Why diversity matters to your business

Generous maternity leave, equal pay for equal work, workplace flexibility and a guarantee that seniority will not be lost if you take time out to have children. Sounds too good to be true? These are all workplace policies of the Australian Army.

Over the last few years, Lieutenant General David Morrison – the tough-as-nails Chief of Army who became an internet sensation for his YouTube video ordering misbehaving troops to “get out” if they couldn’t accept women as equals – has made it his mission to attract talented women into the armed forces.

Speaking to Canberra’s property and construction industry at a breakfast forum this week, General Morrison warned the audience that he was “in competition with all of you” for the most talented and skilled female workers. “We have removed gender from how we judge potential”, General Morrison explained, challenging other industries in Canberra to apply the same standards to their own operations.

The statistics are hard to ignore. Women make up 51 per cent of the population, 46 per cent of the paid workforce, and 60 per cent of university graduates – but just three female CEOs can be found on the list of ASX 200 companies.

More than half Australia’s skilled work force are women, and yet we make up just 13 per cent of the property and construction industry. On average, a woman graduate’s starting salary is $5,000 less than that of a man doing the same job. In fact, pay equity has gone backwards in recent years, with the pay gap widening to 20 per cent.

“There is no logical reason for this,” says author, leadership strategist and ‘provocateur’, Avril Henry, who was appointed an adviser to General Morrison on diversity and culture in 2013. Henry and her then boss, Ann Sherry, were the first to put together a business case for paid maternity leave in Australia, with Westpac the first corporation in the country to provide paid maternity leave in 1995.

Henry spoke about the “unconscious and conscious bias” that exists in many organisations, sharing an anecdote which many in the audience could understand. To demonstrate unconscious bias at work, Henry introduced a blind promotion process at a large Australian corporation, in which names, genders and ages were removed from candidates’ CVs. In reviewing the final list of 12 preferred candidates, the incredulous board told Henry that “there is something wrong with your process – nine of the people you selected are women, and one is over 50!”

In recent years, the Property Council of Australia has accelerated its efforts to improve diversity, with a new program of events and a leadership group focused on driving gender equality. Last year, we established a Male Champions of Change group, convened by leading businesswoman Carol Schwartz AM. The group comprises senior leaders across the industry’s development and construction, investment, funds management and agency sectors.

“Women university graduates outnumber men in every discipline – except for in engineering and technology,” Avril Henry says. “And that’s because we’ve told girls since the sandpit that boys are the ones who build things.”

Part of our challenge is to make the sandpit more accessible, and to encourage more women to consider construction careers. But a bigger challenge is developing the workplace policies that make it easier for women to stay in the sandpit once they get there.

Change is challenging – but it is possible. More than 640 women signed up for the army in the last financial year – 16 per cent of the total recruitment, compared with just 11 per cent just two years earlier. Women now make up 25 per cent of those selected for leadership training.

“I want the life skills that women accrue as mothers – those life skills will be found nowhere else,” General Morrison says. However, he also recognised that, in the army hierarchy, taking time off for family meant a woman may never catch up with her peers. “I called up HR and said ‘by this afternoon a new policy will be in place’.” And guess what? By that afternoon, a new policy was in place.

Quoting Niccolò Machiavelli, General Morrison argued that “It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones.” But around Australia, in every industry and in every workplace, there are people – both men and women – aching for change, and for the opportunity to create a better, more balanced workforce. 

Catherine Carter is ACT Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia