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Delivering the diversity dividend

Catherine Carter

While diversity might be the buzzword of the year in recruitment circles, building a gender-balanced workforce isn’t dependent on big ideas or complex strategies.

In fact, it starts with a simple commitment to build better workplaces.

At consultancy giant PwC, 20 per cent of the 50-plus new partners admitted each year must now be from diverse cultural backgrounds. Why? Because PwC wants to better reflect Australian society and its client base.

A “40, 40, 20” rule also applies, which means 40 per cent of PwC’s incoming partners must be men, 40 per cent women, and the other 20 per cent chosen based on the group’s business needs.

Meanwhile, Telstra has promised to increase the female representation among its workforce of 35,000 by mandating that at least half of all candidates on interview shortlists are women.

And last October, BHP Billiton announced its goal to achieve gender balance – from graduates right through to the board – by 2025.

Currently, just 16 per cent of the company’s workforce is female. However, company president Alex Archila says “redressing this imbalance isn’t just the right thing to do, it could be worth billions of dollars too”.

Analysis of BHP Billiton’s performance metrics uncovered a range of benefits of inclusive and diverse teams, including improved safety and maintenance performance, better employee engagement and higher production performance.

If the miners can embrace diversity, there’s no excuse for other industries not to follow.

NAWIC, the National Association of Women in Construction, was established in 1995 to improve the construction industry by advancing the careers of women. The Canberra chapter has made huge inroads in recent years, hosting events and mentoring programs, bestowing scholarships and raising the profile of talented women through an awards program.

Last year, one of the nation’s largest private construction groups, Built, won the coveted ACT Crystal Vision Award for its leading-edge diversity push. The year before, Built’s general manager in Canberra, Nadine O’Keeffe, took home the award for her sustained efforts to create diverse and inclusive teams.

O’Keeffe says her great lesson has been that “it’s not about any single big idea or strategy. It really starts with putting diversity on the agenda and being proactive and deliberate in creating the opportunities and pathways for women to develop their careers”.

O’Keeffe’s approach brings hope to people working in smaller companies that think their lack of resources may be holding them back from building the best workplaces. Instead, there are many small, practical initiatives that any company can take to place diversity squarely on the agenda, O’Keeffe says.

Nadine O'Keeffe

Nadine O’Keeffe

The first step is to understand your company’s “demographic makeup”, and unpack why it is this way, she says. Examine the current limitations of your workforce, and then start to “build up a picture” of what you’d like your organisation to look like in the future.

“Explore how your recruitment and performance assessment processes may inhibit you achieving that picture. Are there biases with the leaders making employee decisions that need to be addressed?

“A lack of diversity is often not deliberate but just based on unconscious bias,” O’Keeffe explains. “Training is good, as it starts the internal conversation to recognise bias where it exists.”

Unconscious bias is often not obvious until it’s pointed out. For example, some women aren’t interested in attending golf days and may find early morning breakfast meetings or after-work events difficult to get to amid the frenetic school drop-offs and pick-ups. O’Keeffe says business networks need to take NAWIC’s lead and broaden the scope of events and activities they host.

The most practical action any organisation can take is to review policies and procedures and to “make changes that support diversity – from how you recruit to how you cater to flexible working arrangements”.

Built’s most successful diversity initiatives have been the non-gender specific extended paid parental leave and flexible return to work programs, both of which have driven measurable increases in the number of women within the business.

The talent pool has expanded well beyond “the administration and support levels, and we have more senior women throughout the business. Our retention of talented women has also increased.”

Today, a third of Built’s Canberra team is female. While O’Keeffe says there is “still a lot of work to do”, she’s encouraged by the progress she’s seeing throughout the industry.

All industries need the best people – but none more than the property and construction industry. After all, we are building the homes and hospitals, schools and shopping centres, the mosques and the churches for an increasingly diverse Canberra.

Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and creative thinker, Catherine is passionate about Canberra. Head of the Property Council of Australia’s Canberra office for more than a decade, Catherine now heads up a boutique consulting firm, Indigo Consulting Australia, where she retains an interest and focus on urban environments, community building, and diversity. She provides a range of specialist business and communication advisory services to a number of organisations including development and construction companies, law firms, and the Canberra Glassworks, and sits on a several boards including Music for Canberra, the National Association of Women in Construction ACT Chapter Council and the Ministerial Advisory Council on Women. Catherine was the recipient of the Telstra Business Women’s ACT Community and Government Award in 2010. More about the Author

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