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Diversity, and the currency of ideas

How can we measure the actual business value created in organisations by diversity amongst our workforces? Rockwell Automation Sub-Saharan Africa Managing Director Barry Elliott discusses.

A recent article regarding women in engineering and other STEM-related industries caused a significant furore around whether South Africa should be investing so heavily in attracting women into STEM. This really got me thinking, as it is a topic I feel strongly about.

Citing a study suggesting that women are ‘predisposed’ to caring and people-orientated careers, and more focused on family and raising children, the article questions if the returns on investment merit the efforts business and government is directing at women in STEM.

Yet there is evidence that is overwhelmingly to the contrary: research conducted into the composition of workforces of companies across the world suggests a clear correlation between diversity, in all its forms, and actual, tangible financial performance.

According to a 2018 McKinsey report, Delivering through Diversity, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity across the world were 21% more likely to outperform their bottom-quartile peers on profit margin. This correlation seems especially pronounced at an executive level.

And it doesn’t just relate to gender diversity: Assessing ethnic and cultural diversity, McKinsey’s research finds that companies with the most ethnic and cultural diversity are 33% more likely to outperform their peers on profitability.

Conversely, companies in the bottom quartile for both gender and ethnic diversity are statistically less likely to achieve above-average financial returns than their industry peers.

This supports my own experiences with our teams, and here’s why I think this is so:

It’s not that businesses benefit by virtue of being representative on any superficial level alone. Rather, it’s that in being diverse, these companies have access to a wider pool of opinions and perspectives that they can draw on in making more informed business decisions. Inclusive diversity within a company is normally a reliable marker of a company that mobilises the currency of fresh ideas to be in a better position to innovate.

Different perspectives – whether defined by gender, culture, sexual orientation, age, or any other demographic – provide different ways of understanding the world, whereas more homogenous workforces, possess an intrinsically lower diversity of opinion. This means the ways in which companies devise solutions will likely be limited, more predictable and static. Disrupting this status quo is the very breeding ground for improving our solutions, and indeed for innovation.

We need to be proactive in building a diverse workforce, and that is why it is absolutely critical that we invest wherever we can in increasing access to STEM careers for women, as well as other traditionally less represented groups in our society.

Sometimes the benefits of diversity are more subtle. In my own teams, I’ve seen how the addition of people representing different social identities, whether that be female, black, young or old, can inject new, fresh energy to a team dynamic, thereby providing a critical pillar to help nurture and maintain engagement amongst high-performing teams.

Guided by the firm belief that diversity positively impacts financial performance and engagement, Rockwell Automation South Africa has more than doubled our number of female engineers in our organisation in the last five years, a period in which the organisation has performed strongly in a challenging economic environment.

Perhaps what we need to change are our entrenched attitudes towards people whom we feel are different from us. Is there more that businesses can do to reduce the burden women traditionally feel to be the primary caregivers of young families? Is there more we can do to adapt to the needs of people from different age groups? What more can be done to create a more inclusive environment for all cultures?

If diversity in the workplace correlates with improved bottom line, then we should do everything in our power to ensure our work environments and processes provide the best support possible in encouraging women and people of different ages and diverse cultural backgrounds to realise their career ambitions in STEM.

It makes perfect business sense to me that if we develop and grow a mixed environment of people; male and female, black and white, young and old, and actively propagate a culture of inclusiveness of the multiplicity of viewpoints they offer, organisations will fly.


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