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Diversity more than just gender

Diversity more than just gender

By Kate Southam

Australian employers are tackling diversity by focusing most of their attention on gender instead of important areas such as age given Australia’s aging population.

According to the recently released Diversity & Inclusion Survey of 355 organisations across the Asia Pacific by HR consultants Mercer all employers quizzed believe developing a diversity and inclusion strategy was important but most only focused on gender imbalance issues.
 
When quizzed about how much time and attention was being allocated to the different diversity priorities survey respondents revealed 90 per cent of their focus was on gender issues, 49 per cent on ethnicity and race; 39 per cent age and 10 per cent on disability.
 
Alison Tickner is Mercer’s Head of Leadership, Diversity and Learning Solutions for the Asia Pacific region.

She says given Australia’s ageing population employers would be prudent to pay attention to this area so they could tap into this valuable talent pool.

“Business leaders recognise the changing demographics in the workplace is an important issue, yet many aren’t incorporating this into their workforce planning and mentoring programs,” she says.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has just released a report revealing people over the age of 60 are harder to employ because of limits that apply to workers' compensation, income insurance and professional licences.

Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan says the report identifies important barriers to employment for older people that need to be addressed.

"We are only now starting to understand what a terrible waste of human capital this situation represents," says Ms Ryan.

"A loss to the national economy and to businesses large and small, and a loss to the individual who is pushed out of the workforce prematurely."

The report details figures taken from June 2010 looking at age participation rates. At that time 71 per cent of Australians aged 55 to 59  were in the labour market but only 51 per cent of  those aged 60 to 64 were working and a small 25 percent of those aged 65 to 69 while less than 5 per cent of those aged 70 or older were working.

"We are on the cusp of a vastly changing demographic, and it is now necessary for older workers to remain in the workforce to support Australia's society and economy," says Ms Ryan.

Mercer points out that workforce diversity not only helps hiring and retention but also improves business results.

“Companies perform better when they have genuine diversity in their ‘brains trust’: people from different backgrounds providing fresh perspectives, insights and expertise,” says Ms Tickner.

“Diversity isn’t about ticking boxes or being politically correct – it’s about building an organisation that avoids a herd mentality and delivers better business outcomes.”
 
An April report by management consultants McKinsey showed global businesses that ranked in the top quartile of executive-board diversity, received a return on equity 53 per cent higher on average than those businesses in the bottom quartile.
 
While the Federal Government is focused on encouraging employers to recruit and retain more mature-aged workers, the Mercer survey shows gender strategies are most important to employers.
 
Mercer also found that diversity programs need more buy in from the top. Of the organisations surveyed by Mercer, 74 per cent of respondents in Australia claim to hitting barriers to implementing their diversity strategy.

A further 50 per cent claim their business leaders understand the need for diversity and inclusion but were not actively involved in efforts to achieve set goals.  
 
“The survey revealed a level of resistance from middle management to actively change organisational cultures to ensure diversity strategies can survive,” says Ms Tickner.  

“Business leaders need to become the champions of change and align diversity and inclusion strategies with their core business strategies if they want to see real, sustainable change.”

Meanwhile the Diversity Council of Australia’s issues paper on Australia in the Asian Century called for a number of measures to promote cultural diversity.

DCA recommendations included for the Federal Government to:

•    Give consideration to fine-tuning migration policy settings to allow business to take better advantage of an increasingly regional labour market;
•    Improve Australia’s recognition of skills and qualifications gained overseas;
•    Identify ways to better engage international students in the Australian community and support their transition to working with Australian businesses on and offshore;
•    Consult with HR and diversity practitioners inside organisations as well as with specific industries and across sectors, to increase knowledge of existing initiatives in workplaces, and engagement of key stakeholders and community awareness more broadly;
•    Develop a strategy to ensure that Australian business and the wider community have the skills and expertise essential to making the most of our position in the region, including investing in a National Asia Literacy Action Plan to facilitate the delivery of Asian languages and skills in Australian schools and universities;
•    Work with industry, and in particular business organisations, to continue to develop programs and initiatives which increase cross cultural awareness in the business sector about our Asian neighbours; and
•    With business, continue to assist our Asian neighbours through providing culturally appropriate humanitarian support and engagement on human rights.

CareerOne.com.au, June 2012.

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