Diversity, Not Just a Buzz Word
16 April 2015 at 10:21 am
Diversity isn't just a “buzz word” or nod to political correctness – it has real, tangible value for society, writes CEO of Settlement Services International, Violet Roumeliotis.
As CEO of Settlement Services International (SSI), myself and colleagues have recently been involved in Harmony Day celebrations, the Third Sector Expo , the Cultural Diversity and Law Conference and SSI’s Speakers’ Series discussion on youth and radical ideologies (to mention a few).
Each of these represented opportunities for people from different cultural, language and religious backgrounds, and a diversity of social, professional and educational experiences, to work towards goals for the greater good. These were opportunities to listen and learn from other people with different perspectives and knowledge: and to share our own views and expertise. All of this, of course, is invaluable to us.
The benefits of diversity are well established. Diverse societies, organisations and workplaces have a greater chance to prosper — just as more diverse natural environments do. Jill Gould, of the University of South Australia’s Centre for Human Resource Management, wrote about the benefits of diversity in an article for The Conversation
“Diverse groups engage in ‘creative conflict (http://asr.sagepub.com/content/74/2/208.short)’, which leads to better decision-making, introduces new ideas into discussions and increases creativity and innovation,” she wrote. “Diverse groups generate hard-to-imitate resources leading to competitive advantage
These statements are backed by a corpus of research. Yet diversity often is not as desired in the workplace or community as the research and results suggest it should be. People tend to find it easier to associate with like-minded people. Perhaps because they are less of a challenge to our own established perspectives on the world. Whatever the reasons, we can too often fall into the traps of isolating ourselves within respective cultural, ethnic, religious or other demographic groups.
As healthy as diversity is, uniformity can be equally as unhealthy. Sallie Krawcheck, former chief financial officer at Citigroup and former president of Bank of America Global Wealth Management, makes a strong argument that demographic uniformity in the US financial sector led to the 2008-2009 Global Financial Crisis.
Too many like-minded men from similar backgrounds may have meant few of them thought to challenge one another’s decisions.
In our own society, a more diverse approach to dealing with the problems of young people being radicalised and drawn to violence and terrorism was called for, in various ways, by an informed panel at SSI’s Speakers’ Series panel discussion in March.
Speakers Lydia Shelly, a lawyer and advocate, and Maha Abdo, of the United Muslim Women’s Association, spoke passionately about the need for a “whole of society” approach to prevent young people being drawn to extreme ideologies. If I can summarise their detailed theses, it was that an approach focused only on new laws and punishments after the fact would not work. Laws alone would not work in isolation from grass-roots community work with the people at risk of turning to radical ideologies to solve their problems.
Another speaker on the panel, sociologist of Islam and senior lecturer at the University of Western Sydney Dr Jan Ali, called for more research on the subject and fewer assumptions. Definitions and perspectives on extremism and radicalism were still “generally speaking, Westocentric”, Dr Ali said, and were not always accepted from Muslim or other cultural and religious perspectives. So it followed that more input from diverse groups of people will lead to greater understanding of these problems.
This leads me to the Cultural Diversity and Law Conference, where a concerted effort to incorporate multicultural approaches in judicial matters was made. Over two days, experts from around Australia shared strategies to ensure access to justice for people from culturally diverse backgrounds. The expertise and perspectives shared here crossed legal, government and community sectors as well as diverse cultural grounds, including Indigenous, Muslim and European Australia.
Harmony Day was also celebrated this month, to mark the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. What began as a day to advocate against racism has grown in to a real celebration of multiculturalism in Australia.
SSI staff held a Harmony Day event in Parramatta Park with clients from refugee backgrounds and who are seeking asylum. Among our staff, alone, 83 different languages are spoken. The people we work with come from more than 80 different nations and cultures.
Representatives from the police, community groups Australian Relief Organisation and the Cultural Performing Arts Network, Parramatta MP Geoff Lee, Parramatta Councillors and state Labor candidates James Shaw and Julia Finn socialised with SSI staff and clients at the event.
These kinds of events and forums are surely a way to enlighten the community about the diverse groups within it. So long as the lessons learned are acted on, of course. With diversity comes opportunity to share knowledge and experiences and to broaden the depth of our communities.
Because of SSI’s inherent diversity, we see it as a responsibility to host and participate in such opportunities. The more we can share with and learn from one another as a society, the more able we are to positively change negative discourse so we can work together for progress.
About the author: Violet Roumeliotis is CEO of Settlement Services International and a member of Pro Bono Australia’s 2014 Impact 25. She has an extensive background in advocating for and developing services for vulnerable and at-risk communities and individuals – with more than thirty years' involvement, in both a professional and voluntary capacity, in human resource and project management. In particular, she has developed specialised knowledge and skills in working with people of a non-English speaking backgrounds and culturally diverse communities, refugees and humanitarian entrants, families in crisis, women and children at risk.