Rob Campbell: Are diversity policies backfiring in business – or am I just being a grumpy old man?

Rob Campbell
As Te Whatu Ora chair, Rob Campbell pushed for a much stronger role for Māori in health governance. He was a strong promoter of diversity at Summerset, Tourism Holdings and Sky City. Yet, doubts have crept in. Image montage: Newsroom

Corporate diversity and inclusion have become more about profits than about recognising the rights of women and minorities, argues ousted Te Whatu Ora chair Rob Campbell.

COMMENTARY: By Rob Campbell

Just as we are making some progress on diversity and inclusion policies in business governance and management my perverse mind is starting to have doubts.

Initially around gender diversity I was an enthusiastic camp follower. It seemed a relevant part of progressive social change.

As Te Whatu Ora chair, I was an advocate and supporter of a much stronger role for Māori in health governance and management. I was a strong promoter of inclusion in all my roles such as at Summerset, Tourism Holdings and Sky City.

I was recognised for this when awarded Chair of the Year a few years back, and the Beacon Award from the Shareholders’ Association at about the same time.

I think that we have made progress at business board and senior management level — by no means complete but barriers have been reduced and seats filled more appropriately.

I confess that even while I and many others were advocating and implementing this, my doubts crept in as the narrative morphed from one primarily about rights into one more based on demonstrated benefits, for example, to profitability.

Then the prize-giving started, the “champions” preened, and one could not help but wonder what interests were really being served. It really was not all that difficult or radical in its impact as after all — the replacements were from the same class and education and non-cis gender characteristics as the old.

Long overdue
It is a good thing rather than bad of course, long overdue and still far from complete.

But the old hierarchies and principles of business control, practice and ownership have not been that much affected. We have more women in influential roles but the roles and expectations of those in the roles have not changed very much. Higher gender representation is a step on the way to gender equity in the workplace but not a final goal.

My perception is that ethnic diversity is facing an even harder road. There has been some progress but it seems that neither the will nor the availability of “suitable” candidates is as strong as it is on gender.

Of course this tells us something — our perception about what is “suitable” is limited and excludes all but a few from non-Pākehā communities. It is not that such communities do not have highly capable leaders but that the capability does not readily match the ways business expects its governance and management to be.

You could be kind and call this a cultural difference. Similar issues may hold back business governance diversity in terms of non-cis gender differences and neuro differences. Maybe what business wants is not real and far reaching diversity but “acceptable or non-disruptive” diversity.

Welcome to the boardroom and the executive floor on the terms that have always prevailed.

So this makes me think about “inclusion” too. There is an increasing range of inclusion programmes, training and schemes. My inclination is to welcome and support these and, as with gender, I have seen and celebrated individuals step up within such processes and succeed.

Cue more prizes, awards and media releases.

Common theme
But I see a common theme as we progress. Business is making pathways some for people from other cultures to become acceptable or suitable — on the terms of business. Colonialism has always done this politically and we can see this commercially as well.

These are adaptable social systems well capable of changing appearance without changing substance.

Companies co-opting or paying mere lip service to diversity and inclusion? It’s almost universal.

I admire the people who take these opportunities. They often have to change a lot, to take on more than their peers at work, to model and represent. But business inclusion is inclusion into the world of business not business changing to match another culture, other than quite superficially.

I wonder if these processes are not more akin to “assimilation” than genuine diversity and inclusion. That is, always on the terms of the boss. Welcome to our club, on our terms. This assumes superiority of culture.

Just like assimilation sought to obscure and diminish the outside, the minority, the different in order to seem to include. Ultimately assimilation was seen for the destructive force in social policy that it was — a steamroller to flatten diversity not to encourage it.

Like assimilation, I don’t think, now that my thoughts have run to this point, that our “D&I” policies, appointments and programmes, will really be much of a force for change.

That does not make them bad, but lets not pretend they are more than they are. The same people still mainly fill the same roles according to the same rules, doing the same things, as they did before.

I welcome anyone who can convince me otherwise. I don’t like being the grumpy, cynical old man.

Rob Campbell is chancellor of AUT University and chairs NZ Rural Land Co and renewable energy centre Ara Ake. He is a former chair of health agency Te Whatu Ora, the Environmental Protection Authority, SkyCity Casino, Tourism Holdings, WEL Networks and Summerset. He trained as an economist and originally worked as a unionist before eventually becoming a professional director. This article was first published by Newsroom and is republished with the author’s permission.

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