The importance of embracing diversity and belonging

By Susan Wheeldon

The point at which we’re most at risk of walking away from a problem is when we’ve made enough progress that it’s much less visible than it was before. A quick glance reassures that everything’s perfectly fine, but look a little harder and there’s plenty more work to be done.

It’s at this juncture that many within the business community now stand when it comes to removing barriers to women entering the senior ranks of corporate Australia and the tech sector. For the most part, leaders are making a genuine effort to emphasise the importance of diversity and find ways to make their organisations more inclusive. But there are still those who view this as a check-box exercise – rather than a genuine business need – and are more focused on being seen to be doing something than actually transforming their organisation for the better.

In 2018-19, more than a third of Australian boards and governing bodies had no female directors, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. Women held just 14.1 per cent of chair positions, represented about 17 per cent of CEOs and held less than a third of key management positions. These figures clearly show that while the problem is less visible than it once was – it still very much exists. Days such as International Women’s Day serve as timely reminders to pause and reassess how far we’ve come and how far we still need to go.

Organisations that are slow to tackle change in this space – and view taking action as a check-box or PR exercise – have yet to grasp the fundamental truth that diversity means a broader range of views at decision-making tables, which in turn strengthens a business’ ability to identify both growth opportunities and risks. Improving diversity is not only intrinsically the right thing to do, it’s a way to enhance the resilience of your business and reduce the risk of damaging group-think. It also ensures a team is a more genuine reflection of its customer base, allowing better decision making.

However, gender is just one aspect of diversity, which encompasses a broad range of attributes, including cultural and religious backgrounds, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, and many others. An organisation that has truly embraced diversity is one in which people feel like they can express every aspect of their identity without fear of judgment. It’s one in which differences are actively celebrated, not tolerated. It’s also one that recognises that the diversity of its team is a genuine strength that can help fuel smart, sustainable growth.

I also believe that all of us within the Australian business community can do more to embrace diversity when it comes to socio-economic backgrounds and education. For far too long, private school pedigree, surnames and postcodes played too large a role in candidate selection. That has changed for the better, but there is still work to do in this space. Employers must focus on recognising that talent doesn’t have to be accompanied by a degree from a “prestigious” university, for example. We also need to be making sure we’re actively creating opportunities for people from regional and rural areas to grow their careers. Having come from Charleville in regional Queensland myself, this is something I’m particularly passionate about. 

There is no doubt that there has been positive progress in recent years when it comes to driving diversity and belonging in Australian workplaces. But now is the time to make sure we’re seeing clearly the work that remains to be done. I feel extremely privileged to work for a company, Airbnb, that genuinely values diversity and views it as being central to its mission of creating a world in which anyone can belong anywhere. Importantly, it’s a company that emphasises the need to keep honestly reflecting and considering how we can continue to improve – both as an organisation and as individuals. 

There is no doubt that there’s more work to do in this space. But if we’re clear-eyed about the need to tackle it – and the important role diversity can play in growing our economy – we can continue making real progress.

Susan Wheeldon is Airbnb’s Country Manager for Australia and New Zealand

This piece originally appeared in The Australian