Embracing diversity and inclusion 'supports business growth'

Out-Law Analysis | 26 Nov 2019 | 2:12 pm | 4 min. read

We now have decades of research to prove what we intuitively know: that businesses which embrace diversity and inclusion outperform those that don't.

However, delivering meaningful and measurable change can be challenging. Cultural change doesn't magically happen when we publish new company values on a website or change a policy; and 'unconscious bias' training doesn't instantly awaken us from our conditioned blind spots.

Brook Graham, the diversity and inclusion consultancy owned by Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, recently opened its first offices in the Asia Pacific region, across Australia and Singapore. To mark the opening, we hosted a series of events in Pinsent Masons' offices with the idea of exploring diversity and inclusion in the context of the growth mindset.

Diversity and inclusion

Language is incredibly important in a diversity and inclusion context, not only to be able to understand the concepts and complexities at play but also to be able to inspire both advocacy and action and others.

Workshops alone do not change cultures ... culture change requires awareness and action within the business at three levels: individual, team and organisation-wide.

We define 'diversity' as both the visible and invisible differences that make everybody unique. Inclusion is about creating an environment where everybody feels connected, respected and valued, able to be their true and best self.

There is increasing interest in building diverse and inclusive workplace cultures. This is driven by many reasons, but some of the most common are:

  • harnessing innovation through greater diversity of thought;
  • increasing customer connectivity with a diverse workforce that represents the community it serves; and
  • building a stronger sense of belonging and connection for employees, customers, investors, stakeholders and communities.

The growth mindset

We invited our panellists, Stuart Affleck of Brook Graham and Chris Lamb, a diversity and inclusion expert, advocate and not-for-profit board member, to reflect on their wealth of experience through the lens of the 'growth mindset'. This is a belief that performance comes not from an innate ability, but from application, effort and continuous learning from the challenges that a person has experienced and the lessons they have learnt.

Both Affleck and Lamb said that the conversation around diversity and inclusion had changed since the start of their careers. For Affleck, what was once a conversation about "equality" has shifted to one of diversity and inclusion and the application of diversity to every aspect of business, including the consumer experience and commercial perspectives such as inclusive product and service design.

From an Australian perspective in particular, Lamb noted the "real shift" towards the genuine appreciation of the use of 'acknowledgement of country' as a way of paying respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Traditional Owners and ongoing custodians of the surrounding land.

Building resilience

Both Affleck and Lamb went on to discuss some of the challenges that they have faced in their careers. Affleck talked about an example facilitating productive workshops on unconscious bias and inclusive leadership for executive leadership teams only to be told that these were not "going to change the biases" of one attendee. Affleck highlighted that workshops alone do not change cultures, and that culture change requires awareness and action within the business at three levels: individual, team and organisation-wide.

Lamb said that early in his career he identified people who were not convinced by the messaging around diversity and inclusion and decided not to progress with influencing them, instead focusing energies on the advocates. He learned quickly that ignoring those people was not the solution, as they can undermine what you're trying to achieve at an organisational level. Today, he spends more time with people who are "embittered" by diversity initiatives, trying to help them understand the purpose behind the work.

Lamb has also learned to anticipate issues that his audience will come up with, in order to be better prepared to respond and engage in a way that made sense to them. He talked about the genuine questions and concerns that emerged when he was working with Lendlease, who had been approached by Pride in Diversity to become a foundation member. The executive team were concerned about how it would affect their business in traditional Asian countries, for example. Ultimately the company became a founding member of Pride in Diversity, and went on to have many employees participate in the Mardi Gras parade.

Affleck emphasised that working in the diversity and inclusion space did not mean that he was "perfect". It is with a curious mind-set and a continuous learning approach that over time he has learnt to face his own biases, and to dig deep to build resilience. He said that hearing stories of prejudice and painful experiences was a "double-edged sword": "it is impactful, but also inspires me to continue to do more to create a better outcome for everyone".

The panel concluded with the need for patience and persistence, rather than aggression, in response to any "backlash" against diversity and inclusion initiatives. Where backlash comes from fear, or ignorance, true change comes from engaging in those conversations, listening to where people are coming from and using these opportunities to educate and build awareness.

It was incredibly valuable for the experts to share not just their passion for diversity and inclusion but also their honest accounts of work that takes perseverance, resilience and also the experience of failure. Being exposed to new areas and the risk of failure can be very uncomfortable, but it is so important when we consider how we can make real change towards workplaces that are genuinely and sustainably diverse and inclusive.

Katie Williams is an employment law expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law. Justine Cooper is a consultant at Brook Graham, the diversity and inclusion consultancy owned by Pinsent Masons.