Nicholas Barnett: Man in the Mirror

by Iain Hopkins21 Jul 2014

Australians believe in a fair go for all. Most argue that all of our leadership decisions have been based on choosing the best person for the job. As stated above, the evidence is overwhelming that this is not the case. Our workplaces are not meritocracies, never have been and are unlikely to be for decades to come, unless something radical is done to re-tilt the playing field.

Even when Insync Surveys and Gender Worx have carried out diversity surveys for organisations that clearly show that L&D, career opportunities and promotions favour men, some senior executives overlook the compelling data to argue that their organisation is still a meritocracy with everyone treated equally regardless of gender, colour, or cultural background.

A study at Goldman Sachs that is described in Laura Liswood’s book, The Loudest Duck was very telling. The white Anglo-Saxon male executives argued that Goldman Sachs was a meritocracy. They were so sure of themselves, that they allowed an experiment. The white Anglo-Saxon men were put in one room, the white Anglo-Saxon women in another, blacks in another and other minority groups in another. They all discussed whether Goldman Sachs was a meritocracy. The white Anglo-Saxon men were unanimous that Goldman Sachs was a meritocracy and were stunned that all others were unanimous that Goldman Sachs was not a meritocracy.

There are many white Anglo-Saxon male executives, perhaps most, who genuinely believe that their organisations are meritocracies, that they don’t make biased decisions or prejudge people based on their gender, colour or cultural background. These men are not bad people. Like me, they have a sense of entitlement, dominance and unconscious biases and prejudices that they learned from a young age and which have been reinforced on a daily basis for decades. They have never been discriminated against and, like the white Anglo-Saxon Goldman Sachs executives, can’t see what those in minority groups see so clearly.


Removing the discrimination and the impact of bias and prejudice against non-dominant groups when it comes to leadership decisions is compelling simply as a result of our desire for equity and a fair go for all. I argue that it is a failure of leadership not to give women the same opportunities as men. There shouldn’t have to be any other reason for change. The fact that there are many compelling business advantages of achieving diversity adds to the case for change.

There is overwhelming evidence that diverse groups add new perspectives to discussions, make better decisions, are better places to work, more innovative, productive and more profitable. These benefits are consistent with my own experience.

Much of the evidence for improved profitability is based on research in relation to gender and points to improvements in profitability and return on equity of between 25% and 40% as a result of diversity at senior ranks in organisations.

Insync Surveys’ own research found that gender diverse boards are more effective than male-dominated boards. Gender diverse boards make fewer assumptions, are more open to different perspectives, have broader discussions, have an increased focus on problem solving, are more self-reflective and, accordingly, add more organisational value. Interestingly, the men on gender diverse boards don’t think like the men on male-dominated boards – they actually think more like the women on the gender diverse boards. Men – and women – actually moderate their behaviour when in a gender diverse environment and that’s where the benefit is derived. It’s not because men or women are better. The benefit comes from them working more effectively together than separately.

Many consider that change has been glacial like. Some have calculated that it could take over 100 years for us to achieve equality based on the current rate of change. I doubt that our society will let us wait anywhere near that long. If substantial change isn’t achieved in the next several years, it is likely to be forced upon us in the form of quotas and other interventions.

Personally, I don’t think quotas can be avoided because I don’t think there is a sufficient understanding of ‘others’ by male stereotypical leaders nor a sufficient collective desire to bring about change.

Until a critical mass of male leaders see the light and campaign for change, it will take many generations before we achieve true diversity and inclusiveness in our leadership ranks in Australia and the rest of the world. Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick’s initiative, the Male Champions of Change, is doing good work in this area and many of the male champions are great campaigners for change. I’ve joined this campaign for change and encourage you to do the same.

This feature is from HRD's June 2014 issue #12.06. Please click on the link to purchase.

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