Justine Smyth: The challenges of change in a post-pandemic world


Champions for Change, a collective of New Zealand’s top CEOs and Chairs, will today release our fourth Diversity & Inclusion Impact report. It shows that once again that the Champions continue to make progress against the NZX50 companies, but while our achievements remain steady, it is clear that across the board we still have some way to go.

With many organisations more than five or ten years into a diversity and inclusion strategy, while the intent is certainly not waning, the gains are definitely getting harder to make. Then you throw in the curve-ball of Covid and you have a pretty challenging operating environment to keep making progress within.

The pandemic has disproportionately impacted women who were overrepresented in unemployment figures, carried a larger share of family responsibilities, and were more likely to be required to attend their workplaces in alert level 4. Covid has exacerbated inequities that already existed though – and now, more than ever, we need to ensure they are not left unchecked.

Covid has also brought with it huge challenges for us as employers. Reflecting on the year that has been at our Summit last week, and the 100,000 people we collectively lead, I recognised the incredible toll the pandemic has taken on some, especially those in the travel, tourism, and hospitality sectors.

Tough decisions have had to be made, people let go, and important, but non “mission critical” initiatives reluctantly put on the back burner. All of this paling of course to the loss of life, the precious family moments that have been missed, and the general disruption Covid has brought to our daily lives.

Covid has however, brought some positive change to our workplaces, such as truly embedding flexibility and making us all reframe our historically held views on how much, when and where we need to work.

Despite the numerous challenges that have come with the pandemic, we need to make the most of this reset moment that Covid has provided.

We need to take this opportunity to equip ourselves with new approaches and strategies to continue to make progress on diversity, equity and inclusion in our organisations and not allow the fatigue we may be very reasonably feeling right now to take hold.

So how do we keep moving forward and ensure that this progress we have made doesn’t stagnate, especially amidst what looks to be another year of the pandemic ahead of us all?

This year our report includes learnings and insights from some of our Champions, sharing what is working for them and equally the areas that given the chance, they would approach differently in the future.

We hope that by sharing these stories and openly acknowledging the challenges together, there will be lessons that can not only help propel the Champions, but indeed all of Aotearoa.

The first consistent key driver of change across our group has been measurement and accountability, because what gets measured gets done.

As a collective, the target the Champions have signed up to is “40/40/20” gender balance across all levels of our organisations. This refers to a minimum target of 40 per cent women, 40 per cent men and the remaining 20 per cent being made up of men, women, and gender diverse peoples at every level. From board and the C-suite through the entry-level positions in an organisation.

As with 2020, the Champions are very close to 40 per cent representation at Board, Senior Manager and Other Manager levels. However, this has been the case for a number of years now and the 40 per cent mark is proving a stubborn threshold to break.

The report also examines the gender and ethnic composition of the organisations through the dual lenses of participation and power. A participation gap can be said to exist in industries and organisations where women make up less than 40 per cent of the overall workforce. A power gap exists in industries and organisations where there is a substantial difference between the proportion of women in junior roles and those in more senior roles.

The focus on both at the same time reflects our view that it is not enough for women to be present. In order for women to be truly included and for organisations to reap the well-evidenced benefits of greater diversity at senior levels, women must have an equitable share of voice, contribution to decision-making and leadership.

In addition to this, we are all working towards increasing Māori and ethnic diversity at every level of our organisations. This year 30 Champion organisations submitted ethnicity data and we are continuing to improve the quality and coverage of the information gathered.

This year, one of our Champion partners Westpac worked with an external research agency and launched an internal communications campaign – “This is Me” – to overcome their own data collection challenges.

Both appear to have had a considerable impact on employee disclosure, which has now provided sufficient data to establish a cultural baseline.

Rather than continuing to ask the same questions, we need to look for different ways to connect and engage on this and acknowledge that for those who don’t get to select “NZ European”, disclosing information about your cultural identity can sometimes be sensitive and complex.

Setting aside the challenges of data collection, the general picture across the Champions suggests that as you look up the levels in an organisation’s structure, the less ethnically diverse they become. We are all actively addressing this within our own organisations and as a collective, making the increase of Maori and ethnic diversity one of our four focus areas.

As part of this work, another Champion partner PWC has made a number of people-related recommitments this year, which have included increasing the ethnic identification at all levels across their business, particularly for Māori and Pacific peoples. They have committed to the revitalisation of te reo Māori with a new policy “Kiapuāwai te reo” which translates to “let the language blossom”.

Under the policy, PwC is promoting the use of te reo within the organisation and supporting related initiatives, activities, events, and training. It also provides practical guidelines for using te reo in written and verbal communication to ensure that the language is authentically nurtured by its people and can indeed blossom and grow.

Right across the Champions Group this year, another key driver of progress has been paid parental leave – either the increase of existing paid leave periods or the expansion of policies to include both primary and secondary care givers.

It’s a great step forward as we know that the birth of a child is a critical moment in a woman’s career, that has the potential to impact her professional trajectory or for a pay gap to widen.

The next step now though is to normalise fathers taking up these wonderful leave packages to actively remove the gender bias that persists around this moment for women.

At Spark, when I reflect on what has been driving change for us, it continues to be the commitment to being open and transparent about our data with our leaders and stakeholders to ensure the conversation around gender remains at the top of the agenda.

The biggest gains we have achieved have come from consciously integrating diversity and inclusion into every facet of our people and culture strategy – rather than it sitting as a separate, vertical workstream. Of all the lessons we have learned, with the benefit of hindsight, this is something we should have done sooner.

From a “power” perspective Spark has made great gains – we have a female chair and CEO, equal gender balance on the Leadership Squad, and in the last year we increased the number of women in senior roles outside the Board and leadership by 3 per cent to 42 per cent.

Our core challenge is participation in some areas of our business – particularly technology. Our technology domain is our largest group of people and is only 27 per cent female, with lower turnover (and therefore fewer opportunities for change) than other areas.

This is not an issue that is unique to Spark. Technology has been historically seen as a “male career choice”, which has influenced who has studied tech during schooling years and who is then qualified or motivated to pursue a career in this space.

This participation challenge is one our Champion partners at Air New Zealand are also facing, with similar hurdles in traditionally male-dominated sectors of engineering and maintenance, and pilots.

Their work is focusing on educating the younger generations (and their families and school career advisors) and looking out how they can remove barriers for women to support them to build careers in these areas.

These participation gaps are an issue the Champions as a group are looking at more broadly across a range of sectors to ensure that there is equity at the point of entry, whether that be in technology, aviation, construction or property.

Talent attraction and retention has been another dominant challenge for the group and will likely persist into 2022 as we begin to deal with the long tail of the pandemic.

Champion Deloitte’s response to this as well as their desire to accelerate their DE&I work has been to create an “Inclusive Talent Experience” journey that takes an experience-led approach to rethinking the end-to-end talent experience.

The experience is framed around key phases in the talent life cycle, focusing on how they connect with new people, value people, support cultural competency, give back to communities and celebrate success.

The approach ensures they are continuing to attract and retain people with diverse backgrounds and experiences in this tight talent market and equally allows their clients to benefit from the collective richness of expertise.

Finally, a common insight shared by many of our Champions this year, both through the report and at the summits has been around connection to purpose. Unless DE&I is authentically connected to an organisation’s purpose and embedded in its DNA, it will remain a “workstream” and not an operational priority, at risk of falling by the wayside when times, like we have seen, get tough.

Creating sustainable, systemic change is definitely a marathon, not a sprint, particularly in this challenging new world. But with continued commitment to our goals and the shared learnings and strength of our peers providing new tools and approaches to help propel us along the journey, we will get there.

– Justine Smyth is the co-chair of Champions for Change and chair of Spark New Zealand.

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