Reconciliation - the next diversity frontier for our industry?

PHD Australia people and development director Manon Pietra
By PHD Australia people and development director Manon Pietra | 6 June 2018
Manon Pietra

It’s an interesting time to talk diversity (or the lack of) in our industry. As it is National Reconciliation Week (27 May – 3 June), which celebrates both the successful 1967 referendum and the High Court Mabo decision. Fittingly, this year’s theme is “Don’t Keep History A Mystery: Learn. Share. Grow”, which invites us to explore history hidden beneath the surface and educate ourselves on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and histories.

We all know Australia is highly multicultural, with over 49% of Australians either born overseas or have one or both parents who are born overseas (2017 ABS Census). However, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population in Australia accounts for less than 3%, and when we look at the number of Indigenous Peoples within media agencies, the figure is nearly zero.

This is a huge gap in our industry’s diversity and inclusion agenda, especially when considering how much further advanced other stakeholders in the industry are (I’m thinking of broadcasters and the film industry here, which have been working on enhancing opportunities for Indigenous Australians for decades now).

Getting to know what we didn’t know.

As a leading member of the team that developed Omnicom Media Group’s first Reconciliation Action Plan, I am incredibly proud of the work we have done as an agency group over the past two years. However, this is also a time to reflect on how much more there is to go until we can honestly say we’ve turned a corner.

Back in 2016, armed with little more than the information available on the Reconciliation Australia website, I threw myself into this project with the enthusiasm of a complete rookie and I thought, “We can definitely do this!”

Raising the level of awareness on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and challenges within our agencies? Easy, just leave it with me.

Supporting Indigenous media? As one of the largest agency groups, surely, we can deliver on that.

And most importantly, I genuinely thought we’d be able to swiftly increase the ratio of staff who identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander in our agencies with sheer will and conviction. I’m not saying we were wrong about all these, I still firmly believe our objectives were the right ones, but the last two years have really shown us how little we knew about what we didn’t know.

To take the example of our employment challenge alone, it took over 12 months and 20+ unsuccessful attempts with university partners to finally get scholarships off the ground (you wouldn’t have imagined it would be so hard to give away student incentives, would you?!). Then, another 12 months to build relationships with the Indigenous Student Engagement Units to get to a point where they could confidently introduce us to students who would thrive in our organisation.

See, the issue was not a lack of goodwill or contacts. We were simply naïve about how many students who identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander would be enrolled in courses and even more naïve to think they would know what a media agency does, much less that they’d want to work for us. It was a reality check, we needed to invest time in getting to know our candidate pool and explaining in simple terms what we do and why there are meaningful opportunities to be pursued.

If there is one pearl of wisdom I can impart on enthusiastic organisations from this entire experience, it’s that being open and willing to hire ‘diverse’ people doesn’t mean candidates will start queuing at your door like nannies at the Banks’ residence in Mary Poppins. But more importantly, it also doesn’t mean your workplace is culturally safe for those new hires to want to stay and thrive.

Creating ‘Cultural Safety’ is nurturing an environment that is “spiritually, socially and emotionally safe, as well as physically safe for people”. Certainly, when it comes to Reconciliation, this is a huge component of what well-intentioned employers must come to terms with – you may be a great place to work by your current standards (retention, engagement, happiness), but when inviting diverse people into your organization, you will need to re-assess how culturally safe that environment really is.

For PHD, this meant working internally with our leaders and staff to introduce the concept of Reconciliation and provide training – in short, starting to build awareness and curiosity. Externally, it meant finding partners (education partners, universities, etc.) willing to get on the journey with us and let us learn from them while they learn from us.

Borrowing from the ‘four stages of learning’ model for a moment, we had to push through the first stage of ‘unconscious incompetence’ to break through to ‘conscious incompetence’… a process that I’m sorry to tell you takes time.

Where to from here?

Personally, I am really excited we were able to move onto the second stage of our Reconciliation Action Plan after only 12 months. This is a huge achievement and means the next stage of our journey will be focused on more tangible results, especially in the employment space. In 2018, we will be welcoming four students through various scholarship avenues and will offer our staff more advanced training opportunities.

Clearly, this is not an easy process and you shouldn’t expect instant gratification; but if we all agree diversity is key to the success of our industry moving forward, you’ll need to start somewhere and there is no better time than now.

PHD Australia people and development director, Manon Pietra

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