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Invited to Dance: Embracing Diversity, Equity & Inclusion


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Written by Nicky Sparshott, Unilever Australia and New Zealand CEO

As 2020 starts to come to a close, I can’t help but reflect on the breadth of challenges and opportunities we have had to face. Whether as an individual, a family unit, an organisation or a community, we have all felt the ambiguity and anxiety that has come with the unknown and unfamiliar. Simultaneously, it has been that same context that has also spurred so much of the unique thinking and innovation in our ways of working.

Necessity and possibility has also opened up options. So much of what we have been able to achieve - despite the curve balls - has been a result of a curious mindset, unconventional approaches and experimentation, all underpinned with the quintessential Antipodean characteristics of ‘giving it a go’ and ‘having each others’ backs’. At times, the answers to problem have been found in unexpected places; the quieter people have surfaced the boldest of ideas, and we have leveraged multiple perspectives to wade through the treacle of issues. Not only overcome them, but defy them.

It has prompted me to think a lot more deliberately about how to cultivate this as a matter of course – cementing a way of working where we actively seek out ideas from anywhere and everywhere. Not just in times of crisis, but always.

I came across this quote by diversity and inclusion specialist, Verna Miles, which really resonated with me: “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance”. I am working with a group of passionate people at Unilever and T2 as part of our Diversity, Inclusion and Equity agenda - ultimately with the intention of creating a true space of belonging. We are at the beginning of the journey, but my thoughts in this space are clear.

I am not interested in quotas other than to ensure we measure what we treasure and to hold ourselves accountable for making change that has impact. The bigger purpose, the North Star, is to create a culture where different perspectives are not only appreciated but embraced. Where the inconvenient truths are able to be surfaced through deep curiosity, more active listening, a genuine collaboration and from a belief that ‘alone we will go fast, but together we will go farther’.

I appreciate this sounds a little ‘rose tinted’ – I am not naïve to the challenges we may face based on the ambition we have set and, indeed, this will come in part from the need to overcome our own biases (held either collectively or individually). It is the micro biases that happen daily, almost under the radar, that enable systemic issues to both begin and persist.

Can we really have gender equality in our factories? Can we employ people with disability without impacts on productivity? Can we embark on a meaningful Indigenous people agenda without getting caught in the politics of it? Can we fully embrace multiculturalism if we still make judgements on someone’s ability based on their English language competency? How do we surface these hidden assumptions in order to be able to truly build a diverse workforce and then unlock the huge potential of insight and impact that comes with it.

We need to start with the hard truth that the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion deficiency in Australia is real. These statistics cast some light on the reality: only 30 per cent of women sit on ASX200 company boards and of the c50 CEO appointments in the last year, only three were women; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people only comprise 2.8% of the total population yet few companies have Indigenous representation in their organisations; nearly half of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex Australians hide their sexual identity at work for fear of repercussions; one-in-five Australians report discrimination because of their skin colour.

One in five people have some form of disability, but Australia has one of the poorest employment rates for people with a disability in the developed world, ranking 21 out of 29 OECD countries.

But it’s not just about multi-group representation. You can have people that look and sound different sitting around the table and feel you have a diverse group. But if they don’t bring different thinking and perspectives, then you just end up with a bucketload of confirmation bias. A diverse, equal and inclusive business makes us, and society, stronger. It unlocks growth by bringing us closer to our consumers who come from all walks of life. It brings varied thinking and experiences and therefore boosts financial performance, reputation, innovation and team motivation.

At Unilever, we are proud of the progress we have made to date, but we have only scratched the surface of what is both possible and beneficial – it is a constant and evolving journey. One where our team members have played a key role in helping us define what is important and how best to create meaningful impact.

Gender equality and LGBTQI have been focus areas for the last few years. With females representing over 70% of our consumers globally, it’s incredibly important that we build an organisation that reflects and understands the needs of people who buy our products. Just over half of our managers are women (53%) in Australia and New Zealand, and we are a proud Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) Employer of Choice for Gender Equality (2017-2020).

It’s a supportive mindset that has created the remarkable Unilever family we have today; with both women and men in our business who support and lift each other to new heights. Indeed, earlier this year, Unilever Australia announced that all employees, irrespective of gender, would get access to 16 weeks of primary carers’ leave in the first year of their child’s life.

This new policy allows for the primary care giver to return to work and ‘pass the baton’ to the other parent who would then receive full primary carer benefits. This was a really important move for our business, with Australian Institute of Family Studies finding that just one in 20 Australian fathers take primary parental leave. It has been so lovely to see increasing numbers of new dads in Unilever taking time off with their newborns.

The LGBTQI community is also well represented at Unilever and T2 - we are proud of our Rainbow Tick certification in NZ, which recognises the workplace understanding, valuing and welcoming of sexual & gender diversity. Ben and Jerry Icecream ays a huge part in this work across ANZ, having rallied in support of marriage equality in the lead up to the 2017 postal survey on marriage equality, and driving fundraising efforts for the Ending HIV Big Gay Out festival in NZ.

We will also focus our resources on two additional areas which we believe we allow us to tap into an even wider, richer talent pool – Indigenous communities and people with a disability. Through the framework of a Reconciliation Action Plan, we look forward to identifying new ways to contribute to this space and formalising our commitment to the intergenerational upward mobility of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We understand the role that Unilever can play in increasing awareness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, histories and achievements within our organisation.

We also know we cannot be an inclusive organisation unless we ensure that we have created the conditions and the culture for people with a disability to thrive. Imagine all the great capability, intellect and inspiration we are missing out on. We have created our first-ever global employee resource group for people with a disability and their allies, called Enable@Unilever, and we will work with local partners to help us unlock this opportunity.

“If you can’t see it, it is hard to be it”. An important reminder that we need to ensure that our diverse and inclusive culture is felt by those experiencing it, not just measured in the movement of ratios. When women and men of any background or persuasion can truly bring themselves to work each day, share their ideas and break through any glass ceilings in their way, then we will know we have truly leveraged the full intent of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in the workplace. We will know we have all truly had the chance to dance!

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