“An imbalance of economic power”: Why are Aussie business leaders afraid to tackle racism?

Winitha Bonney

Winitha Bonney. Source: Women's Agenda.

Earlier this month, Aussie startup Culture Amp announced a new program offering a 38% discount to Black and Indigenous-owned organisations using its product.

The discount represents the US$0.38 wage gap between Black women and white men, Culture Amp’s VP of account management Will Werhane wrote in a blog post.

The idea is to help Black and Indigenous leaders to support their own staff, “while ensuring that these businesses are able to retain more of their revenue and re-invest it in their business growth and employee experience”, he said.

“Fundamentally, this is our way of keeping more money in the Black and Indigenous economic ecosystem.”

This isn’t all Culture Amp is doing. The Aussie unicorn has a whole 2020 anti-racism plan, including a swathe of resources designed to help its employees, clients and other businesses alike embrace anti-racism.

But, the discount stands out as an example of a for-profit business putting its money where its mouth is and making a move to level the playing field in a tangible, financial, way.

Over the past few weeks, SmartCompany has been looking for other businesses that have gone further than tweeting about Black Lives Matter, and beyond than making pledges and commitments to change.

We’ve been looking for actual policies, written in ink, circulated, with KPIs attached, that show businesses are not only talking about anti-racism, but taking measurable steps towards it too.

What we found, first and foremost, is that there aren’t too many of these businesses around.

But, it also became clear that being an anti-racist business is not only about creating anti-racist policies. It’s far, far more complex than that.

First things first

The murder of George Floyd in May led to a wave of protests all over the world, including in Australia. As well as sparking a much-needed discussion about police brutality, it also brought a conversation about racism into everyday life, and inevitably, into business too.

Many, many businesses and brands made social media pledges to be more inclusive to Black people, Indigenous Australians and other People of Colour.

But Winitha Bonney — the founder of digital media company and women of colour community Amina of Zaria, and a thought leader in advancing women of colour in Australia — tells SmartCompany she hasn’t seen much in the way of conversation and engagement from the business community since.

While the People of Colour in her networks are speaking up on Instagram or Facebook, even they are less inclined to have these discussions in the more ‘professional’ setting of LinkedIn, she says.

“I wonder if that’s because of fear around re-traumatisation, but also because of what that might mean for their careers, because they simply aren’t seeing their organisations speaking out,” Bonney suggests.

“We have such a culture in Australia of not speaking about racism, that People of Colour don’t feel like they have the permission,” she explains.

“If they do, their job might be in jeopardy.”

So, before we even get to the point of policies and active change within businesses, we need leaders and employers to open up the floor to discussion.

For Bonney, that starts with acknowledgement, and apology.

“In Australia, we know how powerful an apology can be around reconciliation and healing of wounds,” she says.

“The first step in equality is actually in healing.

“And in order for healing to happen, we need for you to apologise, and we need for you to communicate, and we need for you to take action.”

Winitha Bonney

Winitha Bonney speaking on a panel at the launch of ColourFULL 2020. Source: YBF Ventures.

What you do, and how you do it

Of course, for an apology to mean anything, we first and foremost have to acknowledge that a problem exists. And for Culture Amp’s director of equitable design and impact Aubrey Blanche, that’s the easy part.

“Looking at corporate Australia today, it’s impossible not to see how decades and centuries of explicitly and implicitly racist policies and practices have stolen meaningful opportunities from millions of Australians who don’t identify as white,” Blanche says.

“Statistically speaking, corporate leadership didn’t get that white without a lot of unfairness and discrimination along the way.”

Businesses should be engaging in active processes in order to become anti-racist for the same reason that everyone else should, she argues.

“Racism has meaningfully hurt members of our community, especially those who identify as Black and/or Indigenous.”

Blanche also stresses that Culture Amp’s 38% discount for Black- and Indigenous-owned businesses is only one part of a broader plan. Yes, it’s important to have solid policies in place, but there’s also work to be done in evolving the business’ internal culture, structure and processes as well.

There is no room for lip service here.

You can make a commitment, but “it’s critical to have resourcing and a plan to get there, that doesn’t just look at your PR strategy”, she explains.

“This isn’t about a policy, but rather, about developing a practice of considering each business decision and how it may have a racist or anti-racist impact.

“Do you have a zero-tolerance policy for jokes, language, or actions that demean people on the basis of the national, ethnic, cultural, or racial origin — or any other personal characteristic — and follow through on those policies?

“Are your founders or employees engaging with networks that are predominantly white? Why? What effort have they put in to broaden their professional networks?

“Have you considered how your supply chain and/or development process impacts people from racially underrepresented communities?

“When looking for new external vendors, do you intentionally seek out Black- or Indigenous-owned businesses?

“Are you measuring the experience of your employees, or seeking to build bias-resistant talent processes?

“When your executives are asked for professional favours — for example, networking, career advice for a colleague’s niece, et cetera — could your executives ensure that they provide the same offer to a member of an underrepresented group?

“There are about 1,000 more ways that this could show up, but that’s the point,” Blanche explains.

“Don’t make anti-racism the extra thing you do. Make it how you do what you need to,” she adds.

That said, she also notes that improving accessibility to your product is often a good place to start.

Simply offering a discount is “something that literally every business could choose to do in some form”, she says.

Aubrey Blanche

Aubrey Blanche, global head of equitable design and impact at Culture Amp. Source: supplied.

The benefit of the doubt

Of course, it’s always possible that businesses are indeed implementing anti-racism policies, and making change within their organisations, and they’re just not talking about it publicly.

It’s right that they shouldn’t be in it for the sake of good PR.

But, if they are working on eradicating racism from their business, but not communicating that to their community, their employees or to the public, that shows “a lack of capability and capacity around this specific area”, Bonney argues.

“Even though it can be seen as tokenism, we need to know that it is a priority for you.”

Some businesses are running anti-racism training for their employees, she notes. Again, that’s part of the solution, but it’s not enough.

Especially if — as Bonney suspects — the people running those sessions are not People of Colour themselves.

“The D&I community here in Australia is very, very white,” she says.

“[Businesses] have been engaging non-People of Colour to do anti-racism and unconscious bias training, which has bias in itself.

“That is an illustration of bias, and the content definitely would have bias in it.”

Further, this is work being done for the benefit of white people, she says.

“They’re spending money and budgets on people that already have privilege,” she explains.

“What message is that sending? That in itself is an imbalance of economic power.

“I understand that people need to be educated around white privilege and fragility and tone policing … but once again, People of Colour are at the bottom of the ladder, at the bottom of the priority list.”

As Bonney wrote for SmartCompany in June, being an effective ally requires leaders to do difficult, uncomfortable and challenging work.

“What they need to be doing is getting someone in to do a leadership program around what leadership looks like for a Person of Colour, and how exactly can People of Colour thrive in white structures,” she says.

“Are you setting targets for executives around the promotion of People of Colour? Are you setting targets and key performance indicators for your executives and your board around anti-racism and reducing systemic oppression in your teams?

“Are you doing some really deep intentional work and thinking outside the box about what you could do for People of Colour?”

Even if you don’t have a large budget to play with, even if you’re a small organisation, something as simple as a book club where people read and study anti-racist literature can be helpful. You just have to find the right people to lead that study.

“To be able to unpack that work, all you need to do is hire an external advisor or a coach who is a Person of Colour and has an understanding around white supremacy and what it means at an individual level, as well as at an organisational level,” Bonney says.

“That requires you to actually go out and reach for those people.”

You can’t do it alone

Julie Parker, the founder of online coach training school The Beautiful You Coaching Academy, has taken a leaf right out of Bonney’s playbook.

The business has various anti-racism measures in place, including offering part and full scholarships to people who hold underrepresented identities and paying 1% of its profits in rent to Aboriginal people in Victoria via the Pay The Rent campaign.

She’s also sought help to educate trainee coaches about social inequalities, white supremacy and internalised oppression, helping them to navigate their own entrepreneurial journeys with more understanding of social justice issues.

Julie Parker, founder of The Beautiful You Coaching Academy. Source: supplied.

For Parker, all of these measures are important “for so many different reasons”.

But, specifically, she’s championing change in the coaching and personal development space.

“The industry itself, when you look at it on the surface, appears to be very white,” she says.

“If you don’t actually critically look at that and dissect it a bit further, you could be forgiven for thinking Black, Brown, Indigenous and other People of Colour must not be interested in becoming a coach, or getting into the personal development industry, when in fact, those things are not true,” she explains.

“Like so many other industries, over many years now, through systems of oppression like white supremacy and the patriarchy and so many others, the presentation on the surface continues to perpetuate its whiteness.”

Having recognised this, Parker and her team started looking for active ways they could change the “very white lens and narrative”.

And the first thing they did was to hire racial and social justice educators — people who had the skills and expertise to identify what the business was doing well and not so well, and where it could make improvements.

It was important to Parker to seek counsel from someone who had lived experience of racism, but also who had experience in social justice education and consultancy.

“This is not something you can do on your own.,” she explains.

“If you even attempt to do that, all you’re actually doing is perpetuating previous issues and problems that likely already exist.

“You have to get help … Otherwise, you’re really just guessing, and you’re not fully invested.”

Parker also says policies and discounts are an easy place to start. It’s a step in the right direction, she says, but it’s still surface-level.

“If it’s one thing that we all must be very careful about where it’s not being tokenistic, and not being surface-orientated,” she says.

This work requires a financial investment, and the investment of time and energy.

“We have to be prepared to strip it back and go deep, and look at why it is that these barriers exist,” she adds.

“What role do we play in these systems of oppression?

“You soon realise that this is life-long work.”

Fear of failure

Finally, we hear time and time again of white-owned businesses shying away from actively being anti-racist, for fear of getting it wrong and finding themselves on the pointy end of a PR disaster.

Sure, that’s a risk.

But this is business, and risk is all part and parcel. You have to be prepared to fail.

Bonney points to the tech sector, in particular, suggesting leaders should be approaching anti-racism in the same way they approach innovation.

“When it comes to organisational innovation, people are willing to fail. But when it comes to creating freedom for the sake of humanity, people are not willing to fail,” she says.

“They’re scared of how they will look, which is privilege in itself.”

Beyond that, this is simply a question of future-proofing.

According to American census projections, over the next 25 years, the US workforce is going to get a lot more diverse. Ultimately, the majority-white office is on the way out.

“I’m absolutely confident that Australia is following a very similar trend,” Bonney says.

So, if a business wants to remain successful, it has to become a place where Black, Indigenous and other People of Colour feel welcome.

“Many small bad habits eventually compound over time,” Bonney adds.

“If organisations are not paying attention to the very few People of Colour that are already in their organisations, then in the future they’re going to face a much more difficult challenge.

“That is where the real PR risk is — when your organisation gets to a place where People of Colour make up the majority of the labour market or the consumer market, and they’re not willing to buy, or engage or even work for your company.”

NOW READ: “Triple glass ceiling”: A Q&A with Amina of Zaria and #ColourFULL founder Winitha Bonney

NOW READ: “We simply can’t stop”: Why the time was right for DivTal to level the employment playing field


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woke az
woke az
1 year ago

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process they do not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
Friedrich Nietzsche