Date posted: 11/12/2018 10 mins min read

How self-interest could be the key to workplace diversity

What does diversity mean in the workplace? And how can we best achieve it? Diversity champions Ken Woo FCA and Catherine Fox trade views on the best way to get business leaders backing the cause.

In Brief

  • Australia’s C-suites remain stubbornly male and blindingly white. At the beginning of 2018, there were still more ASX200 chief executives named Andrew than there were women CEOs.
  • At the current rate of change, workplace gender equality won’t be achieved in Australia before 2050, according to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA).
  • Ken Woo FCA, a member of the Australian Human Rights Commission Leadership Council on Cultural Diversity, argues that it might be more effective to tie diversity outcomes to a boss’s vanity rather than logic, as self-interest is a powerful driver of behaviour.

By Jo McKinnon
Photos Jeremy Piper

If you want to see real improvements in diversity within your organisation, the best strategy is to stop talking sense for a moment and think about how to appeal to the egos of those in upper management. That was the argument convincingly made by PwC corporate tax partner Ken Woo FCA during the Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand Great Debate 2018.

He told the gathering that appeals to vanity could prove a greater force for positive organisational change than arguments centred on facts or money.

“If you want to do something about cultural diversity, you need a cunning plan,” Woo said. “It cannot be an appeal to logic. It can’t be an appeal to dollars. Really, it has to be an appeal to vanity. You need to align people’s conduct with self-interest. It’s about transparency before the community – it’s what we’re trusted to do when no-one’s looking.”

The problem with the recent push for diversity targets is that some existing business leaders are finding the pace of change too fast and feeling resentful, Woo explained. He pointed to the risk that leaders might hit all their key performance indicators (KPIs) for diversity hires, but then fall back on negative stereotypes to justify why they don’t promote those individuals further.

“Meanwhile, future leaders from more diverse backgrounds are frustrated that things aren’t changing fast enough. They get resentful about a lack of promotion, then tell organisations ‘to take their job and shove it’,” Woo said.

It is up to CEOs to manage this dilemma, he added. “Because you cannot let go of your future leaders. You have to accept that the leaders of tomorrow will not look like the leaders of today.”

Just demanding people in power share some of their clout hasn’t worked, Woo said, citing Committee for Economic Development of Australia forecasts that show, at the current rate of change, workplace gender equality won’t be achieved in Australia before 2050. So far, gender targets have been as effective as throwing ice cubes at a bushfire and chanting “equality, equality, equality”.
“When you’re outnumbered, you need to play it very carefully… because if you don’t you’ll get your head smacked,” Woo warned. And for this “cunning Korean dude”, the way to faster diversity outcomes is to tie them to a boss’s vanity.

The CA ANZ Great Debate 2018 was part of its annual High Tea, a fundraiser for the National Breast Cancer Foundation. The topic was: “To drive progress on diversity and inclusion, gender needs to take a back seat to culture”. Woo made the case for the negative, while his opponent – journalist, author and feminist Catherine Fox – argued in the affirmative.

“You cannot let go of your future leaders. You have to accept that the leaders of tomorrow will not look like the leaders of today.”
Ken Woo FCA

Blame it on gender bias

Fox joked that talking about gender was “so last year”. Scientific research has shown there are no physical differences between men and women’s brains, and no gender-based differences when it comes to aptitudes or skills – “things like maths, science or cleaning the toilet”, she said. The idea that females are naturally nicer or more risk-averse than their brothers was as silly as saying women shouldn’t vote because of the brain power given over to controlling their pelvic structures.

“Gender and inequality is due to biases [about gender], not gender differences,” Fox argued. “Our sex, our biology, plays no part in our capacity to be accountants or plumbers.”
She urged the audience to stop putting women through the “remedial sheep dip of women’s leadership courses” to “fix” them, because the problem wasn’t the women or, indeed, gender – but workplace culture.

Fox also observed that in the cosy leadership club of straight middle-aged white blokes, absolutely anyone – man or woman – who doesn’t look like them is excluded. “Their vested interest, of course, is in recycling the story that the only people suited to leadership look pretty much like me... and what a coincidence!

“Women are the ones who have been getting this idea killed off, simply because of their own self-interest,” Fox said. “But we’re also happy to see everyone benefit. Not because we’re nicer, but because we know exactly how it feels to be treated sometimes as second-class citizens – and to be mansplained just one time too many.”

Australia’s male-dominated C-suites

So just how male-skewed are Australia’s C-suites? At the beginning of 2018, there were 12 female CEOs among ASX200 companies (the equal highest ever), 12 corporate chairs and 20 female chief financial officers. But there were still more ASX200 chief executives named Andrew than there were women CEOs, according to the 2018 Gender Equality at Work report by workplace consultant Conrad Liveris. Australian business leadership was also “blindingly white”. In his previous report in 2017, Liveris revealed only 3.9% of ASX executives descended from non-European backgrounds. (That’s despite 16.7% of Australian workers having an Asian cultural identity, according to the Diversity Council Australia.)

Business leaders were overwhelmingly straight, white, able-bodied men aged 40-69 years, despite this cohort representing only 8.4% of the population.

Keeping gender in the diversity debate

Fox, a member of the Australian Defence Force Gender Equality Advisory Board, controversially warned that too much focus on gender could distract from the bigger structural and cultural changes that need to take place to benefit everybody. But Woo, a director and company secretary of the Australian Human Rights Commission Leadership Council on Cultural Diversity, countered that gender has to remain at the forefront of the diversity debate for the simple reason that half of Australia’s culturally diverse population are women.

At the end of the debate, the audience was evenly split on who had won. In declaring the tie, CA ANZ President Jane Stanton FCA observed they were actually in violent agreement with each other on the need for change, but just coming from different perspectives.

And her take on how chartered accountants could help change the face of Australia and New Zealand’s business leadership? “We just have to go back to the workplace on Monday morning, forget about gender, sow some self-interest and we’ll all be winners,” Stanton quipped.

“Gender and inequality is due to biases [about gender], not gender differences... Our sex, our biology, plays no part in our capacity to be accountants or plumbers.”
Catherine Fox

Nearly A$20,000 for the National Breast Cancer Foundation

The seventh annual CA ANZ NSW High Tea in support of the National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF) gathered 120 chartered accountants and their guests to Sydney’s Westin Hotel on 21 September 2018, and raised A$19,500 for targeted breast cancer research.

Eight women die from breast cancer every day in Australia, and 50 are diagnosed with the disease daily, according to NBCF figures. The organisation’s mission is to have no Australian woman die from breast cancer from 2030 onwards.

NBCF ambassador Tina Doueihi told the audience how she discovered she had breast cancer in 2008, when she was just 37. There was no history of cancer in her family – “we do heart disease” – and her life changed drastically.

After a mastectomy, breast reconstruction and chemotherapy that made her hair fall out, Doueihi survived the disease. The experience gave her a renewed sense of purpose to make the very most of the life. She set up a business, Red Fern Lingerie, which makes sophisticated lingerie suitable for women with a mastectomy. “I wanted to help cancer survivors reclaim their bodies with beautiful lingerie,” Doueihi explains.

Since the NBCF was established in 1994 it has raised more than A$162 million and funded 514 Australian-based research projects. In this period, five-year survival rates for people with breast cancer have improved from 76% to 90%.

For more information or to donate, visit nbcf.org.au


Everybody Counts

Everybody Counts is a social responsibility initiative of Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand, and makes it easy for CA ANZ staff and members to put the organisation’s values into action.

It’s about giving back to the community and supporting selected charity partners financially and practically by giving funds, skills and resources. We do this through payroll giving, fundraising, volunteering (skilled and unskilled), business donation matching to a predetermined limit, and in-kind use of our meeting-room facilities.
CA ANZ members can adopt the Everybody Counts program in their own practices.

To find out more contact: Pamela Lee FCA, CA ANZ’s community investment relationship manager, pamela.lee@charteredaccountantsanz.com

Our partners

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  • Autism NZ
  • Cancer Society of New Zealand
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