Does a focus on identity help or hinder diversity? DCA Debate decides

Does a focus on identity help or hinder diversity in the workplace?

Does a focus on identity help or hinder diversity and inclusion in the workplace? This was the subject examined at the annual Diversity Council of Australia Debate, sponsored by NAB, in Sydney on Tuesday evening.

“Identity politics has been a fraught subject these past few years,” DCA chief executive Lisa Annese said. “From those who believe a focus on identity is critical to creating a genuinely equitable society to others who believe the public discourse has been subverted by lefty do-gooders with their politically correct agenda.” 

When it comes to diversity & inclusion in the workplace, some organisations adopt an identity-blind approach where employees are treated the same, regardless of their cultural background, gender, ability or disability, age or LGBTIQ+ status.

This has changed recently with an identity-conscious approach emerging where group differences, such as age, cultural background or gender, are acknowledged and emphasised.

But what is the impact? Has it created division and led to disengagement by those who feel excluded? Or does recognising differences help level the playing field?

This was for two teams, moderated by the ABC’s Tony Jones, to argue in front of 460 men and women.

On the affirmative side, arguing for an identity focus was Sharon Cook, the Chief Legal & Commercial Counsel at NAB, the ABC’s Kumi Taguchi, and Paralympian and StarAmp Global Founder Don Elgin. 

“Embracing difference and identity leads to understanding, not division,” Sharon Cook said. “It’s not the only ingredient you need for a diverse and inclusive workplace, but it’s part of the recipe.”

Japanese-Australian Taguchi spoke about wanting to be blonde haired and blue eyed growing up because that’s how success appeared to her.   

“Identity matters because when we see people who reflect our own identity, we feel like we belong,” Taguchi said.

Elgin, a paralympian, says while he doesn’t like label, a focus on identity can lead to understanding and empathy.  

“ Humans crave acceptance and knowing we can be who we are brings the best out of people,” said Don Elgin.

WGEA director Libby Lyons, Dr Sev Ozdowski AM, Chair of the Australian Multicultural Council and Peter van Onselen, from Sky News and The Australian, argued against. They said a focus on identity doesn’t help diversity.

Lyons said as long as gender equality is seen as the responsibility of women, progress will remain slow.

“It’s true that women face unique challenges at work,” Lyons said. “But if gender equality is seen as a women’s issue to be addressed by women talking to themselves, I guarantee we’ll still be here in decades to come bemoaning our lack of progress.”

“It’s hard to attain inclusion and equality when you’re constantly focusing on differences between groups or categories of people,” Dr Sev Ozdowski AM said. “Success and even greatness must be a product of individual talent, effort and enthusiasm, not of group, class or category.” 

Peter van Onselen admitted that a focus on identity does matter, but moving beyond that is the gamechanger. 

“The same-sex marriage debate got real when it moved beyond identity politics.  A focus on identity for a time is good but you need to move on,” van Onselen said.  

So who won?

The affirmative team, by a healthy margin, with 78% of the room’s vote.

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