Diversity of face and of thought

Homogeneity, or working out a solution on your own or with someone similar to yourself, adds an error rate of 30 percent, writes Kate Kearins.

When I look around the leadership table at AUT’s Business, Economics and Law Faculty I see people from all corners of the globe, including this born-and-bred Kiwi.

We bring our research specialisation, experience at universities around the world and our own cultural backgrounds and knowledge to our leadership. On the face of it, we’re a pretty diverse bunch. 

But do the same opportunities apply equally within our organisation? Does someone at the beginning of their academic career have the same chance of advancing as the person next to them? Or is their gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or physically disability going to slow their progress?

And are our graduates going to face the same problems? An AUT business or law graduate is now likely to be a woman who reflects the young, ethnically diverse face of Auckland. As they take their skills and knowledge out into the workplace, these graduates, quite reasonably, expect to be able to bring enthusiasm, interesting viewpoints and perspectives to their new employers. Can they also expect to be heard, recognised and rewarded equally too?

Today more than a quarter of New Zealanders were born overseas. In fact Auckland’s 200 plus ethnic groups makes it the fourth most diverse city in the world.

And at university, it’s women who we are seeing in our lecture theatres and research spaces, with 68 percent of Bachelor’s degrees now handed out to women.

But that rich diversity isn’t reflected at the senior levels of New Zealand businesses. Only one of our top 50 publically-listed companies is led by a woman. Just over 40 percent of New Zealand businesses don’t have women in senior management.

The case for change is strong. Companies with diversity, from the boardroom to the shop floor, out-innovate and out-perform others.

The diversity in these organisations is both inherent, involving the traits we are born with, such gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation, and acquired, diversity made up of the traits we gain through experience. 

In her book Which Two Heads Are Better Than One? How Diverse Teams Create Breakthrough Ideas and Make Smarter Decisions, Juliet Bourke, a human capital partner at Deloitte in Sydney and leader of its Australian diversity and inclusion practice, says homogeneity, or working out a solution on your own or with someone similar to yourself, adds an error rate of 30 percent.

Errors sneak in because we aren’t seeing enough of the problem. Bourke says ideally it takes between five and eight different perspectives to combat mistakes.

Not only was decision-making accuracy improved but Bourke also discovered a 20 percent innovation bump, and greater confidence from outside the team that the right decision was arrived at.

The problem Bourke found was leadership teams, even those that appeared diverse, were dominated by people who focused on the outcomes they wanted and the options they’d use to get there. It seems we instinctively turn to what we know. 

At a glance my leadership team seems to epitomise diversity but are we really all that diverse? If I was to look under the hood are we more similar than we appear at first glance? And do I as a leader give more credence to the opinions of people who support my way of thinking? Are my biases leading me to the wrong decisions? 

I have made a personal commitment to support change, both at AUT and in the wider business community.

As one of 52 private and public sector Champions for Change leaders from 44 of New Zealand’s top companies we are individually and collectively supporting diversity and inclusion within our organisations. We have committed to being a voice for change with a goal of truly diverse leadership in New Zealand by 2020.

At AUT’s Faculty of Business, Economics and Law we are on a journey to investigate and reflect on the career paths of all our staff with the goal of shining a light on any hidden issues hindering career advancement, research and teaching delivery or stopping us from being the best we can be. 


Professor Kate Kearins is currently Acting Dean in the Faculty of Business, Economics and Law at Auckland University of Technology.

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