Diversity within the workplace, at its most basic, means the inclusion of all. Inclusion, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, sexual orientation and disability, and although corporate South Africa is embracing diversity and transformation in the workplace, there are still areas that need much work.
Where, how and why?
Within South Africa, the need for diversity within the workplace was born, primarily, as a result of apartheid and the resultant education, employment and therefore, economic disparities it
created between the races. Further to this, was the need for gender transformation due to the very clear gender bias, a result of old school thinking and inequality. South Africa, with its broad, diverse population should have a workforce that is a reflection of its population, across all levels.
But diversity and transformation is about so much more than just race and gender and although there is an understanding of the need for change amongst corporate South Africa, the stats are not encouraging in all areas of diversity. Given the time that has passed, the 16th Commission for Employment Equity (CEE) report, for the period 2015 - 2016, tells a tale of inequality, with a lack of diversity (be it gender, religion, age, disability or other) within the top three occupational levels, a state that, although has shown improvement, has a long journey ahead of it.
So how do we get it right?
Anything but simple
The answer is anything but simple. Humans are complex and although there is a definite drive for change, there is also a great deal of fear which in turn breeds resistance. A fear of exclusion, of not succeeding, of not being able to provide and therefore a resistance to change. The manifestation of which is seen in many different forms and creates a hindrance to the journey that we have ahead of us.
The political situation has added an additional leg to this journey, for many reasons. Suffice to say, our leaders need to lead by example in terms of gender equality and, amongst others, the need for transparency in business.
The drive for workplace diversity is a worldwide phenomenon and, in terms of gender transformation, many continue to fall short. According to the Global Gender Gap Report, Nordic countries continue to stand out, one of the key factors being equality in terms of education.
Comparing the 16th CEE to the Second CEE report, for the period 2005 - 2006, the improvement, although present, is negligible showing a desperate need for change within the Private Sector. The increase of African, which includes Black, Coloured and Indian women, in Top and Senior Management positions was 0.3% and 3.5% respectively with an increase of 5.7% in terms of Professionals. I’m sure you’ll all agree that this isn’t good enough, but where are we going wrong?
Affirmative action was introduced to remedy the disadvantages experienced by designated groups during the apartheid era and to ensure an equitable representation across the board in the future. The greater focus has been placed on Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) with diversity and gender transformation becoming the neglected step children and creating a natural resistance due to its perceived focus. The drive towards transformation should not be treated as a tick box exercise focused on one component of society, but as an empowering movement, creating an equitable workforce with an all-encompassing representation.
The need for diversity goes beyond rectifying the blunders of the past, it’s about moving forward, building a country, its economy and that of its citizens. Taking our diverse country onto the international playing field and giving it a fighting chance.
The building blocks of a diverse workforce
The key to building a diverse workforce is using all the resources available and understanding their value. Among the many advantages of female representation at board level, is the opportunity to step outside of the ‘group think’, offering an alternative perspective, creating the opportunity to debate and question the status quo. Studies have shown that companies with female board representation are associated with higher returns and superior stock price performance.
Outdated hiring ideas on “fitting in with the company norm” need to be thrown out the window. Although a company’s desire to create a harmonious, symbiotic environment is commendable, the reality is that if you hire people that are all similar in habits, thinking, understanding and background there is absolutely no room to disrupt, break ingrained ways of thinking or innovating. The catch 22 is that most corporates want to hire the innovators and disruptors to grow their brands and business, but just before the finish line they end up firmly stuck in the status quo and hire for comfort fit instead.
According to the 16th CEE report, 19.6% of Top Management positions in South Africa are held by women, of all races, this is an improvement from 16.7% in the 2005 - 2006 period, but are we winning with 2.9% improvement over a period of ten years? Although better, a similar story is told for Senior Management positions and, without women being provided the opportunity to participate at this level, the chance of progressing up the ladder are greatly impeded. One of the first steps to facilitating the increase of women in these positions is to ensure that the required skills development programmes are in place providing the required expertise. Another key factor is a women’s self-worth, the belief that they are capable and equipped with a unique set of tools that are required to deliver.
Mind the (generation) Gap
Having a range of employees within different age groups creates a workforce with vast resources from which to draw. Currently there are four generations that fall within the Economically Active Population and all of them bring unique skills. From the competitive and fiercely loyal Baby Boomers, independent Generation X’s and energetic, optimistic Millennials to the tech savvy Generation Z, each generation should be sought after and valued for their unique and diverse offering.
With all of that being said, appreciation for our oldest generation, the Traditionalists, should never be underestimated. With their wealth of knowledge and experience they are the perfect mentors for the younger generations. Offering an often forgotten perspective to our fast paced, ever changing environment.
Opportunity to enable
Legislation protects people with disabilities and entitles them to affirmative action measures due to the likelihood of discrimination, but putting this aside, employment of people with disabilities can offer an employer much more than just being in line with legislation. Having to overcome hurdles on a daily basis, that able bodied individuals would have difficulty comprehending, provides an astonishing motivation to succeed, this is a force to harness and use to motivate other members of staff. Their input and perception of the world comes from a unique place and could prove exceedingly valuable in getting ahead. If you would just listen.
What should we be doing?
To stay ahead in the market, both locally and internationally, companies need to constantly be reinventing themselves, keeping ahead of the market and in touch with the pulse of the industry. In this cut throat environment, getting ahead of the pack is becoming more and more important and to do so, companies need to relook their employment strategies and look to employing staff that may sit squarely outside of their cultural comfort zone. This may bring with it a plethora of anxiety, but any business that wants to be seen as a serious contender, having a diverse workforce (not just because of legislation but because it is truly important) will provide a breadth of skill, knowledge, understanding and insight that is invaluable to truly make your business and our beloved country a success.
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