Babies, says Mariam Veiszadeh, have no bias towards people different to them. “It’s picked up and learned over time,” she says. “It’s taught. So we need to make an effort to ‘un-teach’ it.”
Veiszadeh is a lawyer, diversity and inclusion advocate with a knack for cutting through complex issues in simple ways. The tagline for FactCheckOneNation.com.au, which she set up last year, reads: You’re entitled to your opinion, unless it’s not based on facts.
Veiszadeh won the Fairfax Daily Life Woman of the Year award last year on the back of her work championing the rights of minority groups. She is an ambassador for Welcome to Australia, was chosen by Elle Magazine Malaysia as one of 12 women helping to change the world in 2015, and she is the founder of the Australian Islamophobia Register.
Yet still, she says, a magic wand would be good. “We could wave it and have adults retain the innocence they had as a child.”
Last August, Veiszadeh stepped away from a decade as a lawyer into a role leading the cultural diversity strategy at a major Australian company. The catalyst for the career change was winning the Woman of Influence award in the same company the year before. Prior to the switch, Veiszadeh’s diversity work had been squeezed in around her day job.
Now, it’s at the centre – and she’s feeling pretty positive. “Corporate Australia is taking note of diversity and inclusion as something it needs to … get right,” she says. “That’s very heartening because it’s an area that needs conscious, concerted effort.”
Business is paying attention not only to the moral case – “it is the right thing to do” – but to the business case too. In 2015, consulting firm McKinsey put it bluntly: “New research makes it increasingly clear that companies with more diverse workforces perform better financially.” It is known as the diversity dividend. “We live in an increasingly globalised world and not only is the population you’re hiring from diverse, so is your customer base,” says Veiszadeh. “You need to ensure your workforce reflects that… to be able to cater to it.”
People in corporations love to talk about “the journey” – the phrase has become a little hackneyed. But according to Veiszadeh, ignore it at your peril. “In the gender equality discussion, for example, the dominant group is men so it’s ensuring you bring them on the journey and nobody feels excluded. That would defeat the purpose of inclusion.”
For those of us journeying unassisted by our employers, Veiszadeh recommends something simple: empathy. Trying to walk in the shoes of someone who belongs to a diverse minority group, for example.
“Be conscious of how stereotyping, unconscious bias and societal privilege operates to create an unequal playing field,” she says. “Imagine if it was your daughter, son, niece or nephew who didn’t have access to the same opportunities afforded to others, simply because of who they are? Would you move mountains to make sure they were given a fair go?”