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Diversity, equity and inclusion
In this topic, we explore why diversity, equity and inclusion matter for your organisation, community or nation. We also look at some of the challenges and opportunities that representation brings.
While reading this topic, think about the following questions and how they relate to your organisation, community or nation:
- What do the terms equitable, diverse and inclusive mean to your group?
- Do you have fair and credible representation of the various rights and interests within your group?
- Are there gender, age or other factors to account for when selecting or electing representatives?
- What can you do to improve the representation of young women or other groups that may be less represented in your governance?
Representation is about how someone – or something – is described or portrayed. When thinking about First Nations organisations, communities and nations, representation is about who within the collective has a voice.
Representation is important when thinking about ‘your people’. From your board, management and staff – through to your members and wider community.
The principles of diversity, equity and inclusion are great tools for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups. Together, they can make a powerful difference in:
- addressing discrimination and bias
- improving representation.
Equity, diversity and inclusion are – in part – about social justice and the idea that each person has value to contribute.1“Why Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Matter,” Independent Sector, October 6, 2016, [link]
They also make smart business sense. This is because non-discriminatory, diverse and inclusive management, boards and groups perform better and solve problems more creatively than those that are less diverse.
“The evidence is clear that better decisions are made when a broader spectrum of backgrounds are represented in the decision-making process and for this reason, it is critical that Indigenous and culturally diverse women are given every opportunity to develop board skills and participate at the highest level.”
– Kirsty Moore, CEO Indigenous Business Australia.2“Q&A with Indigenous Business Australia CEO Kirsty Moore,” Women on Boards, accessed May 2023, [link]
It is important to understand what each of these terms mean and why they matter. Consider these terms when thinking about how and why decisions are made, how information is communicated – and everything in between.
Diversity is the practice of including people who represent difference. For example, difference in gender, physical and mental abilities, age, educational background, sexuality, history or identity.
Diversity is more than just acknowledging or tolerating difference. It’s about accepting and respecting difference.3The Concept of Diversity, Community Psychology and the SCRA Council on Cultural, Ethnic and Racial Affairs, February 2, 2018, [link] It is also about acting upon the different rights and interests of members to ensure they have equal participation and a voice in their selection of leaders who will represent them. This means that the combined group of leaders who govern an organisation, community or nation should be widely representative of all the members, not just one family or faction. An additional aspect to diversity is that board directors and leaders should reflect a diversity of skills, personal qualities and life experiences.
There is great diversity within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, transgender and intersex Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples represent a diverse group within this already diverse population.
On the Tiwi Islands, for instance, there are around 50 transgender women who self-identify as Sistergirls, Sistagirls or Yimpininni in Tiwi. Sistergirls make up 5% of the Tiwi Island’s population and are an important and unique part of the island’s culture.
Having groups, leaders and projects that reflect the diversity of your community is important. It brings many benefits, including:
- making your decision-making more effective
- representing and thinking about all members of your group when making decisions
- giving less empowered people a voice, and giving them role models when they have public representation.
The benefit of having board directors with different skills, experience and characteristics means they complement each other. For example, if there are 2 directors who are business savvy, it is okay for another director to have less knowledge in that area. They bring a set of different strengths.
A core aspect of diversity for governance is the cultural diversity of Australia’s Indigenous peoples. There are, for instance, two distinct cultural groups made up of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. There is great diversity within these two broad groups, in the form of hundreds of culturally diverse nations and communities and, today, over 250 different language groups.
This means that the governance established by groups today will reflect this cultural diversity. At the same time, there are some deep cultural features of governing that commonly appear across the governance of such locally diverse groups. These include networked governance, connection to Country, value of traditions, the role of Elders, respect for women’s and men’s areas of knowledge and mutual responsibility.
The idea of ‘equity’ differs from ‘equality’:
- Equity recognises that we do not all start from the same place, and that there’s a need to acknowledge and make adjustments for imbalances.
- Equality is about providing the same to all.
The diagram below helps illustrate this difference.
For example, equity might look like encouraging and supporting more women on your board. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women make up half the First Nations population across the continent.5Australian Human Rights Commission, Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices): Securing Our Rights, Securing Our Future Report (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2020), 50. It makes sense that women are represented as leaders, decision-makers and influencers in an organisation, community or nation.
Equity could also refer to:
- youth or Elder representation
- encouraging LGBTQIA representation
- making sure people with disability get an equal opportunity to participate
- making sure smaller, less visible family or clan groups have a voice who might otherwise miss out in a ‘one person – one vote’ system.
For example, language, technology, and business or financial literacy could be important skills for your board and management. In this case, equity might look like making sure training is available to community members. This would help those who want to take up leadership positions to learn the skills they need.
If diversity is a measure of difference in identity, inclusion is about respect for and appreciation of these differences. Inclusion is the deliberate act of welcoming and valuing diversity and equity.6Donnebra McClendon, “How to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace,” Ceridian, June 21, 2022,[link]
Inclusion happens when a diverse range of people:
- feel and are represented, valued and respected
- have access to opportunities and resources
- can bring their perspectives and talents and contribute to their organisation, community or nation.7“Inclusion,” Diversity Council Australia, accessed May 2023, [link]
Governing inclusively is about creating an environment that supports participation and commitment from everyone in your group.8“Equity, Diversity & Inclusion,” Center for Creative Leadership, accessed May 2023, [link]
Challenges to representation
Making your governing structures more representative can present challenges. In particular, biases and discrimination can make diversity, equity and inclusion more difficult to achieve.
Building awareness around these issues is an important challenge to overcome if your group is to take equity, diversity and inclusion seriously. It will also help to make sure your group is not breaking any anti-discrimination laws. These are hurdles that are worth investing time and effort to address.
Systems and processes
- Particular jobs for certain categories of people
- Decision-making structures favour particular categories of people
- Pay gaps
- Organisational culture supports biases through language, representations of power and leadership.
- Who speaks up
- Whose views are heard and valued
- What topics are valued and supported for discussion
- Expecting particular people to do different types of tasks – for example, take minutes.
Where there are strong collective norms about how people dress, speak, behave, lead and represent themselves which serve to exclude some people or groups.
Ways of thinking
- Definitions of merit or qualifications for promotion
- Job evaluation schemes that value features of particular groups or collective identities over others, creating prejudices against particular traits.
- Prejudice against particular traits.
Closely related to bias is discrimination. Discrimination happens when a person, or a group of people and their ways of doing things, are treated less favourably than another person or group because of their background or certain personal characteristics. Discrimination can be illegal if it’s based on a person’s age, disability, race, sex, pregnancy, marital or relationship status, sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.10“Discrimination,” Australian Human Rights Commission, accessed May 2023, [link]
For example, if the reason for promoting a male candidate over a female candidate is that it is assumed the male will do a better job, then this is discrimination based on sex.
Racial discrimination continues to affect many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. There are initiatives within the wider community to strengthen acceptance of diverse cultural backgrounds. However, racism continues to be an ongoing challenge.
Opportunities for representation
A good way for your group to increase representation is to address bias. Find out how individuals or groups of people might presently feel they are affected by bias in the way governance and leadership happens. Understand how this may impact your group’s effectiveness and your members. 11Donnebra McClendon, “How to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace,” Ceridian, June 21, 2022, [link]
If your group has only ever had women in the role of secretary and only men in leadership positions, this may be an example of bias. Or if younger emerging leaders are being held back from taking up governing responsibilities because the senior men and women on the board are reluctant to step down. It’s important to question who appoints people to these roles, and on what basis. Do they hold a belief about women and men being better suited to certain roles? Why might this be? What could you do to challenge this bias?
Many organisations could benefit by having measures for a more equitable representation of women, Elders and young people. For example, quotas, training programs and mentorship.
Language, translation and accessibility processes could also give someone with great leadership potential, but limited English, the opportunity to hold such a position.
Identify areas where you and your group have biases that need balancing out.
The next step can be a bit more difficult.
When thinking about making change, it’s helpful to think about who currently benefits from the way things are. Changes that shift power can be met with resistance from those who benefit from the status quo.
For example, your group may see the benefit of creating a position for a youth representative on your board. Some older, longer-serving directors might not want to give up their position. They might feel intimidated by a young person working beside them, holding the same position and decision-making authority as them. They may resist change for personal reasons, even though it’s in the best interest of your group.
The challenge for leaders is to find the arguments, strategies and influences to achieve meaningful outcomes for the group.
To help you work through this challenge:
- be thoughtful and purposeful in your decisions
- communicate decisions well
- help your group understand the reasons for why things are the way they are, and the reasons for change.
Human capital management (HCM) software company, Ceridan, suggests 10 ways groups can support diversity, equity and inclusion:12Donnebra McClendon, “How to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace,” Ceridian, June 21, 2022, [link]
1. Recognise unconscious bias
Understanding bias and building awareness is a first step to real change. Individuals at all levels of an organisation, community, or nation can help members question, reflect and analyse their own personal biases and assumptions and think about what actions continue to reinforce biases.
2. Communicate the importance of managing bias
It’s important to recognise that no one is an expert. It’s a continuous learning journey when it comes to respecting and embracing other people’s experiences and realities.
3. Promote pay and role equity
Look for patterns or trends where certain people or groups are being underpaid or put into roles based on stereotypes. Think about who is asked to bring the papers from the photocopier or a cup of tea. Is it their role?
4. Develop a strategic training program to educate and inform
Develop a strategic training program for yourself, and those you work with. This can cover anything from communication styles to dealing with conflict and self-identity. For example gender identity and people’s preferred pronouns.
5. Acknowledge and accommodate differences
This might be the need for flexibility around:
- meeting schedules because of commitments such as childcare or looking after elderly parents
- religious or cultural holidays
- how and where you hold a meeting if someone has specific language, hearing, seeing or access requirements.
6. Make sure everyone feels welcome
Encourage contribution by inviting opinions and giving space for a considered response. Be careful not to shut down ideas too quickly. This can prevent some people from contributing more.
For example, a youth representative who feels intimidated, an ‘independently appointed’ board member who may not feel they have the authority to speak, or someone who has limited English.
7. Mix up your teams
Diversity in teams and committees positively impacts creativity and innovation. More perspectives lead to:
- innovative thinking
- connecting thoughts in new ways
- different approaches to problem solving.
8. Seek regular, ongoing feedback
Sometimes in a group, you may hear more from the ‘squeaky wheels’, or the people who are most likely to complain or speak out. Other times you may hear from no one at all. This does not mean there’s nothing going on.
Regular surveys, feedback forms after meetings, ‘open door policies’ and community meetings are ways to:
- understand what’s going on across your organisation, community, or nation
- gauge how your board and group are going
- lead more relevantly and effectively.
9. Assess organisational policies
Organisational policies can play a key role in perpetuating existing problems. By assessing and reshaping their policies, groups can create a more equitable workplace.
For example, by strengthening the ways internal conflict or disputes are handled, you can make sure everyone involved is heard equally.
Identify areas where you and your group have structural biases that need balancing out. Think about whether they will affect members equally. Were they written with everyone in mind? Do they benefit some groups more than others?
10. Track your progress
Making structural changes to a group takes time. Having ways to track your progress can help you know what’s working and what’s not. For example, regular feedback channels, staff retention rates and reasons staff give for leaving.
This also makes it possible to measure improvements and progress when changes are introduced.
We’ve translated our extensive research on Indigenous governance into helpful resources and tools to help you strengthen your governance practices.
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