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A vision for cultural change through diversity

Sandrika Ryan shares the insights shared at the Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) workshop held at the Young Water Professionals conference recently.

The D&I workshop was originally developed from the AWA’s Channeling Change program. Dr Sandra Hall and the AWA collective identified a gap in the industry’s understanding of D&I. It was recognised that while positive progress is evident, there is a compelling case and widespread opportunity to learn from the very industry and people the association serves. The team went about designing this workshop to effectively collect data and first-hand evidence of the impacts of D&I to people, organisations and the water sector.

The design of the workshop has evolved from when it was first run at the World Water Congress in Tokyo in 2018 to further drawing data from QWater‘19 and, most recently, being delivered in a unique Young Water Professional (YWP) setting.

The global context

Drawing from the natural and impressive diversity of the room itself, the workshop opened with setting the global context of D&I challenges with acknowledgment of the many segments that represent the full diversity spectrum, and that there is much to learn of the multi-layered challenges that set the tone for the baseline culture experienced across the globe.

In reference to the United Nations General Assembly declaration, the follow-up statement rang true for many in the room:

“At the heart of what we do as water industry practitioners, we have a responsibility to understand and appreciate the many barriers that highlight clear for us that this human right is not met across the globe, and that inclusion barriers are central to many of these challenges.”

Shane Woods and Sandrika in Jakarta, Indonesia (2019) in an open forum discussion with Indonesian young water professionals Shane Woods and Sandrika Ryan in Jakarta, Indonesia in 2019 during an open forum discussion with Indonesian young water professionals

Guest speaker Shane Woods, a GHD Engineer and Engineers Without Borders representative, shared his insights gained from working with YWPs in South-East Asia. As a recent scholarship recipient of the AWA bursary to travel to Jakarta, Indonesia to learn about Indonesian YWP challenges, he drew on his background as a young Indonesian boy. Shane provided context to the hierarchal system to which many Indonesians are accustomed, the undertone of devout religion and the complex social, cultural and political context that leaves marginalised groups with a silenced yet important voice to be heard.

Live polling

Using interactive presentation and polling application Mentimeter, the workshop participants answered a series of five key questions.

For YWPs, commonality was found in the meaning of 'Diversity' and 'Inclusion' and synonymously what a D&I “utopia” looks like. Safety, acceptance and equal opportunity were vocally expressed and evidenced through the individual-entry poll results.

When one explores what these simple three words can mean for a small group of people, it is useful to look at the profound outcomes that result from introducing these principles into any given culture. As spelled out on the live poll screen, this culture is: safe, genuine, transparent, respectful, sustainable and – importantly – supports diversity of thought.

Figure 1: Live poll responses - Question 1 Figure 1: Live poll responses - Question 1

Figure 2: Live poll responses - Question 2 Figure 2: Live poll responses - Question 2

The next set of questions is key for the AWA to understand what, in real terms, are the barriers; where they arise from and what is currently being initiated across the water sector to actively eliminate or reduce the impact of these barriers.

Figure 3: Live poll responses - Question 3 Figure 3: Live poll responses - Question 3

As the results of the poll illustrate in Figure 3, subconscious bias, equal opportunity, efforts to change perceptions and inexperience are representative of the most prevalent D&I challenges (with the latter challenge most likely being exclusive to YWPs).

I draw attention to the following poll entry: knowing how best to help.

When working in either a formal or informal setting to improve an organisation’s culture, it is extremely important to acknowledge that we have much to learn. It does not mean that we are lacking evidence of remarkable cultural transformation – we are indeed achieving positive change, nor does it mean that HR teams across the sector are missing the mark – we are indeed seeing evidence of cultural programs enhancing experiences for the better. However, this statement gently reminds us to come back to one simple principle: no matter how well or poor we are tracking with respect to D&I, we must continue to practice active listening and appreciate the unique challenges faced by all.

Paraphrased from a WaterAid publication, the following quote was shared during the workshop, alighting on this exact guiding principle:

“There is no easy or magic solution for achieving equality and inclusion – in all its forms. It is an ongoing process that requires commitment of time, resources and will. Inclusion cannot be limited to just one part of a program or strategy or achieved through a one-off activity. It requires a combination of activities and processes, and a willingness to learn from the people who are marginalised. It requires us to listen, to appreciate.”

Important to this discussion was the acknowledgement of unintended consequences and the role that often plays in genuinely improving the inclusivity experience of marginalised groups.

A young female water professional sparked a discussion with the facilitator on the very topic during the workshop on the issue of tokenism.

“I am a water industry operator. I have barely progressed through my training, I am learning every day on the job with my fellow operators who, yes, are mostly an ageing male workforce”, she said.

“However, I cannot help but see that I am provided majority of the opportunities, I am given awards for things I didn’t even know I did or feel I deserve. I think I just tick a lot of boxes. The problem is that tokenism is not a good feeling. My work mates are not aloof to my special privilege, to me being put on a pedestal. I wish there was a way to support me without becoming a token. At the end of the day, I am doing the same work that they are doing.”

A challenge for water businesses near and far – how do we address the challenges highlighted in the live poll results yet avoid tilting the scale too far in the other direction?

Figure 4: Live poll responses - Question 4 Figure 4: Live poll responses - Question 4

Figure 4 displays a very encouraging and clear message: the water sector is addressing D&I challenges. In fact, the sector is addressing cultural diversity in many forms and across multiple types of organisations. Gender continues to dominate the discussion and extends to fostering more equal and inclusive opportunities for women in leadership. D&I challenges being addressed are not just limited to these – we are seeing increased focus on inclusivity with respect to indigenous challenges, LGBTIQ+, disability, age and race/culture.

Figure 5: Live poll responses - Question 5 Figure 5: Live poll responses - Question 5

The final live poll question was key to propagate ideas that participants could champion. Interestingly, the preferred format to see D&I improved, as voted by workshop participants, was ‘a personal approach’. By approximately double the number of votes than other formats posed, this simple piece of information foregrounded the need for a more tailored approach to D&I.

Intrigued by the response, the workshop facilitator sought elaboration on what this format would look like in the context of the Australian water sector’s approach to tackling D&I challenges. The respondents shared the following: whilst an aligned approach is important, to get to the root of some of the D&I challenges requires us to revisit the concepts:

  • Acknowledgement of the many segments that represent the full diversity spectrum;
  • There is still much to learn of the multi-layered challenges that have set our baseline culture;
  • Water industry practitioners have a responsibility to understand and appreciate the barriers experienced by all – collectively and uniquely; and
  • Achieving diversity and inclusion requires a combination of activities and a willingness to learn from the people who are marginalised. It requires us to listen, to appreciate.

Upon further glance of the results to Question 5, it is evident that these concepts are echoed by the collective and standalone experiences in the room. There is no one dramatically preferred format. The formats are applicable to a range of settings and address D&I challenges from multiple angles.

AWA Channeling Change

In 2017, AWA supported by the Australian Water Partnership launched the Channeling Change program. This initiative is designed to foster a water industry that embraces diversity, inclusion and equality.

AWA’s goal is to lead by example and show how encouraging the right behaviours can galvanise support for a more diverse and inclusive sector. The proposed program includes the promotion of success stories, workshops and engagement, promoting panel parity at events, and capacity building projects in the Asia Pacific regions to link innovation in the water sector with diversity, inclusion and equality.

Kirsty Blades, AWA National Manager – Events and Marketing, discussed the ripple effect – starting a conversation that will inevitably gain momentum across the sector.

Presenting on the Financial Year achievements, AWA has seen a positive spike in attendees at Channeling Change events, and increased publishing plus viewership of D&I material (Figure 6).

Figure 6: 2018/2019 Financial Year Achievements – Channeling Change Figure 6: 2018/2019 Financial Year Achievements – Channeling Change

Roundtable sharing and group solutions to tackling D&I challenges – setting up for success

The crux of the workshop involved participants discussing their unique challenges within their group, discernment for commonalities and ultimately an opportunity to present a story – a set of recommendations for addressing their chosen D&I challenge.

The individual groups presented the following solutions to channel change:

Through gathering, sorting and filtering the recommendations shared by each roundtable, the outcome was five compelling and clear-cut strategies. What this told us was there is unequivocal commonality in the D&I challenges experienced, and the many recommendations offered by workshop participants were thus strung together to form a profound story.

The final story as presented by workshop participants – for best success, implementing cultural change focussing on integration efforts rather than sheer “diversity on paper” and formulating action from widely-sourced data is key to drive the change they want to see.

LGBTIQ+ inclusivity

Brendan Moore, YVW Senior Project Manager, Co-founder Pride in Water presenting on Creating an LGBTIQ+ Inclusive Water Industry Brendan Moore, YVW Senior Project Manager and co-founder of Pride in Water presenting on Creating an LGBTIQ+ Inclusive Water Industry

To provide context to D&I challenges at an organisational level, Brendan Moore, Senior Project Manager, Yarra Valley Water and Co-Founder of Pride in Water, presented on Creating an LGBTIQ+ Inclusive Water Industry.

Brendan shared why LGBTIQ+ inclusion – in addition to improving inclusion for all – is important for the average water sector workplace. Research shows that businesses have much to gain from investing in their cultures through the inclusion of LGBTIQ+ people. When people feel comfortable being out at work it can lead to significant increases in their innovation, customer service and productivity (Figure 7).

Figure 7: Research statistics on Australian LGBTIQ+ inclusion in the workplace Figure 7: Research statistics on Australian LGBTIQ+ inclusion in the workplace

Brendan busted myths about discrimination and the misconceptions regarding what inclusion in the water sector truly looks like. In his shoes, LGBTIQ+ inclusion and non-discriminatory discussion of sexuality and gender identity at work is crucial so that all people can share the same fair and positive experiences without fear of being ostracised.

Introducing the Pride in Water initiative, Brendan shared on his philosophy of creating a united approach; there are many initiatives across the country and organisations are all on their own journeys, so Pride in Water has been a central, safe hub aligning the journeys, sharing both successes and lessons learnt.

To implement the change needed to drive the outcomes Pride in Water want to see, a co-design forum was hosted in Victoria in 2019 where representatives from across the Australian water sector were brought together to collaborate and build a network of likeminded organisations committed to creating an inclusive future. The active involvement at the co-design forum was a prime example of how the water industry can deliver on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 17 - Partnerships for delivering goals.

The next step for Pride in Water is to implement the actions from the co-design forum. These are currently being collated into a report along with research about other Pride networks and organisations that the water sector may be able to learn from and distribute to the broader water industry.

It is important that we continue to build an inclusive water sector at an organisational and cross-organisational level with partnerships. An aligned approach yet fit for purpose initiatives will ultimately support LGBTIQ+ and other inclusion in the Australian water sector.

Final pledges

To conclude the workshop, the participants reflected and took a moment to prepare a ‘pledge’ – a final remark to own, champion and return with to their respective organisations.

The results of this workshop can be utilised to effectively develop understanding and influence the models used to improve our cultures.

To find out more or to get involved with the AWA’s Channeling Change Program click here.