Speed Read

  • Diversity is all the differences in experience and perspective we bring to work. Inclusion is about valuing that difference and creating a sense of belonging and psychological safety so employees feel valued and respected
  • While many organisations in Australia are at a stage of supporting “surface-level diversity” (such as gender, culture and age), an increasing number are focused on “deep-level diversity”, which is valuing a wide range of thinking approaches to solve problems, create and innovate
  • The concept of “managing diversity”, popularised in the 1990s, evolved into “leveraging diversity” and is now firmly anchored with efforts to create inclusive workplace cultures

Many organisations say, “We’re committed to diversity and inclusion.” But what does this statement really mean? And how did we get to where we are today? Back in 1990, R. Roosevelt Thomas, formerly an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, introduced the concept of “diversity” within organisations to business circles in a Harvard Business Review article. Thomas called on organisations to shift the focus from hiring women to a focus on maximising the potential of every person in a company. “The diversity I’m talking about includes not only race, gender, creed, and ethnicity but also age, background, education, function, and personality differences. The objective is not to assimilate minorities and women into a dominant white male culture but to create a dominant heterogeneous culture,” wrote Thomas. 

Yet even today, some people still believe the term “diversity” only refers to gender diversity. However, there are now increasing efforts to promote diversity that includes a focus on many dimensions of difference.  That is because companies increasingly recognise the value of teams from diverse backgrounds and experiences, who bring with them diverse thinking approaches.  Innovation and good decision-making are just some of the benefits of a diverse workforce. During this time, many practitioners were concerned the expression “managing diversity” implied a form of control over non-dominant groups, and as time has gone on, it has been replaced by usage of terms like “leveraging” or “maximising” diversity.  

According to Thomas, an exclusionary organisation is missing out: “Executives who only sponsor people like themselves are not making much of a contribution to the cause of getting the best from every employee.”  Thomas emphasised the importance of focusing on unspoken assumptions and systems that benefit a particular dominant group and subtly exclude those who may be different to the leadership norm. This was an important point to bring to the corporate landscape.  The concept of executives sponsoring people who are like themselves (without being aware of it) is what we now know as unconscious bias, particularly “affinity bias” (or “usual suspects bias”). These biases hold businesses back from valuing a wide range of skills and ideas from employees.  

In 1990, many of us wondered if this shift in diversity focus would dilute efforts to recruit and promote women. Australian organisations in the early 1990s were focused on meeting the requirements of newly introduced affirmation action legislation for women and anti-discrimination laws. During this time, networking groups and leadership programs for women in organisations flourished. But the shift to value the differences across many other dimensions, including gender, was unstoppable. When Australian subsidiaries of US-headquartered firms (such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM) started promoting the use of diversity in policies, the concept of building cultures explicitly focused on valuing differences of team members.

“The diversity I’m talking about includes not only race, gender, creed, and ethnicity but also age, background, education, function, and personality differences.”

Symbolic of this shift was the re-branding of the Council for Equal Employment Opportunity – established in 1985 by the Business Council of Australia and Confederation of Australian Industry (now the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry) to develop and promote Equal Employment Opportunity programs within the industry – to the Diversity Council of Australia in 2005.  

Gender equality, however, continues to remain a specific focus in Australian organisations. While many organisations now have diversity policies, non-public sector employers with 100 or more employees also report to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) on their efforts to promote gender equality. The WGEA is an Australian Government statutory agency with over 4,800 organisations reporting on their efforts annually. Around 130 of these organisations are recognised as an “Employer of Choice for Gender Equality”.    

In organisations today, “diversity” in its broadest sense refers to all the differences and experiences we bring to work.  It’s a collection of unique attributes that include, but are not limited to, gender, language, cultural background/identity, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, age, caring responsibilities, religion, education, experience, perspective and thinking approaches.  

Some of our differences are visible, but most are invisible. While many organisations are still at a stage of supporting “surface-level diversity”, an increasing number are focused on “deep-level diversity”, which is the different mental frameworks or thinking approaches to solve problems. Many organisations apply the concept of the iceberg “waterline of visibility” when discussing diversity. 

A picture of an iceberg with different terms visible on its side. Terms like skin colour, race, gender and age are above the water as they are visible. Terms such as work styles, family status, sexual identity, life experiences and more are beneath the water, as they are not visible. This is the waterline of visibility.

Source: Brook Graham

The move to “deep-level diversity” has led to growing research and practical efforts to promote “cognitive diversity”, as organisations look for ways to innovate and disrupt traditional thinking. Australian author and diversity practitioner Juliet Bourke has written about the ways different thinking approaches in teams can mitigate “groupthink” and achieve breakthrough innovation. Bourke’s framework of thinking approaches for effective decision making is an important resource for every business leader.  

Popularising the term “diversity” is not Roosevelt Thomas’ only legacy.  Back in 1990, he also talked about the importance of auditing corporate culture and modifying processes so people from diverse backgrounds could thrive. “Women and minorities no longer need a boarding pass, they need an upgrade,” he famously said. “The problem is not getting them in at the entry level; the problem is making better use of their potential at every level.” This paradigm shift set the groundwork for today’s focus on creating inclusive workplace cultures. Inclusion is about valuing difference and creating psychological safety, so employees feel valued, respected and a sense of belonging. If we don’t do this, we risk distancing our companies from our customers and losing good people. 

Anchoring diversity with inclusion recognises that we have to change the culture; the systems, processes and polices, behaviours, language, office norms and day-to-day practices that directly or indirectly exclude people outside the dominant group. It’s a big step away from an individualistic “DIY” approach that puts the onus on minority groups to change. For example, that women need more confidence and should ask for pay rises in order to achieve gender equity. Studies show diversity efforts are more successful when framed as inclusion goals that will benefit everybody. This re-framing helps reduce backlash and promote acceptance, yet it’s also the reality; workplace cultures where everyone can contribute and achieve their potential are better for everyone.