Mai Chen: Complex culture demands agile thinking

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Identity is more than just gender or ethnicity but workplace mentality fails to reflect that. Picture / Doug Sherring
Identity is more than just gender or ethnicity but workplace mentality fails to reflect that. Picture / Doug Sherring

Since releasing the Superdiversity Stocktake: Implications for Law, Policy and Business last November, (downloaded now over 130,000 times) and discussing with many businesses and organisations how to implement strategies to address the growing diversity of their employees and customers, I have realised the need to refresh what the word "diversity" means in 21st century New Zealand.

The literal meaning of "diversity" is broad and so it is important that we don't constrain the diversity of employees and customers mainly to gender or ethnicity.

We often hear that we don't have enough women on this board or in senior management, or we need more Maori, but identity is complex - we all have a gender and an ethnicity, a religion (or are atheists), a language, a sexuality and an ability or disability. So why do we approach what customers and employees experience and thus the needs they have and the barriers they have to overcome as if they were a single axis line - just gender or being indigenous, for example.

For some, it will just be gender, but for a growing number of others, it will be gender plus.

Unless we more accurately define the diversity of a growing number of New Zealanders we are not going to attract and satisfy the needs of diverse customers and employees.

The reason is the growing superdiversity of New Zealanders (over 25 per cent not born in New Zealand, over 120 ethnicities plus a significant and growing indigenous population), increased intermarriage resulting in more mixed-race babies and the faster speed of travel which means that we are closer to everywhere and everyone finds it easier to visit and live in New Zealand.

So, a quarter of Auckland's population right now are Maori, Pasifika and Asian women, and their experiences from the statistics shows that they get paid less than Anglo-Saxon men and women and coloured men. The Human Rights Commission's statistics show that over the past five years, complaints are becoming more complex and based on multiple-ground discrimination - from 9.19 per cent of complaints in 2011/12 to 15.4 per cent in 2015/16. The majority of these complaints concern race and sex, followed by disability and age, sex and age (older women), and race and disability.

There is also a vast body of New Zealand and overseas research evidencing that such individuals are typically subject to a "double" or "triple" disadvantage in a range of different settings, including housing, employment, criminal justice and health.

It is important that we update our thinking to reflect the lived experiences of New Zealanders in the 21st century, and adopt a "matrix" approach to diversity.

Properly defining diversity is critical not just to business, customers and employees, but also to solving important issues like homelessness.

The Healthy Housing Project, a long-running study run by the University of Otago examining the health impacts on people moving from the Housing New Zealand (HNZ) waiting list to HNZ tenancies, has found that the vulnerability of the HNZ population was attributable to a convergence of factors, such as the age and gender of the applicants and tenants, who were predominantly female applicants, with a median age of 15 years (includes children living in the family) and on very low incomes. HNZ tenants were also more likely to be Maori and Pasifika, more likely to be living in single-parent households, and more likely to suffer from chronic physical and mental illness.

Having a matrix approach to diversity also affects New Zealand's human rights law. Courts in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States have recognised that anti-discrimination law needs to adopt a more "intersectional" approach, to cater to those who suffer overlapping grounds of discrimination and are subject to stereotyping based on their unique combination of characteristics.

For example, in the United States, black women are a protected class under employment law and an individual can claim that they have been discriminated against as a black woman specifically, not as a black person or as a woman.

The combination of grounds can often make the discrimination suffered worse and without adopting an intersectional approach, the disadvantage is understated, and can be misrepresented.

The New Zealand courts are yet to address intersectional discrimination through adopting a multiple-ground discrimination approach, despite no barriers to doing so in our Human Rights Act or the NZ Bill of Rights Act.

A diversity matrix approach will also affect how local and central government should tailor their approach to policy-making and citizen engagement. How does this affect needs, barriers to engagement and how policies affect people suffering multiple grounds of discrimination?

If you properly define the issue, then achieving greater diversity should be more successful.

Mai Chen is a Chen Palmer managing partner and adjunct professor of the University of Auckland school of law. The ideas and research for this article are set out in full in The Diversity Matrix: Refreshing What Diversity Means for Law, Policy and Business in the 21st Century, which will be published by the Superdiversity Centre for Law, Policy and Business on February 15, 2017.

- NZ Herald

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