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When Dr Katie Spearritt began her career in Public Affairs at BHP in the early ‘90s, she had no idea the job would be a catalyst for her whole career. “I was working in a department with the only senior woman in the company and it didn’t take long for me to notice a pattern to the path of becoming a senior executive,” Spearritt says. “Basically, you needed to attend Newcastle Boys High, study engineering, work at the steelworks, then transfer to Melbourne Head Office. So, I figured my chances of becoming a senior leader were next to nothing!”
After observing the ways that corporate cultures privilege some people and exclude others based on assumptions of gender, class, race and ability, Spearritt went on to complete a PhD in equity and diversity at Monash University’s Department of Economics and Management in 1997. One of the companies she studied during her PhD was Hewlett-Packard, which she ended up joining while completing her research. This led her to a range of leadership positions, including Head of Diversity for Asia and Japan, and senior diversity roles at Coles Group and NAB.
In 2009, Spearritt established Diversity Partners, a specialist consulting firm guiding organisations to achieve more diverse and inclusive workplaces. With 2019 marking the tenth year of business for Diversity Partners, Spearritt reflects on what she has learned. Here are seven key D&I takeaways:
At one organisation a decade ago, senior managers wanted to focus on progressing gender diversity first, then tackle flexibility, then explore cultural diversity (or other areas deemed a priority by the leadership team). They felt it was better to get some tangible wins on the board (e.g. more women in leadership) and not stretch the already crowded agendas of managers.
Spearritt accepted the view as part of the way things are done in a large company, but on reflection, recognised it was the path of least (cognitive) resistance and undermined the more holistic process of cultural change. “We know more today about how various areas of diversity intersect, and the importance of a broader focus on unconscious bias and inclusive leadership, so that everyone feels a sense of belonging and are valued for differences they bring”, says Katie.
An enterprise-wide commitment is essential to a successful D&I strategy. As Spearritt observed: “There are so many ways we can embed diversity into our organisations – procuring minority-owned supply businesses, providing scholarships for indigenous apprentices, challenging gender and cultural stereotypes in advertising, just to name a few.” There are many missed opportunities to taking a narrow focus to D&I.
Spearritt was introduced to the concept of the “privilege of oblivion” early in her professional career, but has a far deeper understanding of what that really means today through personal coaching and feedback that’s increased her self-awareness. Recognising diversity within individuals, as well as among groups, in organisations is a key part of effective diversity strategies. As Spearritt has observed over time, “Recognising our own blind-spots is a critical element of any leader, and especially practitioners in our field.”
Being a diversity leader in an organisation can be a lonely path with plenty of moments of challenge and discomfort. Spearritt recalls the very moment she sat in the back row of a conference event on gender equality and noticed the audience was nearly all women. The talk was about how we could support women to pursue leadership positions by building their confidence and networking. This gave Spearritt the resolve to engage a different audience, particularly those from dominant power groups, to affect broader change. As Spearritt remarked, “Being clear about your ‘how’ and ‘why’ is essential.”
When you build a strong knowledge of the operational side of the business in an in-house diversity leadership role you find opportunities to speak credibly about the ways in which diversity and inclusion align with the organisation’s values and goals. People listen. “I wanted to amplify the experiences of those who feel marginalised or excluded with influencers and power-brokers, so speaking the language of business matters,” says Spearritt.
Because you might be the only D&I Manager in a company, seeking support from others in similar positions can be reassuring. This might include joining online groups, attending forums, simply calling up others in similar company roles, to share challenges or try out an idea.
Spearritt has previously been a board member of the Mental Health Council of Australia, another topic that draws out her passion because of her personal experience and drives her desire to pay it forward as much as possible. “There’s no way I could do what I do without the deep support of colleagues, family and friends”, Katie says.
The role of the diversity practitioner is more important than ever because leaders better understand the benefits of diversity and inclusion for innovation, better decision-making, and attracting and retaining employees and customers.
While D&I has an elevated role in Australian organisations today than in the past, it’s not yet elevated to the level of some American corporations who have Chief Diversity Officers.
Discussions that D&I roles will be redundant in future because the function will be fully embedded in the business are also unlikely. D&I roles will continue to require dedicated investment and support in order to create more inclusive workplaces.
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