The business case for diversity has been made: time to ask a different question

When was the last time you heard that workplace conditions for women will only be addressed if there is a clear ‘business case’ for diversity?

Just last year I heard the CEO of a male-dominated business at a conference explain with great seriousness that the most important question to answer about women’s participation in his sector was “why”?

For decades I’ve been told answering this is the linchpin in addressing the gender gap in workplaces.

And for a while there I went along with the concept, even if it always felt uncomfortable to be told women have to justify their right to a job.

It’s hard to imagine asking men to make a business case for their employment – although it’s tempting, given the way some of our listed companies are being run at the moment. But that’s a topic for another column.

The problem with the business case, I’ve come to believe, is much more than its fundamental sexism.

As far as I can tell it has rarely persuaded anyone to seriously tackle discrimination. And worse still, it has kept the focus on women ‘proving’ they are worthy of earning a living.

Why else do I dislike hearing the ‘business case” rhetoric? Let me count the ways.

If you keep asking half the population to justify access to the workplace they are being automatically marked as outsiders to how the system traditionally operates.

Now while that may have been true of formal workplaces 50 years ago (women have always worked of course except usually at home or in the fields) it is clearly redundant these days.

And expecting women to show they are able to contribute value without going all emotional or taking time off for PMT just reinforces negative stereotypes. It reminds us all that women are still seen as late to the party and must show they are up to it.

Indeed, telling us to bring the business case to the table rather implies we can’t just be judged as other workers on how satisfactorily we do our job. We need to go further.

This is why I’m no fan of studies extolling women as some kind of magic elixir to transform the bottom line. This just puts extra pressure on women to outperform which is unfair and again sexist.

But there is strong evidence that more diverse organisations do tend to perform better.

The latest study to back this up came from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency and Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre, Gender Equity Insights 2020: Delivering on Business Outcomes.

Released in June the study found a 10% increase in senior women managers led to a 6.6% increase in the market value of ASX listed companies and found a direct link between more women decision makers and improved performance.

Binders of research and data have repeatedly found that diversity is a benefit to all kinds of businesses, organisations and governments.

The case has been well and truly made. Yet the problems with inequity, sexism and bias continue.

Could it be that all that evidence was never going to be the clincher? That this debate is about much more than the facts, and a highly emotional one at that?

Despite telling ourselves we need evidence alone, maybe it’s not the most effective way to convince anyone to change, particularly if you have traditionally held the power and privilege for millenia.

And underneath all this enormous effort to show women are indeed human and already contribute just like other earthlings, there’s another very unpalatable premise.

Perhaps a lot of this carry on was not just about convincing men that women are capable, but that we would not destroy ‘business as usual’.

The business case hasn’t changed business. What has gradually had an impact is having a few more women in power to represent and make decisions in our interest, and more accurately reflect the community.

Plus interventions that set goals and prevent bias in pay, recruitment and promotion, and support flexible work and childcare. And the calling out of poor behavior by powerful stakeholders.

Data is of course hugely important to these efforts. The gender pay gap has been thoroughly documented to establish the case for change.

But time and again the evidence is either overlooked or explained away as women’s faults or failings.

If the business case was going to make a quantum leap in progress for women it would have done so by now.

It’s a handy diversion which puts the onus back on women rather than examining biased systems.

So let’s make a pact to bat the requests for a diversity business case back to those who ask for it – with a twist.

Instead of a questioning the value of diversity, surely it’s time to ask what the evidence tells us will improve business outcomes, particularly in a crisis. And one of the key answers to that is diversity.



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