In the 1870s, naturalist Sir John Lubbock conducted a novel experiment with social dynamics in ant colonies.
The results - “as fascinating as the best of novels,” according to peer reviews at the time – showed that ants discriminated between friends and strangers.
“It must be admitted that they are in hostility not only with most other insects, including ants of different species, but even with those of the same species if belonging to different communities,” Lubbock concluded. Interlopers were “invariably attacked, seized by a leg or an antenna, and dragged out.”
As a species, we’re not all that different from ants, says Charlotte Thaarup, a clinical mindfulness consultant and director of The Mindfulness Clinic.
“We aren’t intellectual beings, we are emotional beings. We may know it’s not nice to discriminate [but fundamentally] we discriminate. That shows in our biology. We see who is in and who is not, who is dangerous and who is safe, who is different and who is not.”
We need to consciously press the biological override button to short circuit this aversion to difference and diversity – perhaps an ancient defence mechanism, says Thaarup.
The result, in the workplace at least, is a homogenous culture that carries a steep economic cost
Unfortunately, we are creatures of habit, it seems – at least according to developmental biologist Dr Bruce Lipton, who finds that we operate on autopilot about 95 per cent of the time, leaving us oblivious to our rejection of difference.
The result, in the workplace at least, is a homogenous culture that carries a steep economic cost, says Thaarup, citing the significant value of female board members in corporate Australia as shown in research such as the Australian Institute of Company Directors’ Gender Diversity progress report.
What works for ant colonies does not work with modern workplaces. “We know that the more homogenous a group is, the more likely they are to think the same and though that might be relatively okay 100 years ago, in today’s climate you have to be more agile, think creatively and differently, and in a broader way. And a very homogenous group is unable to do that.”
So how is Australia going on this front?
Not so well, according to Theaanna Kiaos, managing director of Diversity First, a consultancy that provides diversity and inclusion solutions to workplaces.
The colour bar remains in force in many Australian workforces
Homogeneity is prevalent everywhere from our media to our corporate boards, fuelled by a management culture that regards potential or existing staff “through the lens of superficiality, be it because of their gender, or nationality, or religion.”
The colour bar remains in force in many Australian workforces, she says. “I have spoken to a lot of people through my research where they have achieved some great things in their countries of birth and then they come to Australia, and have not been given the same opportunities.”
Lubbock’s interloping ant theory kicking in at a primal level?
Perhaps, she says. “I think it is driven by fear. People generally don’t like change, and if someone is a bit different to them, especially if they’re coming in and taking some of the limelight, that is a potential area for concern for some people, and that’s where the defence mechanisms start to operate.”
Stress worsens our unconscious aversion to embracing difference, says Thaarup. “Empathy lessens... the body is in survival mode, and that means I’m not inclusive, it’s about saving me, not you.”
Management needs to go far beyond workplace quotas and one-off training modules to take in a more holistic framework approach.
Not a good thing for diversity, it seems, when you have a hyper-competitive modern workplace culture that seems to have hit peak stress state, fuelled by everything from information overload to overwork.
So what can we do? Thaarup believes that mindfulness training, focusing on everything from unconscious bias training to building resilience and emotional intelligence, will help tackle stress and “prepare the soil” for empathy and openness to difference. “It changes the way we experience the world.”
Add to this practical measures ranging from exercise – “it helps cortisol exit the system” – to embracing a more collegial approach in meetings; she cites a study by Google on teamwork that found the best solution was the most simple: people taking turns to talk.
Kiaos says her year-long study through the University of Sydney, which examined diversity and inclusion practices in 42 workplaces across the country, shows that management needs to go far beyond workplace quotas and one-off training modules to take in a more holistic framework approach, from examining corporate values to policies on ageism and gender pay gaps.
Ultimately, the buck has to stop with senior management. “The most important part is understanding what is currently happening in your own organisational culture [so that you can] unleash the potential in the workforce for ideas, creativity and innovation.”
'The Employables' airs every Wednesday at 8.30pm on SBS. Episodes will be available after broadcast anytime, anywhere via SBS On Demand. Catch up on Episode One here: