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Diversity has to be more than a box ticking exercise

By Anna Campbell

Everyone at my workplace has heard me explode about this on occasion… often when I am asked to do something - like give a presentation, join a committee or even join a special lunch, the invitation is prefaced by the comment “we need female representation”.

I always nod politely but I inwardly seethe - all I want is to be asked to do something because of my skill set and what I bring to the table, not because I represent what feels like a tick box gender diversity exercise.

As soon as someone tells me I am a female - which incidentally, I am well aware - it feels like they are subtly telling me they wouldn’t have thought to ask me otherwise.

Diversity of gender and race is hugely important in every aspect of society and I am always one to argue for that - but it should never feel like it’s being done as a tick-box exercise.

Diversity of thought is vital for every business and organisation’s success at every level and it should simply be a given.

Why on earth do we have no Asian representation on any of our largest agricultural companies when our largest export market is China?

Similarly, in a world of tech-disruption and food-safety scandals, how many boards exist with minimal technical or scientific capability? Odd really, we wouldn’t think of putting a board together without an accountant - or three.

Last week I attended a leadership conference (run by the Institute of Directors) in Auckland. With my job, I am lucky enough to hear many great speakers and I heard a speaker at this conference who was right up there with the very, very best.

The speaker’s topic was diversity, so yes, I was sold before the presentation started, but interestingly the presenter was a 59-year old, white man. In his own words, hardly a poster child for diversity!

If you ever had any doubts about the need for diversity, then google the 2016 Australian of the Year David Morrison.

You will find a three-minute speech he gave when he was the Chief of the Australian Army in response to a sex scandal within his ranks.

Watching that three-minute delivery (which went viral on YouTube) will send chills down your spine. I was able to listen to a 40-minute presentation which was just as powerful and some of his messages will stay with me forever.

His belief is that diversity is about inclusivity and about giving people the chance to reach their potential. No-one can reach their potential in an environment in which they are excluded or objectified.

It feels like we all know this, yet change is still slow, very few women reach senior executive positions, and our corporate boards are woefully thin on diversity of anything.

When this is raised in various forums, people answer time and time again that there are no women out there to bring into executive positions or onto boards.

Well, Anna Guenther, the founder of crowdfunding start-up PledgeMe, was so frustrated with people saying “there are no women out there” - when she knew there were - she acted by crowd sourcing a list of over 500 high-achieving females to demonstrate there are plenty of capable women out there.

They’re not that hard to find, one just needs to move beyond one’s immediate circle.

Change is tough and change can be slow. David Morrison likened resistance to change, to Italian political philosopher Machiavelli’s theory: “for he who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things”.

I believe there are two questions to ask: what is the existing order of things, and how strong do you want your business or organisation to be? If the existing order of things is predominantly white and male, then I would say your business/organisation is not as strong as it should be.

I may seethe when I am told I am being asked to do something because I am female, but I remain polite because I understand and hope that we are in a state of change towards the better.

I am impatient though and if my daughter, or her friends, receive the same inane comments in 30 years’ time when they are invited to lunch, or to be on a board, I will do more than seethe - all politeness will be gone.