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Diversity and inclusion: back to the (historical) basics

Have you ever wondered how organisations came to focus on diversity and inclusion in Australia? Dr Katie Spearritt shares a short history of how D&I efforts have evolved over three decades since the term ‘diversity’ entered global business circles in 1990.

A lot of organisations say they’re committed to diversity and inclusion, but what does this really mean? And how did we get to where we are today?

‘Diversity’ in workplaces typically refers to all the differences and experiences we bring to work. It refers to the collection of unique attributes that include, but are not limited to, gender, language, cultural background/identity, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, age, caring responsibilities, religion, education, experience, and thinking approaches.

More and more organisations have made hiring and retaining diverse talent a priority. That’s because extensive research over the past decade has shown diverse teams bring substantial business benefits – improved decision-making, innovation and employee engagement. Many firms also recognise the benefit of reflecting diverse customers and the broader community in general.

It’s not just visible diversity that organisations prioritise. While many are still at a stage of supporting ‘surface-level diversity’ (such as gender, culture and age), an increasing number are focused on ‘deep-level diversity’ – different mental frameworks or thinking approaches to solve problems. This focus draws on research on cognitive diversity, such as the work of UNSW Business School Adjunct Professor and diversity researcher, Juliet Bourke, who has written about the ways six thinking approaches in teams can mitigate groupthink and achieve breakthrough innovation.

How did we get here?

The term ‘diversity’ was first introduced to global business circles in 1990. It came via an article in Harvard Business Review called ‘From Affirmative Action to Affirming Diversity’ by R. Roosevelt Thomas, formerly an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. Thomas called on organisations to move beyond affirmative action to ‘managing diversity’, shifting the focus from hiring women to a focus on maximising the potential of every person in a company.

‘The diversity I’m talking about includes not only race, gender, creed, and ethnicity but also age, background, education, function, and personality differences. The objective is not to assimilate minorities and women into a dominant white male culture but to create a dominant heterogeneous culture,’ Thomas wrote.

Thomas recognised the importance of hiring people who are different to the dominant norm and who bring with them diverse thinking approaches. He said an exclusionary organisation is missing out: ‘Executives who only sponsor people like themselves are not making much of a contribution to the cause of getting the best from every employee.’

This was an important insight to bring to the corporate landscape. The concept of sponsoring people like ourselves is now widely recognised as a form of ‘affinity bias’ (or ‘usual suspects bias’) that inhibits diversity in hiring and career development.

The concept of sponsoring people like ourselves is now widely recognised as a form of ‘affinity bias’ (or ‘usual suspects bias’) that inhibits diversity in hiring and career development.

When Thomas’ article was published, many Australian organisations were focusing on meeting the requirements of newly introduced affirmation action legislation for women. Networking groups and leadership programs for women in organisations were starting to flourish.

At the time, some researchers and practitioners wondered if this shift to a focus on diversity would dilute efforts to recruit and promote women. Some of us were concerned the expression ‘managing diversity’ implied a form of control over non-dominant groups. As time has gone on, it has been replaced by terms like ‘leveraging’ or ‘maximising’ diversity – a subtle but significant linguistic shift.

The shift to a broad focus on differences gained traction. And the change in narrative, as we came to understand, proved a helpful way to engage a broader audience of business leaders.

When Australian subsidiaries of US-headquartered firms (such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM) started promoting the use of ‘diversity’ in policies in the early 1990s, the concept of building cultures explicitly focused on valuing differences of team members took a firm hold.

Symbolic of this shift was the re-branding of the Council for Equal Employment Opportunity – established in 1985 by the Business Council of Australia and Confederation of Australian Industry (now the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry) to develop and promote Equal Employment Opportunity programs within the industry – to the Diversity Council of Australia in 2005.

At the same time, gender equality has remained a specific focus in Australia, largely thanks to reporting requirements for employers with more than 100 employees to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA). The WGEA is an Australian Government statutory agency with thousands of  organisations reporting on their efforts annually. (When first established in 1986, it was called the Affirmative Action Agency, before it became the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency in 1999 after new legislation was passed.)

Why is inclusion anchored with diversity and psychological safety in organisation efforts?

Popularising the term ‘diversity’ is not Roosevelt Thomas’ only legacy. Back in 1990, he talked about the importance of auditing corporate culture and modifying processes so people from diverse backgrounds could thrive. ‘Women and minorities no longer need a boarding pass, they need an upgrade,’ he famously said. ‘The problem is not getting them in at the entry level; the problem is making better use of their potential at every level.’

This paradigm shift set the groundwork for today’s efforts to create inclusive workplace cultures. Over the past three decades, we’ve seen extensive research from academics and business researchers on the ways in which systems, processes and policies and day-today practices directly or indirectly exclude people outside of powerful dominant in-groups in our organisations.

We’ve also learnt about the systemic changes that work to create more equitable workplaces. This is a big step away from old individualistic DIY approaches that put the onus on those from under-represented groups adapting to the dominant culture.

Many organisations now focus on creating inclusive team cultures where difference is valued and employees feel a strong sense of belonging. When people experience an inclusive culture, they feel valued, trusted, authentic, and psychologically safe.

When people experience an inclusive culture, they feel valued, trusted, authentic, and psychologically safe.

This focus includes education on inclusive leadership behaviours and the ways in which unconscious biases can inhibit diversity progress. Many organisations are also refreshing recruitment and succession planning policies to attract broader talent pools and reduce the potential for unconscious biases to impact decision-making.

Many companies also educate leaders and employees on ways to build psychological safety after a two-year study by Google showed high-performing teams have one thing in common: psychological safety. These are all important steps that help to create more innovative and inclusive organisations.

Several studies have also shown diversity efforts are more successful when inclusion efforts are positioned as benefiting and addressing everybody. That’s part of the reason why more and more organisations frame their strategies as Inclusion and Diversity Strategies in 2021 (rather than Diversity and Inclusion Strategies) – another subtle but symbolic shift to emphasise the inclusive culture they know is important for good business and good leadership – for everyone.

About Dr Katie Spearritt

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