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Here's how the water sector is encouraging diversity

Elle Hardy finds out how some of the water sector’s leaders are channelling change and fostering inclusivity – both for employees, and the communities they serve.

Three out of four Australians want their employer to take action towards achieving an inclusive workplace. But even with overwhelming public support, it’s easier said than done.

While diversity is often associated with ensuring equanimity between men and women, it is also about including and supporting the contribution of all perspectives, including ethnicity, socio-economic background, physical and mental ability, and cultural variance too.

More than words

“I’ve been in the water sector for nearly 40 years – but it seems like only yesterday that I was a young female trainee engineer stumbling head first into a male-dominated industry,” said Carmel Krogh, Director of Shoalhaven Water and Australian Water Association (AWA) President.

AWA President Carmel Krogh.

“Diversity in the water sector looks very different today than what I first experienced all those years ago when I was trying to fit in.

“But one thing rings true throughout the years, and that is respect.

"Without respect for differences – in abilities, views, expectations – then diversity is only lip-service.”

Krogh said the water industry needs to be mature enough to embrace inclusion and equality – and recognise that this is not always the easy road.

According to Krogh, the next step for the industry is learning to recognise and peel back layers of our unconscious biases, which has been a focus of recent AWA ‘Channelling Change’ workshops.

“That way, we see how much we get stuck in the safety of thinking only through our own experiences – and only then can we see just how beneficial diversity is,” Krogh said.

Practice over theory

It is often easier to take the perspective of someone who shares your beliefs or experiences than to explore differing perspectives. While most workplaces in the water sector have policies and procedures in place to stop discrimination and promote diversity, unconscious discrimination can inhibit us from achieving true inclusion and equality.

The Australian Public Service Commission states that unintended discrimination has an evolutionary basis as “a way of processing vast amounts of information and making quick decisions”.

Because this is something we do not have a lot of control over, the Commission recommends that “there is a need to be aware of and take steps to mitigate implicit discrimination in our thinking generally and in our professional practices”.

We also need to be aware of these from a legal perspective, with substantial anti-discrimination and case law in Australia dealing in both direct and indirect discrimination against employees for reasons including age, culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation and disability.

Gilbert and Tobin Partner Di Banks points to prominent 2011 case Talbott v Sperling Tourism & Investments Pty Ltd – where a 75-year-old bus driver was dismissed because of his age – to show how unconscious bias is legally defined.

“Indirect discrimination on the basis of age occurs where conditions or criteria are applied consistently to all employees, but the application of these conditions or criteria has a disproportionate impact on employees because of their age,” Banks said.

Benefits not burdens

But an inclusive workplace has far greater benefits than toeing the legal line.

The recent Inclusion@Work research project by Diversity Council Australia highlights that when organisations act to create a more diverse and inclusive workplace, it benefits everyone – not just particular groups.

“There is a growing body of evidence that shows the correlation between financial performance and an inclusive workplace,” Jacobs Senior Principal and Executive Ambassador for Inclusion and Diversity Dr Andrew Spinks said.

“For most leaders, the evidence that relates diversity and inclusion to being more productive, profitable, innovative, and engaged is hard to ignore.”

Yet diversity on its own is simply not enough, Spinks said: “We know diversity without inclusion can harm people and performance. In workplace cultures where the emphasis on inclusion and embracing diversity is seen as a strength, personal and business growth is greater".

Spinks added that Jacobs has prioritised three streams in the industry when considering diversity: workforce, workplace and marketplace.

“This goes beyond single employers. If we are to create a strong and sustainable industry, we need to challenge ourselves as a single unified workplace to embrace and drive inclusion,” he said.

Diversity in action

Sydney Water People and Corporate Services General Manager Angela Tsoukatos said the water sector will likely become a much more innovative place too, if it tackles diversity correctly.

Sydney Water General Manager Angela Tsoukatos Sydney Water People and Corporate Services General Manager Angela Tsoukatos.

“Diversity is a spark that, when carefully tended, can ignite the kind of innovative thinking that the water sector needs to effectively respond and adapt to current and future challenges and opportunities,” she said. 

Tsoukatos pointed to Sydney Water’s focus on gender and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as an example of how diversity looks in action – and how it can collaborate with other water utilities to see it move sector-wide.

“Having targets helps us stay focused and measure the impact of our diversity and inclusion plan. At Sydney Water we have focused on improving our HR processes. For example, as part of our recruitment process we use a tool to check job advertisements for gender biased language to ensure they appeal to both men and women,” Tsoukatos said.

Sydney Water has also developed a reverse mentorship program to transfer knowledge between the four different generations in its workplace, and joined other water utilities in launching its first Reconciliation Action Plan.

To broaden its appeal as an employer, it has implemented a flexibility program to attract a more diverse talent pool and assist in retaining talent within the organisation.

“For the new generation coming into the workforce now, being able to work flexibly and more efficiently is an expectation, not a perk,” Tsoukatos said.

Drilling down

Unitywater CEO George Theo said the water sector is witnessing exciting collaborations, which are helping develop the workplaces and communities of the future.

“We have working groups made up with representatives from across the company, each of them sponsored by one of my executive managers, and each also working with external organisations,” Theo said.

Theo recommended managers look externally when seeking to implement a robust diversity and inclusion program.

A number of government and not-for-profit groups, such as the Diversity Council Australia or the AWA’s own ‘Channeling Change’ forum, provide an objective view and keep organisations up to date with best-practice solutions.

“The working groups have focused on not only creating initiatives, such as opportunities for women to get into maintenance traineeships, but ensuring that there is a job there at the end of it for them,” Theo said.

On top of seeking expert help, the key to Unitywater's vision is the expectation that targets are not used for their own sake, but to better represent the South-East Queensland region.

What a wonderful world

Shaping the world in which we live for the better – something the water sector has a lot of experience with – requires a commitment to diversity, to innovation and to collaboration.

“The fundamental importance of water for all humanity means that every layer of every society has a stake in its sustainable use,” Krogh said.

“Promoting and embracing a stronger diversity of people will harness a broader skill set to address our sustainability challenges.

"It will also engage the community that we serve with more inclusiveness. This in turn, can strengthen our shared resilience to create a healthier world.”

First published as 'Opposites attract' in Current magazine April 2019.

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