Be Bold for Change – Striving for parity in the disability sector

Sydney Business Connect Magazine photo shootBy Emma Brown, Finance Manager at Cerebral Palsy Alliance, UN Women NC Australia MBA Scholarship recipient and current student in the University of Sydney Business School MBA program.

It appears widely accepted that diversity and inclusion in the workplace improve economic performance. Numerous studies confirm this with results ranging from 15% improvement in profitability for organisations with women in senior leadership roles1 to a predicted 20% increase in economic activity in Australia as a whole as a result of a gender diverse workforce2. The textbook business case for diversity seems intuitive: “Teams of mixed gender, ethnicity, physical ability, age and sexual orientation are more representative of clients and customers. They offer a variety of viewpoints and a wider range of experiences which improves decision making and problem solving”3. Moving beyond the numbers the business case is even more compelling: Diversity and acceptance in the workplace are reported to increase happiness amongst employees which is not only beneficial from a humanitarian perspective but in turn leads to further gains in productivity4. To date every senior business person I have met claims to agree.

It is a wonder that despite widespread appreciation of the economic benefits, diversity and equality still elude many organisations. I was lucky enough to recently attend a Discussion Forum on gender equality as part of the application process for the UN Women NC Australia MBA Scholarship. The forum highlighted interesting ideas as to why achieving parity remains problematic across all sectors, particularly around the silos of expectation that start in education and flow through to influence our choices throughout our lives. It alerted me to my own ingrained and unconscious biases around the roles and ambitions of women that are likely holding me and countless others back.

In the disability sector women form the majority of the workforce. In terms of headcount we are extremely well represented both across the sector and in the organisation I work for. However, many of the roles are on the “sticky floor”5 .These amazing women are passionate about their work with our clients but often do not see themselves going down the path into management which, until recently, was the only route to a promotion. Due to a lack of choice over career progression we fail to recognise and reward important talents resulting in disengagement and the loss of some of the most valuable client-facing staff to competitors or, worse still, they exit the workforce altogether.

In working to address this we have introduced the idea of “specialists” in each field, moving away from a hierarchical management structure to one which celebrates a diverse range of capabilities and experience. A talented therapist can now not only be paid the same as a manager, but can also see a clear career ladder to climb should they wish. By providing a structured path of progression and self-improvement more workers, male and female, will be attracted into this rewarding industry resulting in greater gender parity at every level.

Insights gained from the discussion forum also confirmed the need for me as a manger to be mindful and emotionally intelligent when speaking with women about their ambitions, as well as when working with the senior leadership and executives teams to address any real or perceived barriers to women taking leaderships positions, given the entrenched internal and social constructs that may be stopping them from putting their hand up.

The disability sector is currently undergoing a significant change with the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) which gives increased power and choice to those living with a disability and, in turn, creates competition in the sector. To support clients through this transition and incorporate the new commercial demands placed upon organisations, it is critical that we are adaptable, innovative and receptive to change. The forum has reiterated the need for me, as Finance manager, to draw upon the wonderful diversity of perspectives within my own team and the wider organisation to empower staff, through authentic, effective communication and recognition of their individual value, to not only take ownership of their relevant tasks but to come up with innovative ways of working.

My position affords me a unique opportunity at a time of change both within the sector and within my organisation to make a tangible impact on women and those with a disability. It is for this reason that I have chosen to undertake the University of Sydney MBA, which I believe will provide me with the negotiation, influencing and technical skills to make the absolute most of this opportunity. Through the scholarship and involvement with the UN Women National Committee Australia I will be able to draw upon a deep pool of knowledge and experience to ensure that I have the resources to make the greatest impact I can at a critical and sector-defining time, breaking through the glass walls of the industry for future generations of workers.

I was absolutely thrilled (if not a little surprised!) to be awarded the UN Women NC Australia MBA Scholarship. I would encourage anyone who is passionate about diversity, equality and positive social change to set self-doubt aside and apply for this scholarship. Regardless of the outcome, both the people you meet as part of the application process and involvement in the discussion forum will be truly invaluable in expanding your horizons and contributing to personal and professional growth.

Semester 2 scholarship applications opens 9 March. Find out more.

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