Recently, I was asked by a long term customer of mine, CBRE, to speak at a function to discuss the topic “Leading a Diverse and Inclusive Workplace”. I was part of a panel of supposed experts in the field and when I was first asked to present I will admit to being somewhat apprehensive. What was my particular expertise in this area? Was it of any value? Would anybody be interested in what I have to say, particularly with the main area of focus being on gender? I really was not sure what I could offer but after agreeing to speak, I began to do some research in my own business and get feedback from my team members about what they felt were the real issues and form the basis for my presentation. It was an enlightening and rewarding experience.

Firstly, building an inclusive and diverse team is actually very tough. It is not natural. It takes leaders out of their comfort zone and forces them to look at their own biases. Our brains are actually wired to be exclusionary as opposed to be inclusionary; we base decisions of who we hire and surround ourselves on gut instinct and people who are most likely to relate well to us, namely people like us. This means that teams tend to evolve with group think and hires tend to be made with a certain stereotype in mind.

There is a great deal of media around regarding pay differences based on gender and lack of women in senior management positions. The level of press regarding this reached fever pitch level recently with the decision of Channel 9 journalist Lisa Wilkinson to not renew her contract and sign with rival station Channel 10. Wilkinson, a much loved and highly regarded journalist and presenter, was apparently dissatisfied with the lack of parity in salary with her co-host, Karl Stefanovic and made the decision to test her worth in the open market. The result was a bumper salary increase and a new career and her move led to an increased level of discussion around the topics of diversity, gender and discrimination.

I was at a dinner party recently with a group of friends. We were discussing Wilkinson’s move and the lack of women in senior, highly paid executive positions in general. It shocked me to hear that the majority of people in this group had never worked for an organisation where a female was in a key, executive position. One friend who had worked directly for a female “C level” shared some key insights with us about the struggles she (the boss) had in establishing herself as an executive. When she was first promoted, she decided to realign her team and reallocate resources to better drive efficiencies and effectiveness in her team. She was decisive and developed the reputation of being ruthless. The men in her team immediately referred to her as a “bitch” and them women in her team felt as though she was trying to be a man and join the “boys club”.  Three weeks later, she was dealing with a lady who had a miscarriage and was criticised for being overly sensitive and soft by her peers. Within her first month, she was criticised for displaying tendencies traditionally associated with men and compassion traditionally associated with women and it led her to request feedback from her team as to what they expected of her. Needless to say, none was forthcoming; it was easier to criticise her behind her back as opposed to giving meaningful feedback.

These stories, together with the feedback from my own team, led me to start searching for ways to ensure that I was accounting for my own unconscious biases and ensure that I was open to ensuring that my business had a diversity of thought. For me, the first step was to become aware that I had unconscious biases and to see that they have been evident in my hires. I would happily have a beer with all of the people I work with and most people I work with don’t challenge any of my social opinions; there is a similarity bias at play here. After becoming aware of this, the next step for me has been to become less judgmental of different thoughts and opinions and encourage others to share their different insights as opposed to suffocate the discussion using satire and wit. This has seen me make a conscious effort to be more empathetic with my team; listen more and seek to be more understanding and also more understood. Listening more has enabled more diverse opinions to be shared in a psychologically safe environment without the feeling that I was going to humiliate people for giving them. It has certainly been a journey!

To build a truly diverse and inclusive workforce is not an easy task. Diversity of thought comes with diversity of background and experience, be it culture, age or gender. Being aware of your unconscious biases is the first step and developing hiring processes that reduce the impact of “gut feel” and are more accurately aligned to core competencies is key. Once someone is hired, developing retention processes that are based on merit as opposed to “likability” is the next step. When these foundations are laid, you have the ability to attract and retain a team that offers you the opportunity to be truly diverse in thought and opinion and this is certainly a desirable outcome.

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