From its research and development office in Palmerston North to its manufacturing plant in Saudi Arabia, the face of Fonterra's workforce is more diverse than ever before.

Complemented by major business initiatives such as Fonterra Disrupt that foster diverse viewpoints, the co-operative's progress has seen it recognised as the winner of this year's Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment Diversity & Inclusion Leadership award.

Though modest by New Zealand standards, 8 per cent of the Saudi manufacturing team is now comprised of women, from none in 2015.

Such progress is commendable in the conservative state, coming about as a result of working with local government and developing site facilities to meet cultural requirements for female employees.

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Back in New Zealand, the Palmerston North R&D centre boasts 45 nationalities out of a team of almost 400 employees, while women now make up 40 per cent of the staff in the top three levels of Fonterra.

The company brought on board a General Manager Maori Strategy earlier this year, and is set to appoint a Diversity & Inclusion manager soon.

High-level appointments such as these are matched by an impressive array of initiatives designed to foster diversity at ground level — including programmes to develop future Maori leaders, scholarships and work experience to assist young people irrespective of their socio-economic background, and extensive work with organisations such as Global Women and Champions for Change.

The introduction of Disrupt was cited by judges as a key differentiator for Fonterra in this field. Run out of the Fonterra Ventures team, employees form teams across Fonterra's offices from around the world, and submit ideas, before competing in a hackathon to determine which teams go forward to the next stage.

Successful teams then spend 12 weeks in an accelerator to test and develop their business idea before pitching to a panel of judges led by chief executive Theo Spierings for further investment in their project (and potentially landing a new day job bringing their concept to life).

The D&I judging advisory panel — comprising AUT's Agnes Neara, Russell McVeagh's Gary McDiarmid and independent consultant Jo Cribb — were impressed by the impact the Disrupt initiative had on Fonterra's culture and business model.

Though a commercial initiative in many respects, the category judging panel saw Fonterra Disrupt as demonstrating "diversity and inclusive leadership by providing a platform for encouraging all employees to embrace their diverse perspectives and enable them to be brought to bear on a commercial project".

Says Komal Mistry, General Manager of Fonterra Ventures: "Disrupt encourages diverse teams to form — based on their passions, not their professional experience, existing networks or geographic location.

"Disrupt ran as a pilot in Australia, China and New Zealand in 2016 and this year we went global."

The initiative has already involved some 1400 individuals, spanning at least eight languages, around 27 nationalities and ethnic backgrounds, and ages from 21 years to 60.

And the trajectory is just as significant: "It better equips us to achieve our ambition to make a difference in the lives of two billion people by 2025," says Joanne Fair, Managing Director of People and Culture at Fonterra.

"We're applying the key learnings of Disrupt into other initiatives — the process of forming diverse groups to tackle a specific task has been adopted in a number of ways across the business."

In the 18 months since its launch, Disrupt has seen four business models invested in, and the ventures arising from the 2016 pilot are expected to deliver $70m in revenue by the end of the 2018 financial year.

These ventures involved ecommerce and cloud-based solutions to reach new customers and consumers in China. In the first nine months of operation, they have already generated $8.5m of new revenue.

The D&I judging panel was impressed by this recognition of the connection between diversity and commercial performance.

"Diversity and inclusion is seen beyond a "metric" and, as demonstrated by the quality of the ideas and the revenue generated, it is critical to achieving exceptional commercial results," explains Mistry.

"Our Disrupt programme has reinforced to us that by bringing together individuals with different skills, backgrounds and world views, we are in a far better position to solve complex problems and innovate for the future," agrees Fair.

The company says there is still more to be done.

"We have made good progress in this space, and we recognise there is more we can do," says Fair. "While there is no doubt we have diversity throughout our business, we have an opportunity to be more inclusive."

More holistic measurement and reporting is a step towards this, and that's where the work with Champions for Change comes in.

"We are proud to be among the first businesses in New Zealand committed to the new diversity reporting framework developed by Champions for Change," says Fair. "This will help us with ongoing measurement of our diversity data."

The co-operative has committed to collecting diversity data for the 2017-18 reporting year using the new Champions for Change reporting framework, to then deliver their first report in mid-2018.

Flexible working practices are another area of focus. The company points to an array of arrangements offered to facilitate this: job shares, combining remote-based working with office-based hours, four-day work weeks, or 32-hours over 5 days to match school hours, and flexibility with start or finish times.

Fonterra pays the difference between government funded parental leave payments and 80 per cent of their New Zealand employees' base salary for 16 weeks of parental leave.

New Zealand employees have the opportunity to purchase an additional two weeks of annual leave a year if they wish to.

"We believe businesses have an important role to play helping to drive New Zealand forward to becoming an increasingly diverse place to live and work," says Fair.

Finalist — Fairfax NZ (since renamed Stuff)

"We will be judged in this area by what we do, not by what we say," says Fairfax NZ's corporate social responsibility director, Annamarie Jamieson.

It was a results-led strategy — designed to support individuals with disabilities to join the Fairfax workforce — that impressed the judging advisory panel for the 2017 Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Award. The company has launched two programmes over the past year designed to support individuals with disabilities:

• The Coffee Co-op, a pop-up coffee shop within the Auckland office, staffed by deaf baristas; and
• The Creative Spirit programme, which places young people with intellectual disabilities in suitable positions within the company.

Both programmes were born out of conversations between Jamieson and individuals outside Fairfax, challenging her on the company's ability to integrate disabled employees.

Her response was to build a micro-business around that very challenge, in the case of the Coffee Co-op. Customers — other Fairfax employees — use New Zealand Sign to order coffee.

The Co-op has employed five baristas who have hearing disabilities since its launch in December 2016, and has taught 350 people at the Auckland office how to use basic sign language.

"You can publish any number of diversity strategies and develop any number of policies but if you want to have an inclusive workforce then you must simply employ diverse people," says Jamieson. "Simple. Ignore the disability and think about the possibilities."

To date, Creative Spirit has placed eight people in employment in Auckland, Wellington, Hamilton and Christchurch.

They are matched with duties both required by the business and within the capability of the applicants.

"But perhaps of greater consequence has been the effect on those communities of people around them," says Jamieson. "Every day, hundreds of staff interact with Creative Spirit employees, which is helping to educate this part of the corporate sector about how we can all make a valuable contribution in the workplace. The message: there is real dignity in work, but most of us take that for granted."

Finalist: Air New Zealand

New Zealand's national carrier impressed the category judges with their systematic approach to addressing gender disparities in senior leadership positions.

Back in 2013, the year of current CEO Christopher Luxon's appointment, women made up just 16 per cent of Air New Zealand's 80-strong senior leadership team. There was a "clear call to action", with a target of 40 per cent by 2020 set.

Today, the level is 39 per cent, and the work continues.

The company says they "saw the opportunity to set an example and ensure pay relativity across the business and identify and address any factors resulting in pay gaps".

The judges agreed, reporting that "Air New Zealand took their responsibility as an iconic Kiwi brand very seriously, and were taking a strong leadership position by initiating fundamental changes within the business."

These changes included the establishment of a Women's Network, a Women in Leadership programme, growing diverse pools of longer term talent, and increasing flexible working options.

In the past year alone, Air New Zealand had more than 1000 women attend career panel sessions led by women on the senior leadership team, as well as sending 35 delegates to the World Women Conference in March.

The company was also part of the launch cohort for Global Women TupuToa initiative over summer 2016/17, which provides internship opportunities for Maori and Pasifika students.

The students involved were partnered with an Air New Zealand mentor, were involved with the Women's and Young Professionals Networks, and participated in a bespoke development programme for the summer. Luxon met with each intern individually and is a strong public advocate for the programme.

Meanwhile work across other functions reflects a similar commitment to improved gender parity: including programmes to increase the number of female pilots, a Women in Engineering & Maintenance group and a mentoring programme for younger female employees.

Of note for the judges was the fact that, by employing clear and transparent metrics and having meaningful targets, Air New Zealand is now able to demonstrate their achievements.

"Air New Zealand has seen improvements in all areas of tracking business performance — Commercial, Culture and Customer — since focusing on increasing representation of women in senior leadership," said the panel.