Sure, but before they do that I would prefer they looked at reducing the number of incompetents \ sociopaths that currently infest the upper echelons of the public service…

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