All together now: Building better, diverse teams

July 21, 2020

Diversity ensures better research, better business and better societies, reports Claire Harris.

Creating better, diverse teams

Diversity ensures better research, better business and better societies, reports Claire Harris.

Diverse teams that include people of different gender, culture, age, neurological diversity and perspective  are more effective, innovative and profitable. 

Yet for many Australian research and development organisations, including most CRCs, achieving workplace diversity and the resulting positive impact is still a work in progress.

A lack of diversity not only limits available talent, it’s bad for research and business, and doesn’t deliver what our communities need, says the Hon Karen Andrews, Minister for Industry, Science and Technology. 

“By ensuring STEM represents the society in which we live, we can better understand changing needs and develop more innovative and thoughtful solutions in response,” she says.

Gender is a prominent diversity issue for STEM and is pervasive from childhood onwards. From high school, girls are under-represented in STEM and technology subjects. At tertiary level, low overall participation in STEM education means the number of women in the STEM workforce is not increasing at a substantial rate. 

It’s not just STEM fields where there’s a problem. In the Australian workforce, women have lower work participation rates than men and also earn less, with the weekly pay gap currently at 13.9 per cent.

The Australian Government’s Advancing Women in STEM (2019) report notes other key factors influencing females’ decisions to enter and remain in STEM education and careers include bias and stereotyping, career insecurity, a lack of flexible work arrangements and a lack of female role models.

A level playing field 

Improving gender diversity is not simply a matter of fairness. “Gender diverse companies are 15 per cent more likely to financially outperform their counterparts, and it is estimated an extra six per cent of women in the workforce could add $25 billion to Australia’s GDP,” says Andrews. “Imagine if we had the full participation of women in STEM in history up to now — what discoveries, cures, breakthroughs and inventions we could have had.”

Tony Peacock, CEO of the Cooperative Research Centres Association (CRCA), says a few years ago CRCs were “a long way short of where we should be” in addressing the imbalance. These days, while the “light bulbs have gone on”, he says he is still encouraging CRCs to try harder. 

“If we see boards or leadership teams with imbalance from a gender point of view, as a start, our response has been, ‘Why would you close yourself off to all the talent?’ If you’re operating an innovation business, you can’t ignore diversity.”

Peacock says the CRCA has looked at how best to assist CRCs to implement more effective diversity policies. This includes setting a strategic objective, and outcomes related to greater diversity of CRC boards, management and scientific teams, and a 50:50 gender split for leadership positions. He believes taking the first step of measuring, and publishing the results publicly has had an effect.

“Newer CRCs in particular are asking for guidance about how to run their organisation, and they are implementing good practice where possible,” he says. “As well as pushing our CRCs at the leadership level, we also encourage policies and programs to enable up-and-comers. 

“One of the strengths of the CRC model is flexibility and being able to design the way that people are employed and are able to contribute over time. For example, implementing ways for people to work hours that are suitable for their families, or having the support for childcare while travelling for meetings or conferences.”

Runs on the board

Around 21 per cent of Australians have a non-European background and three per cent have an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background, but only 11.3 per cent of directors of ASX 200 companies are culturally diverse, according to the CRCA.

To address future diversity at the board level, the CRCA has recently launched the Pathways to Directorship program. It will fast-track 100 people towards board positions during a five-year period. Peacock says professionals from all disciplines in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) who identify as under-represented and from both member and non-member organisations of the CRCA are encouraged to apply.

It’s an initiative that complements Minister Andrews’s support for increased diversity on boards. “In 2016, the Government set a target of women holding 50 per cent of government board positions overall and men and women each holding at least 40 per cent of positions on individual boards,” she says. 

“The Department of Industry, Innovation and Science has committed to working with stakeholders, including the CRC Advisory Committee and the CRCA, to improve diversity, including for gender, within CRCs and their boards. In saying that, there’s more work to do.”

Kicking goals

According to Peacock, during the CRC bidding process, leadership teams are working very quickly and adaptably, so they often review their teams. Many of the recently established CRCs are doing an “awesome job” harnessing diversity, he says. 

“It is often a matter of doing the best they can with what they’ve got initially, but the CRCA advises them throughout the process,” says Peacock. 

“One of the strengths of the CRC model is that they are adaptive and can implement best practice policies very fast. Sometimes the CRCA does push and I’ve asked questions such as, ‘Why is it that everyone in the room seems to have a very similar background?’

“I think there is a role for government, in the guidelines, to make sure people stop and pay attention, but I feel we’ve played a fairly useful role because we coach and advise along the way.”

Changing mindsets and policies is the key. “Thankfully, we’ve moved far past the, ‘Hey, it’s not fair,’ sentiment to, ‘It’s stupid not to consider diversity,’” he adds.

Andrews says building a diverse and inclusive workplace should be a core part of any organisation’s business. “Senior leaders should listen to their employees’ experiences to drive change. Addressing inequality in STEM is about more than just addressing the numbers. We need to challenge our systems and practices.”

Diversity drives innovation

The CEO and Managing Director of the Innovative Manufacturing CRC (IMCRC), David Chuter sees diversity as a key driver for innovation. By embracing diversity in all aspects of its research collaborations, the CRC encourages industry, researchers and staff to explore new avenues and innovate. For example, IMCRC’s Just In Time Implants project combines 3D printing, robotic surgery and advanced manufacturing to create tailored implants for bone cancer patients. It brings together a diverse team of roboticists, material scientists, additive manufacturers, business experts and clinicians from two universities, a hospital and a global medical technology company. 

“By expanding the scope of our research projects, bringing in expertise via third-party collaborations across all industry sectors and establishing an inclusive collaboration culture, we have seen some significant investment in Australia,” says Chuter.

Communities creating solutions: Autism

“Evidence shows that the best solutions are co-designed with the communities who need them,” says Cheryl Mangan, Manager, Research Translation at the Autism CRC, the world’s first national cooperative research effort focused on autism.

“A big part of what I do is bring together multidisciplinary teams that include autistic individuals, researchers and technology development partners to create solutions to problems they could not solve alone.”

More than two thirds of young people on the autism spectrum are unemployed or underemployed, but the CRC is developing a web application to help change that. 

Mangan is a co-leader on the MyWay Employability project, a smart web application that allows young people on the spectrum to plan and prepare for their working life with a focus on strengths and career interests.

“All of the information and resources are co-produced with the autistic community,” says Mangan. “One of the most beautiful things about working with young people on the spectrum is that they’re really honest and very constructive, which is necessary in any co-design.”

Mangan says that co-producing with communities means the solutions are relevant, effective and have the greatest chance of impact. “It is so important that the community has ownership of the solution; then they will find value in it and use it.”

 — Cherese Sonkkila

Gender equity in CRCs – BY THE NUMBERS

31: Average percentage of female CRC senior staff. The manufacturing sector has the highest average (41%) followed closely by medical services (39%)

22: The proportion of CRCs with policies for a target percentage of female representation in board and/or senior positions by the end of the CRC phase.

28: Percentage of women on CRC boards in 2018, up from 17.3% in 2010.

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