Insights by AUSPACK

Dr Katie Spearritt speaking in her session 'Strength through Diversity' at the 2019 AUSPACK Business and Industry Conference

Speaker Interview: Dr Katie Spearritt, Diversity Partners

Posted on July 4th, 2019 in Insights by AUSPACK

Diversity benefits: performance, decision-making and innovation

A diverse company is a strong company. Even in industries that are traditionally dominated by men from Anglo backgrounds, companies are finding huge benefits in widening the scope of their hiring policies.

We spoke to Dr Katie Spearritt from Diversity Partners about the benefits companies can gain from a diverse workforce and how to attract talent from different areas, communities and backgrounds.

What do we mean by diversity?

When we talk about diversity, it’s gender, cultural background, age, religion, role and industry experience, as well as diversity of thinking approaches. For modern organisations, it’s important to proactively pursue both if they want to reach peak performance.

What are the benefits of diversity?

The biggest benefit for companies that adopt a proactive approach to diversity is that their performance improves. The main reasons behind this are that while homogenous workforces and leadership groups often have similar life experiences and ways of thinking, a diverse group is likely to come up with new suggestions, different perspectives and innovative solutions.

Dr Spearritt said, “There are a huge number of studies that have been done over the last decade that show the greater the gender and cultural diversity in leadership levels in organisations, the better the overall commercial performance.”

“A diverse team gives us what the researchers in our industry call a cognitive jolt. In diverse teams, we’re more likely to anticipate different perspectives, listen carefully, and work harder to achieve consensus. That avoids groupthink which we know has a really damaging effect on business.”

The industries leading the way

Overall, diversity efforts across Australia are growing, particularly in industries that have traditionally been male-dominated. Resources – such as energy and mining – as well as IT and financial services have all recently seen the benefits of changing the demographics of their leadership teams and workforces.

Dr Spearritt gave the example of BHP that has been proactively been pushing for greater diversity because the business case was so obvious. She said, “BHP discovered that those teams that had better gender diversity and were more inclusive, as measured by their annual staff satisfaction survey, had higher levels of production and were safer.”

The problems with unconscious bias

With so many obvious benefits for companies with a diverse workforce, there’s a surprising reluctance in some companies to stray from the homogenous teams they’ve long had in place. The main reason for this, according to Dr Spearritt, is unconscious bias.

She said, “Unconscious bias essentially means the assumptions and stereotypes that we all make based on our life’s experiences and our backgrounds. Affinity bias is probably the most common unconscious bias, that’s our preference to gravitate towards people who are similar to us. In the workplace it means we hire mini-me’s and rather than a meritocracy we’re more likely to get a ‘mirror-tocracy’. That’s not good for innovation, that’s not good for robust decision-making, that’s not good for performance.”

Four ways to attract a more diverse range of applicants

It makes sense that companies want to hire the best people, but often the way they advertise jobs can mean they unwittingly overlook talent from underrepresented groups.

If you want to make sure that you’re getting the best possible applicants responding to your job ads, Spearritt recommends three key steps to consider: the wording of the ad, the channels you use to advertise your jobs, how the role is carried out and what the role will look like a few years from now.

Dr Spearritt said, “Certain words in a job description will appeal more to men and certain words will appeal more to women. If you use the word ‘expert’, the research suggests you’re more likely to attract a male applicant. If you use the word ‘specialist’, you’re more likely to attract more women. There are a whole range of words associated with masculine stereotypes — if those words are in your job description, that’s already impacting who’s going to apply.”

“The second area is to think about where you’re advertising. Are you advertising in a diverse range of channels or are you just asking some people in your network for recommendations? Because when we’re recommending from our circle, often it’s same-same type hire.”

“Also, thinking about how the job could be done differently. Does it have to be full time? Does it have to be done in an office? Because that limits the sort of candidate you’re likely to get.”

“A tip very few people know, the gender of the person currently in a role influences who is seen as most suitable. Often people are coming in with the preconceived idea of ‘we’ve had a male leader in the role, we just expect another male to come in’. Companies should think not just about what a specific role needs now but also what the future strategic needs of the business are, because that reduces the association with the person in the current role.”

By adjusting the way you look for candidates, not only will you receive a wider range of applicants you’re also likely to create a stronger team that improves your company and future proofs you as your industry and those around you make positive changes.

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