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The Inclusion Imperative: Why We Can't Afford to Stop Fighting for Workplace Equality

International Women’s Day (IWD), observed annually on the eighth of March, serves as a powerful reminder that the pursuit of gender equality extends beyond a singular day of recognition. Rather, it demands ongoing commitment on both a global and individual scale. From the historic fight for suffrage to the contemporary push for workplace inclusivity, gender equality encompasses a broad spectrum of concerns.

Despite significant strides, the 2023 Global Gender Gap Index reveals that full gender parity remains elusive. As per the United Nations Sustainable Development Report, Sustainable Development Goal 5, which aims for gender equality and empowerment, requires substantial effort and time. Closing gaps in legal protection and removing discriminatory laws may take nearly three centuries, while achieving equal representation in the workplace may take 140 years.

The biggest obstacles to achieving gender equality even today are the lingering gender norms, stereotypes, and biases that persist, hindering progress in areas such as education, healthcare, economic opportunities, and leadership roles.

Thus, the narrative of International Women’s Day seamlessly dovetails into the broader discourse on workplace equality, highlighting the interconnectedness of historical struggles and contemporary challenges in the pursuit of a more equitable society.

Inclusion in the Workplace from a Business Perspective

In light of these challenges, establishments are called upon to make diversity and inclusion a top priority in the workplace. Professor Julia Connell, Acting Pro-Vice Chancellor and CEO of Newcastle Australia Institute of Higher Education (NAIHE), emphasises the need to grasp and discuss the nuances of diversity and inclusion. “A shared understanding of these concepts and their significance is crucial,” she asserts. Diversity, she further explains, centres on representation and the presence of varied identities, while inclusion transcends this by cultivating an environment where everyone feels valued, respected, and empowered.

Photo: Professor Julia Connell

Drawing on existing studies, Professor Connell underscores that diversity and inclusion are not only ethical imperatives but also catalysts for enhanced creativity, better decision-making, and improved problem-solving. This, in turn, fosters innovation within companies, allowing them to discover unique solutions, identify unexplored opportunities, and navigate the ever-evolving business landscape (Forbes, 2011 cited in Klinger-Vidra, 2018).

Furthermore, the collaborative synergy of individuals from diverse backgrounds in an inclusive environment unleashes a myriad of perspectives and ideas, enriching the collective pool of creativity. The Global Review of Diversity and Inclusion in Business Innovation by Klinger-Vidra (2018) associated diversity and inclusion with better financial performance and attraction of employees. However, the piece concluded that a genuine inclusive culture is still lacking in many companies despite these potential benefits, prompting a re-evaluation of priorities and a re-commitment to fostering an environment where diversity is not only recognised as a human right but embraced as a strategic advantage in the competitive landscape.

Strategies for Inclusivity

The pursuit of a truly inclusive culture encounters various challenges, ranging from lack of awareness and unconscious biases to inadequate resources allocated to diversity initiatives. Realising the full potential of diversity and inclusion necessitates proactive steps, most especially from the higher echelons of the company’s management. This entails investing in comprehensive training and education programs, establishing clear policies and practices, and regularly evaluating progress.

Professor Connell asserts the importance of resource allocation and leadership involvement, emphasising the need for institutions to not only profess their commitment to inclusivity but also demonstrate it authentically. She suggests, “Ongoing commitment, resource allocation, and leadership involvement are essential for embedding inclusivity in organisational culture”, highlighting the need for companies to demonstrate a genuine commitment to inclusivity by dedicating the necessary resources and ensuring leadership support.

To champion these ideals, companies can establish inclusivity committees and champions to advocate for diversity and inclusion, raise awareness, and develop strategic implementation plans.

Leadership plays a central role in this endeavour, fostering open dialogue and learning opportunities, thereby overcoming prejudices, and actively promoting inclusivity within their teams. Professor Connell urges organisations to select and nurture ‘inclusive leaders’ who embody behaviours conducive to an inclusive environment, such as creating a no-blame culture, empowering decision-making, sharing credit, and avoiding ‘in and out groups’. This promotion of psychological safety encourages diverse discourse and helps create an inclusive atmosphere.

As we respond to the United Nations’ call to “Invest in women: Accelerate progress” and embrace the 2024 theme of “#InspireInclusivity” on International Women’s Day, it requires  collective acknowledgment that our commitment to equality is both a moral imperative and a strategic necessity. The transformative outcomes reach far beyond mere companies or business sectors—they ripple outwards, shaping societies and economies for the better. By actively involving ourselves in this journey, we unlock the potential for a more resilient, equitable, and prosperous future for everyone whether they identify as women or otherwise.