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IWD Special 7 Mar 2022 - 6 min read

Lazy D&I: Don’t rabbit on about valuing women; run a gender pay gap audit and fix the deficit – plus handy other hints to go beyond the easy diversity checklist

By Catherine Fox - Gender and Work Commentator

Businesses are using diversity and inclusion policies as fig leaves to deflect criticism and tick boxes, rather than create meaningful change for their employees. Catherine Fox, a journalist, author and one of Australia’s leading commentators on women and the workforce, explores the gulf between men’s and women’s attitudes to D&I – and what the industry should do next.

Claiming that your workplace has a policy, and zero tolerance for harassment and bullying, doesn’t make it so. It can bring organisations unstuck over the sheer hypocrisy when there’s a high-profile scandal around sexual harassment (AMP springs to mind).

Catherine Fox

The D&I-Affirmative action slowdown

A young woman working in the marketing job of her dreams – and constantly being told she should ‘back herself’ – made sure to speak up at regular internal and client meetings.

To her amazement, her manager took her aside one day to tick her off for being too aggressive, not waiting to be asked her opinion and putting the clients off.

Versions of this situation still play out in lots of workplaces, leaving women demoralised and silenced despite all that advice to ‘lean in’.

Daily sexism can be tricky to explain to someone who has never faced, and often can’t see, these scenarios.

And there’s plenty of gender fatigue from the constant talk about diversity and inclusion.

In fact, the rapid spread of organisational D&I policies and specialists hasn’t necessarily led to faster progress than when the talk was about women and affirmative action a couple of decades ago.

The lazy diversity checklist

While there’s no denying D&I is a well-recognised function in most organisations, it’s often used as a box ticking mechanism or a way of proving the issue is on the agenda.

But claiming that your workplace has a policy, and zero tolerance for harassment and bullying, doesn’t make it so. It can bring organisations unstuck over the sheer hypocrisy when there’s a high-profile scandal around sexual harassment (AMP springs to mind).

And diversity on its own quickly became a numbers game for many employers. Throw a few people from marginalised groups into the mix and, bingo – that’s done and dusted.

But many have realised that gathering a highly diverse group around a table doesn’t make much difference if they find it difficult to contribute and no-one is listening to them.

That’s why a few years ago the word inclusion was added to diversity. It quickly became a highly recognisable acronym, but despite the well-intentioned aim, the term is often greeted with cynicism. Or downright resistance.

D&I efforts too often stall with the odd morning tea or events for women employees, sometimes described as ‘cupcake feminism’.

Catherine Fox

Gulf between men and women on discrimination

A handful of Australian surveys across the workforce last year found about half the blokes interviewed thought gender discrimination was exaggerated, and it was men who were discriminated against.

A national survey in late 2021 by shEqual – an initiative to champion equality in advertising – explored attitudes to gender equality in the ad industry.

The study found women were less likely to believe gender equality is prioritised in Australian advertising, more likely to be concerned about speaking up due to fear of negative consequences, and more likely to support strong initiatives like gender pay transparency and quotas for women at senior levels.

Nearly two-thirds of women agreed agency management and industry bodies were doing less than they should to promote gender equality in advertising content, compared with less than half of men.

The gulf in men’s and women’s attitudes to gender bias doesn’t reflect the evidence.

The data (and there’s lots of it) quite clearly shows that women have made progress in some ways but are still far less likely than men of similar experience to be promoted, and often face a pay differential, along with maternity discrimination.

These are basic factors, but D&I efforts too often stall with the odd morning tea or events for women employees, sometimes described as ‘cupcake feminism’.

Given the growing number of women in senior roles as CMOs, media buyers and agencies, the failure to communicate the need for change and overcome scepticism about sexism is acting as a brake on a critical business shift.  

If women are leaving, you need to find out why; if a pipeline is broken, you fix it (and you don’t blame the water).

Catherine Fox

On-screen diversity has grown, now measure it in the workplace

Meanwhile, however, there’s already been a visible sea change in how our society is depicted these days. Lots of what audiences see – from drama series to news and TVCs – include a veritable kaleidoscope of talent and bend gender norms in a way that was unthinkable a decade or two ago.

A man holding a toddler while doing the shopping? Asian Australian families enjoying holidays using the latest homestay app? It’s becoming (marketing) business as usual. 

That mix and those new norms should be better reflected in the workforce and decision-making tiers of agencies, media and marketing sectors.  

It’s not time to throw the D&I baby out with the bathwater. But it is time to stop using it as a handy way to deflect criticism.

Just saying you have a D&I committee isn’t enough, it has to be about what your workplace is doing and the impact of these efforts.

Don’t rabbit on about valuing women; run a gender pay gap audit and fix the deficit.

By all means introduce generous parental leave; but make sure workforce planning has allowed for replacements when parents actually use the leave.

If you want more women in management then set targets throughout the organisation and track them. Then publish the data and find out where the blockages are occurring.  

If women are leaving, you need to find out why; if a pipeline is broken, you fix it (and you don’t blame the water).

If you are serious about change then don’t leave the onus on women’s shoulders. This is about building a fairer workplace for all employees.

This IWD the theme #breakthebias puts the spotlight on the sometimes subtle but consistent ways women continue to be marginalised and find it harder to reach management ranks.

This is the stuff that a typical D&I approach hasn’t often been successful in tackling. But with some attention, proper resourcing and clear goals, it could be.

That’s how you end up showing the sceptics that sexism exists – and cupcakes aren’t the answer.

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