January 6, 2021

How to be a diversity champion

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We know that women can’t change gender inequality on their own, which is why male allies are so important. Mike Carter is a true champion for diversity in Aurizon — the HR team described him as ‘relentless in his pursuit’ of equality. So, we spoke to Mike about why gender equality matters and how to be an ally who makes a difference.

Why women matter

We asked Mike why diversity and inclusion matter to him, and he had a lot to share on the topic.

“I believe all ideas are great ideas, and for any organization to be successful then idea creation must be at their heart. If you have a narrow set of employees (in their experience base and the type of person they are), then you will generally not have much diversity of ideas.”

Mike has three sons and two daughters, and people used to assume his drive for equality was about wanting equal opportunities for his daughters. But for Mike, it goes deeper than that.

“There was a strong ethos from my parents to treat people equally, take the opportunity, and whatever you want to do is fine. We’ve raised our children with the same idea. Anything you want to do, give it a go. There’s no reason why you can’t do it.”

When Mike first joined Aurizon over thirty years ago, he describes the culture as ‘blokey’. It was hierarchical and family-focused, with generations of men (but not women) from families being employed there.

“I thought it was really weird that we didn’t have many women in the organization, and saw it as enormously powerful if we could get them in.”

A new CEO (years ago now) announced he was going to take a more interventionist approach to increase the number of women. He had realized that just saying it was important didn’t move the dial – you had to take concrete steps as well.

Mike himself at one stage was responsible for the company’s network control (like air traffic control in an airport) with 120 staff on 24/7 rotating shifts. He says women were “the absolute exception”. When they went on a big recruitment drive, he rejected the initial list of potential recruits because there were too many men. He wasn’t going to approve the shortlist until it was 30% women. The following year he went through the same process but aiming for 50% women.

Without being prescriptive as to how his team increased the number of women on the list of potential hires, Mike forced creativity in how they thought about who would be appropriate for the roles. They hired women with diverse backgrounds who wanted to do the conceptual problem solving of the control room. So, way ahead of the pack, Mike made changes to job descriptions and role requirements to attract more talented women – which is exactly what we encourage companies to do today!

“The introduction of women onto the floor completely changed the culture of the way we do things here. It had been a century of blokes running the place. It was combative and blokey, and that has changed on the control room floor. It’s all-powerful in changing the way we look at the business, the way we generate ideas and the way we embrace people in terms of trying to be the best at everything we do.”

How caring for people increases safety

In his support for diversity and inclusion, Mike has been part of many changes throughout his career at Aurizon.

“At the heart of safety is to care for people. The natural extension of caring for people is to care for everyone and caring that you have an organization that provides opportunities for all. We’ve been on a strong push over the past 10-15 years to take a completely different look at safety from this caring lens. It’s been a cornerstone for breaking down the old culture and opening up to more women.”

Examples of the shift that Mike has seen is a reduction of lost-time injuries from weekly to none across an entire year. Mike is confident the parallel activity of gender diversity was a key enabler of increased safety.

Mike currently leads an engineering and technology-based part of the Aurizon organization; it is currently approximately 32 percent women against an industry norm of 20 percent women – so they’re doing well even while they keep their focus on gender diversity.

“It’s good, but there are pockets that are not there yet. I don’t think It will be finished until the conversation doesn’t even need to happen — so it doesn’t feel targeted, but rather it’s not even observed.”

The number of line managers and operational roles who are women is always increasing, and the focus isn’t being taken off gender until targets feel unnecessary.

“Aurizon is a big enough company that there are huge opportunities to do a whole lot of different things from operational to corporate roles that are very tangible. You see real outcomes on a day by day or week by week basis. You will find a company and a culture that is overwhelmingly open to new ideas and will embrace anyone who comes in with an inclusive approach to contributing.”

How to be a diversity champion

Sometimes people have the best of intentions, but just aren’t sure what to do to truly champion diversity and be an ally.

Mike had some suggestions for people wanting to be champions of diversity and inclusion:

  • Bring in people leaders who believe in diversity. “If you’re at a senior level, you have to recognize that you are influencing and setting direction, but your people leaders are really driving the bus. Your prime focus should be testing and ensuring their attitude is aligned with bringing women in. If you haven’t got that, then you have no chance. Be prepared to change the leaders if you don’t think they respect people in the right way.”
  • Take real, meaningful action. “Take an interventionist approach. Don’t just talk about it. Do things that directly symbolize it’s a reality for you and the company, and that you need to do things differently. That is going to confront the institutional and unconscious bias that sits within long-lived organizations. Find the right symbolic things to intervene directly in that will send a strong message to the leadership cohort, preferably in a way that makes them pause and think, ‘oh wow’.”
  • Look outside for ideas. “Take an outside-in approach. Stand aside from your team or organization and look at other places. Go hunting for ideas that will change your culture and challenge the leadership.”

Like all leadership behaviors, you’ve got to live it!

Mike shared a story of being in an industrial, union-dominated workshop environment, where tradespeople often employed their sons as apprentices. Mike spoke up and asked some whether they’d ever suggested tradesmen’s daughters join the shop.

“The pride of the father who has a daughter there as an apprentice is way more powerful than the leaders. The proud father can talk about what his daughter is doing as an apprentice, and the shop floor feel has had a huge change with the introduction of women as apprentices.”

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About the Author
Samantha Sutherland is the Chief Storyteller at WORK180. She is a Diversity and Inclusion specialist with an analytical background, making her work evidence-based and data driven. Host of WORK180’s Equality Talks podcast and her own Women at Work, Samantha divides her time between interviewing amazing women for WORK180, mentoring and coaching women in, or aspiring to, leadership roles, and providing high-level advice on diversity practices to Australian corporations. You can learn more about the Samantha Sutherland consultancy at samanthasutherland.com.au.

Looking for a new opportunity?

Our transparent job board only has vacancies from employers we endorse and lets you see what benefits, policies and perks come with the job.