Before CSIRO, Dr Larry Marshall ran companies and didn’t have much problem with diversity.
“It was really easy,” the now CSIRO chief told a women in leadership event by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA).
“There was no plan. You just hired great people, and we had every dimension of diversity you can imagine, from gender to age to culture.”
But CSIRO presented a different kind of challenge. Firstly, it had “well over 5000 team members”.
“The largest company I ran had 300,” Marshall said.
When it comes to issues of gender diversity, Marshall takes a base perspective that nature “has done a great job of defining a target for gender – it’s 50/50 or thereabouts – and that’s what we should aspire to”.
But he noted it was a challenge for CSIRO, particularly in the middle part of the organisation.
“At the entry level, in terms of gender dimension, we’re slightly higher than the output of the university system, so a little bit better than 40 percent women in that sense,” he said.
“But it falls off a cliff as you work your way up through the layers of management, and then it comes up again.
“Since I started I was able to increase the diversity of my executive team to 40 percent and I’ve been able to increase the diversity of the next layer below that – because there’s a lot of layers of management at CSIRO – to also about a bit more than 40 percent. But there’s still a big gap in the middle.”
Under Marshall’s lead, CSIRO looked to tackle diversity in a number of ways. It became an inaugural member of Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE), and Marshall – together with CSIRO chairman David Thodey – are both Male Champions of Change.
However, it was an internal experiment that led to an internal mindset change on diversity.
“In an organisation of scientists, one of the secrets I discovered is there’s an absolute resistance to any form of quota, number or target,” Marshall said.
“Everything has to be based on absolute excellence.
“So the experiment we tried was this: If you look at how we promote, we look at track record. In our case – like universities – it’s publications, research etc. and it’s really concentrated on say the last three years of performance.
“Now if someone has a life-changing event and they have to leave work for a couple of years, they’re automatically not going to perform well.
“So we put the problem to the scientists: based on someone’s early career work, can you model what they would have done if they hadn’t had this life-changing event? And that’s what will be submitted for evaluation.
“As soon as we framed it as a science problem, nobody had a problem with it.
“That is, I believe, one of the best things we’ve done in terms of shifting the settings in a very rational, scientific way, to take unnecessary biases out of that system.”
Marshall said that CSIRO had recognised the benefits and value of a diverse organisation over many decades.
“This is not new for CSIRO. You get great outcomes, great innovation when you combine really diverse people together,” he said.
He said diversity is a “cornerstone” of CSIRO’s present organisational strategy.
“Eighty percent of everything is people, and no organisation – and particularly a knowledge organisation – could exist without a diverse range of people,” Marshall added.