The Case for Diversity and Inclusion

In November 2018, Professor Cordelia Fine from the University of Melbourne delivered the IPAA Queensland Irene Longman Oration. The oration is in honour of Irene Maud Longman, the first woman elected to the Queensland Parliament in 1929.

Excerpts from her oration below –

Towards the end of last year my partner and I went to a party where we met another academic from Finance. We ended up talking together. It’s often the way at parties that the academics end up clustered together because we’re a bit tedious and nobody else wants to talk to us. Anyway, we had the usual exchange like dogs circling, you know, what do you study, what are you studying, which department are you from.

When I told him that I worked in the area of the science of sex differences, he told my partner and me about a well-known study in his own field in finance of takeovers and the research, at least as he described it, found that male CEOs with higher testosterone levels behave more aggressively in acquisitions, being more likely to initiate them as well as to withdraw an offer previously made. I expressed surprise that enough CEOs would make time to drool into a test tube for the sake of scientific inquiry. Oh said the academic, they didn’t actually measure testosterone, they used age instead. Younger men tend to have higher testosterone levels than older men. In other words, the researchers had basically found that with age comes wisdom.

But to the fellow guests I just said very politely, I see, but then I couldn’t resist asking – But what about women? Are there ever any female CEOs with enough testosterone to even initiate an acquisition? And at this point my partner had to raise a tactful chicken satay to his mouth to cover his smile, and the guest that we were talking to, who started to look a little bit uncertain and shifted on to what he thought was seemingly safer, unambiguously pro-women territory.  That’s why we need more women on boards, he said, because women are more cautious. That’s why we need more women on boards. Not because women deserve equal access to positions of status and power. Not because there’s something problematic about women still being underrepresented in leading and shaping the institutions that affect every aspect of our lives. But because women’s caution can temper men’s hubris.

How on earth did we get here? It wasn’t always this way.

On the remarkably swift evolution from principle to product

In a fascinating, painstaking, academic study led by Lauren Edelman, she and her colleagues analysed 20 years of professional management literature from 1975 to 1996. They were interested in how the journals that were being read by managers and human relations professionals presented the question of equal employment opportunity and how this discussion might have evolved. The contents of this literature, they reasonably assumed, would reflect business cultures and discourses and what managers were likely to be encountering in training sessions. Their analysis revealed a striking shift over time. Articles where the pure civil rights rhetoric references to Affirmative Action and Equal Employment Opportunity peaked in 1980, then made an undulating descent to an all-time low in the last year studied.

Meanwhile the same analysis shows a new diversity rhetoric making an entrance in 1987 with a rapid ascendancy that sees it permanently overtake civil rights rhetoric in the early 1990s as the latter begins its final tumble into obscurity. Without doubt, this wasn’t simply a change of label, it was the birth of the business case. Edelman and colleagues found that almost half of the articles making reference to diversity ignored the topic of civil rights altogether. When these did get a mention, it was usually in a fashion that was negative, dismissive or ambiguous. Profits received as much attention as law and fairness put together.

So what happened in 1987, the year that the new diversity rhetoric made its grand entrance? This was the year that a highly influential report was published in the U.S. called Workforce 2000. The report appeared to make a rather unfortunate statistical error and misleadingly indicated that by the year 2000, American-born white men would make up only 15% of new entrants to the U.S. workforce. This apparent eminent talent shortage meant that welcoming previously under-represented groups was now perceived as a matter of competitive advantage – even survival. Many academics pin the shift in emphasis away from the equality approach of what’s fair, towards the diversity approach of what’s good for business to the publication of this report.

On the business case –

At the macroeconomic level we have projections as to the large increases in GDP that countries could achieve if women participated in the labour force to the same degree as men.

At the organizational level we have seen a proliferation of consultancy and academic reports that test for links between the representation of women or minorities at the top of an organization, CEO, board or top management team, and a variety of measures of financial performance and governance.

 And at the interpersonal level we’ve seen a raft of studies showing that group decision-making can improve when groups have demographic diversity.

Now hopefully it goes without saying that I have nothing against economic growth, better returns to shareholders, stronger governance and more rigorous decision-making. I think these are all very fine things. There’s plenty of interest and importance in these kinds of data and arguments, and I also understand and appreciate the very good motives and intentions that drive the making of these arguments. But there are already so many voices making these kinds of arguments that I wanted to express concern at how this approach dominates the discussion about why diversity matters. And since my expertise is in gender and this is arguably one of the most actively promoted forms of diversity, I will be focusing on this as my primary example, while also exploring some of the implications for other forms.

On concerns about the dominance of the business case for diversity and inclusion –  

First, it legitimates the status quo.

The 2016 Australia census data found that while women’s labour force participation is only about 10 percent below that of men’s, women do about three times as much housework and home organization, three quarters of the childcare, and about 70 percent of other caring work. An ABS study in 2014 found that based on 2006 time use survey data, this unpaid work – the work without which our society and economy would simply grind to a halt – was estimated to contribute an additional 42 to 59 percent of the value counted in total GDP.  

30 years ago in her classic book, Counting for Nothing: What men value and what women are worth, former New Zealand National Party MP Marilyn Waring documented the way in which mainstream economics and the measures used to calculate gross domestic product failed to count, and therefore value, the enormous contributions that women make to the economy and society. This is a classic example of androcentrism, in which males’ masculine activities and the male experience are regarded as more valuable, and as a standard or norm from which females’ feminine activities and female experiences deviate and fall short. Irene Longman drew attention to the value of women’s contributions 90 years ago. Marilyn Waring drew attention to it 30 years ago, launching feminist economics. And yet unpaid work continues to not really count.

Having worked at a business school for a number of years, to me the situation indicates that some rebranding is in order and I have taken the liberty of drafting a few suggestions that you should feel free to try out at home. So caring for an elderly parent should now be known as ‘In-kind contributions to the state product budget for social, medical, emergency, financial, accounting, secretarial, and clerical services’ and since you are all the experts here I will welcome any improvements. Child care is of course better known as ‘human capital development’ and when it involves chauffeuring a child to school or to an enriching extracurricular activity, then it is ‘human capital development with provision of infrastructure gap coverage’. As for shopping, cooking, laundry – basically anything that replenishes, refuels, rests or reclothes a worker, I recommend referring to these activities as ‘human resources depreciation minimization’.

Yet these pragmatic expediency arguments have a surprising parallel in our contemporary debates about gender equality in this shift from demands based on principles of equal opportunity and social justice, to petitions based on evidence of enhanced profits, productivity and performance. Suffragettes argued their inclusion would make the country a better place. Some contemporary gender diversity advocates are compelled to argue that inclusion will make organizations more innovative or shareholders richer. Such is the power of the status quo.

Now in my own area of research, the science of sex differences, this is an old and persistent pattern. While the first wave feminists campaigned for full access to higher education, distinguished male medical doctors claimed that if women of reproductive age studied too hard, the diversion of energy away from the very greedy female reproductive system towards the brain, would lead to all sorts of ills – distortion of proper feminine character, poor health infertility, insanity and sometimes even death. The doctors were no less skeptical about the wisdom of having women in the medical profession. Thus women had to argue for their inclusion. For example, the American physician Mary Putnam Jacobi among others, collected reams of data indicating women’s surprising ability to simultaneously menstruate, get a college degree and stay alive. Dr Jacobi would surely have enjoyed the second wave feminist Gloria Steinem’s wry observation, that if it were men who menstruated, no doubt their familiarity with blood will be taken as evidence of their greater suitability for the medical profession.

Reminiscing back on her time in parliament, Irene Longman recalls ‘when I was first elected, the men thought I would not be able to stand the strain, and when a long night sitting was ahead, advised me not to see it out. I had to remind them that women were used to long hours and that their mothers had probably sat up all night with them when they were children’.

Second, it tempts us to portray group differences in inaccurate and harmful ways.

Yet having acceded to that imperative we understandably reach for claims we think others will find persuasive, and this brings me to my second concern about the business case which is that it encourages us to betray gender differences in harmful and inaccurate ways that are potentially also unhelpful for other underrepresented groups. The kind of portrayal I’m referring to is known as the gender essentialist view.

Gender essentialism assumes that women are fundamentally, immutably and naturally different from men. And actually I’ve just noticed there that I’ve taken the man as the norm there from which the woman is different, so I apologize for that. See how insidious these under eccentric biases are. Or to put this idea in a different way, that ’Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’.

Now the inclusion of women benefits the organization, this view suggests, because women bring these uniquely female skills and perspectives that complement those of men. So as one company that provides gender diversity leadership training programs puts it, successful organization lies ‘in learning how to recognize, value and leverage the natural occurring characteristics that distinguish men and women’. Now this ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ view of the sexes is undermined by decades of behavioural science. Yes, there will be small average differences between a hundred men and a hundred women, or female board directors and male ones, but these differences don’t add up to create neat categories of men who think like this, and women who think like that. We simply can’t confidently predict how an individual person, CEO or director or manager will think or lead based on their sex. Nor does the claim that caution is an essential womanly trait, the idea put forward by the unfortunate guest who ended up in small talk with me at that party last year, neither does this idea bear up to scrutiny, either generally or in finance.

Now when I was researching my second book, Delusions of Gender, my eyebrows remained more or less perpetually in my hairline as I read through all the utter nonsense written about differences in male and female brains and behaviour in popular books. In case you’re wondering, my personal favourite is the claim that only women’s brains are designed to be able to remember to buy milk. Now if the primary reason that organizations should include women is that their unique feminine qualities can be leveraged for organizational gain, what about ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, sexual minorities? Are they also to lay claim to different brains and unique ways of thinking to justify their value and inclusion? I’m sure we would all feel rightly very uncomfortable about that idea.

Third, that the business case for diversity is demoralizing.

I mean this in two ways: first, that the business case literally demoralizes the problem of inequality, seeking to turn what is first and foremost an issue of fairness, justice and respect into one of productivity and profits. But I also mean that the business case demoralizes in the more traditional sense of the word. Namely, that it depletes courage and spirit.

For a number of years now I’ve taught ethical leadership to senior level executives and one year I gave some of the students a hypothetical case about a biotech company and the case with healthy numbers of women at entry-level dwindling away with seniority, the company’s senior executives were considering a proposal to set quotas for female scientists. In the hope of getting my students talking about ethical principles of fairness and justice, as well as economic consequences, the case alluded to anecdotal evidence of discrimination, a gender pay gap, and an unsuccessful product for women that might have been better designed had there only been a scientist with no familiarity of that particular part of the anatomy on the team.

Now when the time came for the group allocated the case to present the conclusions of their deliberations, to my surprise the spokesperson announced that they had wasted little time discussing the ethics of the situation. There was no need, she explained, as they were all fully convinced of the business case for gender diversity. Instead, the group had used the discussion time to develop a plan for maintaining the number of female scientists in the organization without the need for very unpopular quotas. She then laid out a five-stage strategy in impressive detail. Now although the students had blithely re-routed themselves away from the pedagogical path that I had carefully laid out for them, I felt a rush of admiration and I have to say I couldn’t help but compare with philosophy which has spent centuries arguing issues of equality and justice and still has almost no women at all. But not for these students, a torturous debate about principles and consequences and a flawed unequal society, sleeves rolled up, they are ready to get the job done.

And herein lies some of the positives of the business case narrative. The business case approach is the carrot to the equal opportunity stick. It speaks optimistically of the advantages to be gained, not approvingly, of lawsuits. The shift from a legal to managerial framework, one that rephrases legal and moral imperatives as strategic HR management, speaks to the skills in which the talented of the business world truly excel. And there’s no need to make reference to ugly controversial and off-putting concepts like power relations, privilege, historical disadvantage, discrimination or systemic inequalities. They could confidently instead draw on their well-equipped toolkits of managerial and leadership skills. The diversity narrative also seemingly promises to dismantle the stubbornly persistent career mystique that presents continuous, undistracted, full-time devotion to one’s career, every day from young adulthood to retirement, as the ideal from which all else falls short or at least has to be explained.

Back in the classroom I asked the other students for feedback on the approach to the biotech gender quotas case that been offered in lieu of ethical analysis. There were no objections. As one student commented, it just makes good business sense for your employees to reflect the diversity of your clients. But when I asked what a leader should do then if their most lucrative clients happen to be white men who prefer to deal with other people just like them, there was no answer.

Here are some more some more difficult questions. What if data turn out to suggest the gender balanced board would be exactly as profitable or no better governed than an all-male one – is there any case for change? What if a critical mass of senior women boosted the value of pink collar work like nursing and secretarial roles increasing organizations employment costs? And is it only women who need to demonstrate that they add value to the bottom line? Or do say, people with disabilities and Indigenous Australians also have to prove a causal link to enhancement of performance or profits?

Of course we don’t need to create false dichotomies. A business case can oil the wheels of the moral case doing the right thing is always more appealing when it’s also organizationally advantageous. But this is where you end up if organizations ask not what they can do to further diversity, but only what diversity can do for them.

On the benefits that Australian employees think might come from greater gender balance within organizations – a current study.

The answers were fascinatingly broad and rich. Certainly, traditional business case arguments came up. But ordinary employees and managers gave us many other reasons to strive for greater gender balance. They tell us that decisions, products, services and knowledge would better reflect and serve women’s interests. They tell us that organisations would become nicer places to work for everyone, and more accommodating of everyone’s family commitments. Some people anticipate that the gender pay gap will reduce, making many families far more financially secure. Some hope to see an end to the devaluing of work done by women, suggest that women would experience less discrimination in the workplace, or would enjoy higher status in society more broadly. Some respondents suggest that children would grow up with a less constrained sense of what kinds of roles and possibilities might be for them. Again and again our respondents used old-fashioned words like fairness, justice and respect.

Irene Longman advocated for the representation of women’s voices, not just in matters pertaining to themselves and the family, but in all matters of national interest. Nonetheless, as the first woman member of the Queensland Parliament, there was presumably a bit of catching up to be done. Longman rose to speak 39 times in Parliament, and of these, 31 related to matters regarding women or children. Among other successes she was responsible for the appointment of women police officers, something she felt important in order to offer reprimanded or criminal women some dignity, and she achieved this despite the objections of the police union and resistance from the police commissioner. Longman advocated for the then radical and still illusory principle of equal pay for equal work, for more equitable divorce laws, for the appointment of female justices of the peace, and for women to sit on juries. For family allowance reform, and you will recall, for women to be paid by the state for their work. She campaigned for protective legislation and reforms to protect women and young girls from sexual exploitation and, pointing out the double and standard involved, campaigned against the contagious disease act that saw women suspected of involvement in prostitution, but not men, arrested, examined and incarcerated if found to have a venereal disease.

Now allowing women to be police officers decreases the talent pool. Demographic diversity enhances the quality of juror deliberations. Children who live in poverty are less likely to develop their full labour potential. Jailing women who need medical treatment is expensive and inefficient. But is this why we should admire Longman’s efforts and successes? Well of course it isn’t. Longman words and deeds impress us because they aspire to make Australia a fairer more just society in which people’s interests, concerns and needs are more equitably considered and represented. That work is not yet done and this is why diversity and inclusion matters.

About Cordelia Fine

Professor Fine is an esteemed academic researcher and author who’s widely acclaimed writings and books challenge the prevailing science of gender difference. She is the author of A mind of its own: How your brain distorts and deceives, Delusions of gender: How our minds, society and neurosexism create differences, and Testosterone rex: Unmaking the myths of our gendered minds which won the prestigious 2017 Royal Society Insight Investment Science book prize and was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for political writing. Her contributions on gender equality have been published worldwide in The New York TimesWall Street JournalFinancial TimesGuardian and the Scientific American, to name a few.

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