Calling out unconscious bias creates change

Targeting core characteristics in the recruitment process, rather than specific skills, can help companies drive diversity throughout their organisations and better meet the needs of clients, says quantity surveyor Sarah Slattery.

The director and Victorian state lead for Slattery Australia, Sarah Slattery (pictured) is driving a diversity strategy within her company which is achieving real results.

Half of the company’s six most senior positions are held by women, and 45 per cent of the firm’s workforce is female.

“Three of our four state leads are female. In comparison, just four of the 133 directors in Australia’s top five QS firms are women. That’s just three per cent – and it’s got to change,” she says.

When she graduated from RMIT nearly three decades ago, Slattery – who is the vice chair of the Property Council’s diversity committee in Victoria – was one of just a handful of women in the game.

“When I was starting out, I expected to be the only female in the room, and it’s only been over the last decade that I’ve stopped accepting that ‘this is how it is’ and started to question why we are missing out on so many good people.”

Within her own organisation, she’s led a transformative recruitment strategy based on personal characteristics, rather than skill sets.

“We’ve focused on recruiting people with enthusiasm, capacity to learn, confidence to engage with clients and curiosity. We think these characteristics are more important than years of experience, technical skills or where someone went to university.

“This has made the biggest difference to the composition of our workforce,” Slattery says.

And the company is now carrying this recruitment strategy through to all promotions.

“It’s about looking at how people fit with our values and our clients. We’ve got diverse clients, so we need a diverse staff base.

“When you look at characteristics – particularly the way people relate to clients and manage and motivate their staff – women are on par, or in many cases, come out on top when compared with their male counterparts.”

Interestingly, Slattery Australia’s desired characteristics are ‘ungendered’ in ways that many universally-admired management traits such as leadership qualities, drive and ambition, for example, are not.

The company has identified a lack of female talent in its middle management, and is looking more closely at what its female workforce needs to remain motivated.

“For some of our female staff, it’s about working with like-minded clients or within a particular sector, such as social enterprise. For others, providing the flexibility to travel, take time off to have children, or work part-time are the motivators.”

While flexibility is an ongoing challenge in any small company, Slattery Australia is looking for creative ways to accommodate work life balance.

“When we hear the words ‘flexible working’ everyone immediately thinks of women with small children, but we have one high-performing male employee who manages intense sporting commitments around his work, and another older man who has worked with us for 25 years, and in scaling back his working hours, we kept his expertise.”

The firm is also looking at training staff on unconscious bias, and Slattery says the leadership group is committed to “calling out unconscious bias when we see it”. Internal reporting on gender targets is also undertaken each quarter.

“A few people were uncomfortable with this at the start, because it really highlights the gaps,” Slattery says.

“But transparency works. It’s like unconscious bias training – once people see something, they can’t unsee it.”