Katie Spearritt is challenging the status quo.

Whether you are a middle-aged man branded as ‘male, pale and stale’ or a young woman pigeon holed as ‘too young and pretty,’ many of us have felt we’ve been put in a box at some stage in our lives.

I’ve experienced many instances where I felt judged or overlooked because of my age or gender. I found it infuriating, demoralising and downright depressing. As a mother of two daughters, I’m hoping with all my heart they will be valued for who they are and what they can contribute.

Fortunately, there are people like Dr Katie Spearritt working to create a better work environment for everyone.  For the last 25 years, Katie has been working in a collaborative, but quietly determined way to encourage us to look at the world through a different lens.

She started her quest for change in the 1990s when equal opportunity was regarded as a women’s issue. Katie, who is the CEO of consulting firm Diversity Partners, believes the drive for innovation and good decision making is now opening doors to exciting developments in diversity and inclusion.

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Katie Spearritt in her backyard                               Photo by Nish Paranavitana

Equity, fairness and the importance of education were such strong tenets when I was growing up. I’m the youngest of four children and my early years were spent in northern Queensland. We moved every couple of years until I was seven because my dad was a high school principal. We were based in Brisbane after that. Both my parents were teachers and held strong values about social justice and equity. Discussions around the dinner table were about what we were learning, politics and how to promote education so people could have opportunities to develop themselves.

History became my thing. I was fascinated by what we could learn from history to inform how we live now. During my Bachelor of Arts at Queensland University, I developed a love of English and History and particularly enjoyed tutorials with Ray Evans, a university lecturer teaching Indigenous studies, Australian history and the earliest courses on gender relations. Ray was an important influence in those early days. He was passionate about the lack of justice for Indigenous people and the fact women were not acknowledged in Australian history.  He supervised my honours thesis which was the first history about Queensland women from 1850 to 1900.

I had a big ah ha moment when I was 23. I got a job as a junior communications specialist with BHP (now BHP Billiton). It opened up the corporate world that had been something of a mystery to me. I worked at BHP for two years and as much as it was the iconic company, I was struck by the lack of diversity, although that was not a word I would have used. You would look up and there were no women. There were certain people who got ahead and certain people who didn’t. It seemed such a laid out path for Anglo men to get into leadership positions. You went to Newcastle Boys High and then the steel works.

I didn’t feel comfortable and was floundering with what am I going to do when I grow up? I stumbled across an article in Time magazine about the Affirmative Action Act and thought, “I don’t see this stuff, where’s this change happening?” I decided to go back to academia and do a PhD looking at the history of the Affirmative Action Act 10 years on. It included a historical review of equal employment efforts in Australia and internationally, as well as case studies with two companies – Hewlett Packard and BHP Petroleum. When I finished, Hewlett Packard asked me to work with them to apply some of the learnings.

Hewlett Packard opened my eyes to the fact that if you put people first, they underpin the profit and the business. I learnt so much about the values of a culture and how values can become part of a company’s DNA. It was a very embryonic but exciting period to be working in diversity. Eventually I left Hewlett Packard and broadened my experience with stints at Coles Myers and NAB before starting my own business.

The focus on different thinking approaches and innovation is creating a much more open mind set to have meaningful discussions about gender and cultural diversity, as well as other dimensions of diversity such as disability and sexual orientation. If you are not open to different thinking and different ways of approaching things, then you end up doing ‘same old same old’ and commercially that’s such a danger. There’s a lot of evidence when you have more gender-balanced and culturally diverse leadership teams, companies perform better. That’s because people are expecting different views because of their different backgrounds. Unconscious bias is very relevant in terms of decision making in companies. It’s about getting people to recognise there are biases, such as affinity biases, the preference to work with people like ourselves, confirmation bias, how we like to have our views confirmed, that reduce the quality of decisions.

There are all these ingrained assumptions in business where people take the status quo for granted. For example, I question the emphasis in some male-dominated industries where people regularly ‘network’ via dinners and drinks outside work hours.  But then people say to me, “That’s how we do business.” I think that’s how you did business when it was all blokes. If you put a woman into that team, or an employee who doesn’t drink, or a single parent, or an introverted person, how inclusive is it?

I’m a fan of bit by bit change where you start the ripple effect. I believe you need to start conversations, encourage people to see things in different ways and look at different ways of working. That ripples out to the point where it becomes more acceptable and easier to make a bigger change. I just chip away each day at practices that don’t seem inclusive and help people to see there’s another way. And that other way is usually much better for overall performance.

I’m very hopeful about the future. I think diversity is becoming more mainstream and hope over time we will see much greater diversity and quite different voices in government, organisations, business and education. Once you see more diversity, I hope people will question, “Are the ways we did it last year still relevant? Have the ways we’ve done it in the past potentially excluded some people? Are there voices we have potentially not heard?”

Visit http://www.diversitypartners.com.au/to learn more.

© Matilda Bowra 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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