How diverse is your workplace? You may be surprised at the answer

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Transformation is a hot topic at the moment.

Companies need to become more diverse, yet many people are frustrated with the lack of pace.

But there are many South African business leaders who have done good work to transform their organisations.

“We must identify those allies who want to create a diverse South Africa, and acknowledge the progress that has been made, without discounting the work that still needs to be done,” author of A Journey of Diversity and Inclusion in South Africa, Nene Molefi, told a Gordon Institute of Business Science forum.

People who confront issues of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, are met with three common attitudes.

Organisations can only be competitive if they recognise their diverse resources and transform them into capabilities. With increasing calls for business to play a greater role in creating a more inclusive and fair economy, leaders need to address the inequalities that persist in their organisations.

Transformation in the workplace

Dr Liziwe Masoga, a human resource executive at Old Mutual Insure, said diversity is simply good for business: “Businesses need to remain relevant and to be sustainable.

There is a solid business case that stacks up for transformation and diversity.”

Molefi explained that when she has confronted issues of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, she has been met with three common attitudes:

1. There are many with unconscious bias, but who are willing to improve;

2. Others have unconscious bias but are in denial; and

3. Finally, there are those who are consciously or explicitly biased and want to “leave the past behind”.

The unintended consequences of these attitudes are internalised oppression, transformation fatigue characterised by frustration that there has been little change, and paralysis.

However, “it is important to identify pockets of excellence, which is something we don’t do enough,” she added.

Dr Jonathan Broomberg, chief executive of Discovery Health told the forum that while conversations around diversity and inclusion in organisations can be painful, he has learnt that as a leader they are happening “in the corridors”.

As such, business leaders “have no choice but to have the courage to convene the conversation. We cannot make any progress without committed, authentic leadership throughout society.”

Employees experience the organisation differently depending on their age, gender or race, Masoga explained.

Organisational leaders should strive to create systems that allow employees to voice their concerns.

Broomberg said that while at times it may feel as if the pace of transformation is very slow, there is “a lot more change within many organisations than what may be visible, and there is a huge amount of effort being put into transformation.”

He gave real supplier development and procurement as two areas of progress and said many organisations had become more diverse at junior and middle management levels. However, he conceded that many businesses are still struggling to make the necessary changes at senior management level and in their shareholding and ownership structures.

Organisations had to be concerned about colleagues who had “given their all” but feared they would be passed over for promotion due to diversity targets, he continued: “You have to try to take everybody with you. But it is not possible to grow infinitely in order to create enough opportunities for all.”

Molefi agreed, adding these were the types of situations that make conversations around diversity difficult. “We want to create an inclusive society. The journey is difficult, but we will travel it together,” she said.

Transformation across broader society

Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron said while Molefi’s book confronts hurtful and humiliating episodes from her past, the tone of the work is “forward looking and constructive.

This is a book about how to tackle structural injustice. We all have capacity as South Africans to achieve diversity and inclusion,” he said.

Institutions across the country, whether schools, churches or businesses, are dealing with the same issues of diversity and inclusion, and it was critical to identify champions.

Molefi said some schools have started to take the issue of diversity seriously and want to be exemplary.

However, she emphasised that it was “critical to understand the role of parents, as the work starts with the narrative at home. Teachers need a lot of help.”

Cameron said while taking considerations of race and gender into account, it was also necessary to see the class dimension of inclusivity: “Increasingly our society has class barriers, which determine our access to education, health, mobility and media.”

Bongani Nqwababa, joint president and chief executive of Sasol said in the current South African political climate, it was necessary for organisations and individuals to take charge of transformation: “Instead of always waiting to be led, there comes a time when you must lead. We must work with our communities, the politicians will find us on the way.”

Molefi argued that we mustn’t allow ourselves to be consumed by what is happening in the political realm.

“We must all ask, what is in my sphere of influence? What is it that I can do towards transformation? There is a lot of frustration with government, but what are you doing as an active citizen to lead transformation?”

She urged everyone “with any form of privilege, to pay it forward in order to transform our society. Use what you have to make somebody’s life better.”

City Press is a media partner of the Gordon Institute of Business Science forums

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