Martin Parkinson: the diversity business case for the APS

By Martin Parkinson

November 8, 2017

Dr Martin Parkinson, as head of the Australian Public Service, addressed the inaugural APS Gender Equality and Diversity Awards this morning.

Good morning, everyone.

I begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people, Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet. I pay my respects to their elders, past and present, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here with us today.

We’ve had a number of valedictories by retiring Secretaries recently, and I’ve noticed a common theme—how fortunate we are to have had the opportunities the APS has provided.

Like me, and the Secretaries collectively, Martin Bowles and Gordon de Brouwer were committed to a diverse and inclusive APS, one where all people of merit have the chance to prosper and progress.

The last thing I want to do is to oversee an APS culture that allows only people like us to prosper and progress.

So it’s very important to me, in leading the APS, that we recognise the need to change that culture, to recognise and develop talent wherever we find it.

These awards are a great way of acknowledging and thanking staff across the service who are living and leading that change.

To all the nominees and winners of today’s awards: Congratulations! What you are doing in your roles, networks and organisations is making a real difference. We are better because of you, and the many others like you who submitted applications for these Awards.

What I’ve learned in my own journey is that there is no checklist or silver bullet that will create a more diverse and inclusive organisation. The reasons for disparity are complex, cultural, and interconnected—so our solutions must be too.

I want to share with you today the reason I think this work is so important; a little bit about what Secretaries across the APS have been doing; and my reflections on the opportunities each of us have to make a difference.

The business case for diversity

There are many reasons leaders are interested in creating more diverse and inclusive work cultures.

One of the most compelling arguments is that businesses with more diverse workforces and more inclusive work practices get better results.

More diverse organisations are likely to be more innovative, more creative and successful than homogenous ones.

A McKinsey study found gender-diverse companies were 15 per cent more likely to outperform their peers financially, and ethnically diverse companies 35 per cent more likely.

Other studies have found that diverse teams are smarter, more likely to rely on facts than assumptions, and more careful in processing those facts than homogenous teams.

The economist in me knows instinctively that diversity minimises waste of talent; that limiting your leadership pool is neither optimal nor sustainable.

The edge that more diverse and inclusive businesses have over their competitors is one we should cultivate in the public sector too.

Part of my role is making sure the APS provides the best possible support to the Government of the day. We need to be competitive in an environment where our advice is contestable, and cultivate a workforce engineered to deliver the best possible results. So we want to be ranked with the high-performing organisations and industries that are reaping the benefits of inclusion in their balance sheets and score cards.

Another part of my role—one that I take very seriously—is stewardship of a public service as a place where staff are engaged and their wellbeing is paramount. Inherent in that is that we need to be an institution that represents the public we serve.

The more we reflect the citizens we serve, the more likely we are to create citizen-centric policy that gets better outcomes for Australians.

Imagine for a moment what the average Australian thinks of when they picture the average public servant.

I won’t attempt to describe what I think you just imagined, but we could all take a pretty good guess at the kinds of stereotypes that persist.

How accurate are they? Are they more accurate the higher you move up the hierarchy? If those images don’t actually represent who we are, or who we want to be, how can we change them?

What does it mean to have a diverse and inclusive workplace?

In the 2016 Census, people born overseas, or who had at least one parent born overseas, made up almost half (49%) of our entire population. Think of the SES staff you know. Are half of them are from a culturally diverse background? An even simpler metric: women are just over half the population. Are they half the SES you know?

And we are yet to welcome a Secretary who identifies as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, in spite of the unique and powerful leadership qualities this would bring to the workplace.

It’s inconceivable that the lack of diverse representation in the APS is due to difference in ability. The reality instead is we need to change our systems, structures and processes to make sure that the leaders of tomorrow come from all backgrounds.

It starts with recruitment, but that is only the start. The composition of the cohort coming through the door doesn’t automatically work its way through to the senior ranks with equal progression.

That’s because diversity and inclusion are not the same thing. You have to be inclusive in order to make the most of diversity.

Another way to look at it is that diversity is quantitative—the numbers of people with different backgrounds or strengths; whereas inclusion is qualitative—how those people feel and contribute within the organisation.

Quite simply, we must learn how to better value and include each other’s unique experiences and talents.

And it’s important to say that we’re not just talking about gender or cultural diversity, sexuality or disability, but about different styles of thinking, working and leading as well. We’re talking about the value of difference, the value of methodically working through a range of perspectives, not simply the status quo.

We know that diverse perspectives improve the quality of decision-making. And the fissures that emerge when diverse perspectives are locked out of decision-making only serve to entrench myopia.

The more we engage with people who have different ideas and views—uncomfortable as that may be—the more we can understand and the better we can do our jobs.

What Secretaries are doing

Since the launch last year of Balancing the Future, the APS’s Gender Equality Strategy 2016-19, Secretaries across the service have refocused our efforts on addressing gender inequality.

One of our first acts was establishing the Secretaries Equality and Diversity Council.

The Council has a broad remit—to identify and dismantle barriers to the employment and progression of people from all backgrounds within the APS.

We’ve had some truly inspiring conversations already, helped by having people from diversity groups and networks attend our meetings, and running focus groups and cultural audits.

One of the things we’ve noticed is that our trusted barometer of the ‘health’ of our workplace cultures, the annual APS Employee Census, does not accurately tell the story of diversity and inclusion.

The Census illuminates the under-representation of people from diverse backgrounds.

But what the data doesn’t show is the range of barriers, both systemic and human, and the lived experience of exclusion. Again, we can measure diversity quite readily; measuring inclusivity is harder.

Four key issues have emerged in our work on diversity and inclusion:

  1. The reality of unconscious bias in our workplace, which sometimes manifests as the tyranny of low expectations.
  2. The positive impact of visible leadership on diversity and inclusion.
  3. The need for mentors and sponsors at senior levels of organisations.
  4. A need to build manager capability. This one includes:
    • developing managers’ openness and understanding of diversity;
    • developing their understanding of unconscious bias, including their own, and coming up with mitigating strategies;
    • helping managers have respectful conversations about different strengths, abilities and work styles;
    • and helping them understand how to support staff from all backgrounds to work in a more agile and flexible way.

You can have the best inclusion and diversity policies in place, but if managers at all levels don’t bring them to life, they might as well not exist.

What we can all do

At the same time, it’s not only managers that can make a difference. Nor is it only HR teams.

All of us need to ‘be the change’ we want to see.

I’m a firm believer in leadership at every level.

We can all lead from wherever we are. Every single person, at every level, has permission to include others and challenge bad behaviour when they see it.

We can all take a people-first approach and strive to understand each other better, step out of our comfort zones, walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

All of that will mean we are together building a more inclusive workplace that truly values diverse experience and perspective; that delivers the results that only an inclusive organization can; and that reflects the magnificently diverse and pluralistic society we serve.

So now, let’s celebrate some real champions of diversity and inclusion.

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