Ending Australia's gender pay gap: 'Managers can make or break DEI'

How to move diversity & inclusion away from just HR's responsibility

Ending Australia's gender pay gap: 'Managers can make or break DEI'

Progress to reduce Australia’s gender pay gap has been slow – too slow – for the past few decades and now, the disproportionate impact of the pandemic has thrown a bump in the road.

But the responsibility to tackle the inequity between men and women in the workplace doesn’t lie solely with business leaders. While diversity, equity and inclusion may start with the HR team, to drive organisational-wide change, it must filter through the actions of every leader, manager, and employee.

As Jasleen Kaur, Gartner’s senior principal, advisory, explained, managers can “make or break a company’s diversity efforts”. Speaking to HRD on the role of people leaders in reducing Australia’s gender pay gap, Kaur said while HR can influence mindsets and design strategy, it’s managers who put the thinking into practice.

“Underrepresented talent groups are 2.5 times more likely to face barriers when progressing into senior roles because of their managers, so managers can become the biggest hurdle for those employees,” she said.

“From a performance standpoint, employees are 63% less likely to be high performers when their manager doesn’t celebrate gender or cultural difference. Therefore, if the manager is not inclusive, employees are far less likely to be high performers.”

Read more: Ending Australia's gender pay gap: How to improve diversity in the C-suite

Research has shown a causal relationship between diversity and commercial performance. Analysis by the WGEA and the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre found increasing the representation of women across each of the key leadership roles in a business added company market value of between $52m and $70m per year for an average sized organisation.

But to increase representation, leaders and hiring managers must look at their own biases – both conscious and subconscious – that are impacting their decision making. Kaur said the first major consideration they need to acknowledge is that the system they’re operating in is designed for the majority.

“The systems themselves are causing a lot of bias and failing underrepresented talent. Managers, being part of the system, are really susceptible to bias at so many different checkpoints,” she said.

How many hiring managers question their own biases before going into an interview? Kaur said things like similarity bias, where a manager is swayed by what they have in common with the candidate, have a huge impact. But there is also bias in the characteristics hiring managers typically look for.

While a man’s behaviour may be considered assertive, the same characteristics may be deemed aggressive when displayed by a woman. Similarly, eye contact may be thought of as a sign of confidence, but in some cultures, it’s considered rude.

Bias also comes into play at other points, like assigning projects, performance reviews or opportunities for promotion.

Read more: WGEA director Mary Wooldridge says rise in Australia’s gender pay gap is 'a warning sign'

Does bias training really work?

The jury is still out on whether bias training really accomplishes what it sets out to achieve. Critics say it’s a tick-box measure that does little to affect real change in the lived-experience of underrepresented employees. Kaur said it’s not necessarily as simple as saying bias training doesn’t work, but that it’s a good first step.

“It highlights a person’s biases but it doesn't tell them how to behave differently to overcome their bias,” she said. “What we need to do is follow on from that ad hoc or regular training by providing our managers and leaders with actionable guidance on what inclusive behaviour looks like on a day-to-day basis.

“If we leave it to their discretion and they're having to hit their sales targets in the middle of COVID, they're just not going to think about being inclusive or challenging their own biases.”

As well as day-to-day behaviour, Kaur identified two other ways for managers to be more inclusive, including becoming advocates for their underrepresented talent. Similarity bias means managers tend to develop closer relationships with people who look or act like them, but they need to actively foster those connections with all employees. Kaur said empathy and awareness are the key skills for managers to understand the everyday barriers facing their underrepresented talent.

“How many managers sit down and have a conversation with their female team members say and say ‘Hey, what is your experience as a woman working in this team?’” Kaur said. “No one. Because it makes everyone very uncomfortable - but D&I is uncomfortable.”

The third factor is making managers aware of their systemic bias when it comes to situations like hiring and succession planning. But rather than telling, it’s important to show. Kaur encouraged HR leaders to use real examples of ways in which biases can influence decision-making to open managers eyes to the ingrained assumptions they may not even know they had.

These examples are important not only for better equality between men and women, but for all underrepresented groups. As Kaur explained, D&I may start with HR, but it ends with everyone.

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