Make Difference Count Podcast | Ep 1. Gender Equal Paid Parental Leave with Ruth Muller

In this episode, Carol speaks with Ruth Muller, Chief R&D Officer at Frucor Suntory.

Ruth is passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion and shares her experience around gender equal paid parental leave, neuro-diversity and how important it is to bring people together and foster connection to support better thinking.

Learn more about Ruth here


Carol Brown 0:05 

Welcome to the Diversitas podcast series called Make Difference Count. In this series, we talk to inspirational leaders across industry and the globe who are not afraid to do things differently, to support their commitments to everything to do with diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging. And it's our privilege to speak to leaders in the space and learn from their insights and experiences. So thanks for joining us today as we dive a little bit deeper to hear about the D&I journey, celebrate some successes and also grow our understanding of what's possible.

I'm very pleased to introduce our guest today. Her name is Ruth Muller and she is the Chief Research and Development officer for Frucor Suntory across New Zealand and Australia. Ruth is also passionate about diversity, equity and inclusion, and she's the executive lead for DE&I across the company. Ruth's background is FMCG and she's held many global and local roles in FMCG and worked with very well known brands like Campbell, Arno and Unilever as well. So Ruth's also been involved as R&D Chief Officer with product formulations that are quite well known to us, things like Refresh, V Sugarfree Blue and flavoured New Zealand Natural Sparkling Water, which I think we've all tasted and enjoyed very much. So Ruth, thanks so much for joining us today. Frucor is such a well known brand and I know you have a very diverse and multilayered and geographically dispersed workforce as well. So just by way of context, Diversitas has had the privilege of working alongside Suntory for a wee while now to support you on your DE&I journey today. We'd love to find out a little bit more about some of the challenges and opportunities you've experienced along the way. So welcome, Ruth. Lovely to help. 

Ruth Muller 2:15 

Thanks so much, Carol. It's great to be here. 

CB 2:19 

So tell us a little bit about yourself and why you've put up your hand to lead DE&I for Frucor along with your very big substantive role that you already hold. 

RM 2:33 

Thanks, Carol. So look, I love people. I love both the customers, consumers that we work with on the R&D side, and also our people as well. And I guess I've always been quite passionate about D&I. I guess from a diversity perspective, I've spent most of my career overseas and worked with lots of different cultures. And also I grew up in a small Māori village and I've always just enjoyed the differences. I just find it interesting, the richness that you can get from connecting with people with different views, be it from different geographies or whatever else that may be. And then also, I guess, for the inclusion part of it, I really believe that everyone has a unique contribution to bring. We've all been shaped in different ways and we all have different things to bring to the business. And if people are able to bring that contribution, then not only do they feel great and they're contributing, but also you're getting a strong result for the business as well in terms of that creativity and the different thinking that comes along with that. So I've always been very interested in how we can bring people together and get that connection happening and really getting people to bring their unique contribution to sort of keep layering us up to better thinking. So when we started really focusing in on our D&I journey, we set up some employee impact groups and I put my hand up for the accessibility group. So I was one of the leads on that group for a period of time. And then when I joined the executive team, I stepped up to an executive sponsor and Darren, my boss and our chief people officer, suggested that I take on the lead for the whole initiative because they knew I was so passionate about it. So that's how I got to this point. And yeah, I'm really enjoying it. 

CB 4:40 

Yeah. Great background and very exciting to have the link between research and development and DE&I. You talk about people bringing their innovation and thinking to the table and what you do is at the pointy end of that. So fantastic that as an organisation you've made that link. 

RM 5:01 

Yeah. You absolutely need diverse thinking for innovation. It's not something you can do on your own. I heard a quote once, "brilliant ideas don't come from brilliant people, they come from the space between brilliant people". So it's definitely that collaboration and connectedness that helps lead to innovation. 

CB 5:21 

Yeah, that's very cool. So you've been on a journey for some time now, Frucor Suntory has around DE& I, and I know in 2021 you did some strategic work and released your sort of strategic intent around it. And the aim is to sort of create that centaurian spirit where everyone can be themselves. So what are some of the share a little bit about the journey you've come on so far and kind of how you've approached it and perhaps what are some of the successes that you've head? 

RM 5:57 

Yeah, so I think generally I would say Frucor has an inclusive culture. So I've been with the company for almost six years and when I came in I felt that but in the past we hadn't had a lot of structure and a lot of strategy around what we did. So people were naturally inclusive but we weren't thinking about it in terms of in what way are we really trying to move the needle. So we started putting some structure into place and one of the first things we did was set up our employee impact groups to really start to get the awareness and education happening from the ground up. So I think just building people's awareness of what diversity means and how you manage for that and just building an understanding has been one of the foundational points that we've done and also sort of celebrating some of the differences. We also looked at putting policies in place, such as our paid parental leave policy, which we did quite early on as a result of some of the things that we were hearing from our people and that's been really successful as well. So it's been really around the strategy of what we're driving and then having the groups of people within the business really driving for this. And then each year what are the initiatives that we're working on? So we have come a long way but we've still got a long way to go. But certainly in terms of some of the things we're proud of there's, the things that are related to the metrics on what it is that we're trying to drive, which is great. So that's things like our executive team now, we used to have one female on the exec team, and now it's gender balanced. So I think that's a huge achievement to be proud of. But I think for me, what I would say I'm really proud of is the individual stories. So an example of that is, I found out probably three or four years ago, I got a diagnosis of dyslexia and soon after ADHD. So I've been really building my understanding of neurodiversity in the workplace. And we have at the time, we had an informal get together once a month of people who either experience neurodiversity or have family members that do. And we just connected with each other and shared stories. And what we sort of noticed was the group was starting to dwindle and we were losing people. And I think as a business, you don't know how to apply a differentiated approach for different needs within the business. And what we're finding now, when you fast forward sort of three to four years since then, is that people are disclosing more. When they do, they're talking about it. When they have dyslexia or something, they're talking to their manager, they're able to get the support and the understanding. And we're not having such a rigid approach of what good looks like. We're having a more diverse approach of that. And as a result, people are feeling so empowered and so engaged, and we're able to bring a contribution in from our workforce, from different members of our workforce that's helping us to perform better overall as a business. So when you hear from people in whatever way that is, that it's making a difference, that I'm encouraged and that I'm able to be myself in the workplace, I think that's the thing that really matters for me personally. 

CB 9:47 

Yeah, that's such a great example. And one of the things you said there about allowing people to declare their differences and broadening the definition of what good looks like is so important because many organisations have an intent to be inclusive but have such a narrow definition of what good looks like and what acceptable behaviour is, that it actually precludes people from doing that. Right? 

RM 10:19 

Yeah. And I think it's even things like, sometimes you might be in talent reviews where you're always talking about so and so as an individual. Yeah, they're good, but they never get their paperwork in on time. And is getting your paperwork on time the most important thing for the business when it takes that person maybe ten times as much effort as the next person? Or is there a way where we can slightly change our practices to make it a little bit easier for people? 

CB 10:51 

Yeah, and I know that's such a good point, and I know at the moment you're looking at inclusive hiring and looking at what you can do to sort of broaden that. And questions that I know you're asking are what does good look like? Does it mean it's the same for everyone? Or does good look like it's a team approach and actually our strengths complement each other? Fundamental systems questions. 

RM 11:18 


CB 11:19 

Yeah. Awesome. So on that note, many of our clients and organisations that we work with sort of struggle to differentiate between equity and equality. And you were just saying, taking a tailored approach to individuals, that is what equity is about. Right. It's not a one size fits all. So, why do you think you have such a strong focus on that? What is it that makes Frucor want to focus on tailoring to individuals? Because it can also be pretty labor intensive. It's much easier to do a one size fits all, right?

RM 12:03

Yeah, absolutely. I think if you think about DE&I, D is quite visible, be it either the demographic differences or even the cognitive differences. Once you start working with people, you pretty quickly get a sense that we have a different way of operating. And I think the I can be quite visible too, in terms of how you're feeling and also seeing people come together. But I think that E is pretty hard to see. And I think that part of that is because individuals may not even recognise themselves. I mean, for me, with Dyslexia, for example, prior to my diagnosis, yes, I knew that I found things difficult, but I certainly didn't know why, and I didn't know what help I needed to be able to improve that. And I think that there's a lot of elements of equity where there's not the awareness from the business, business or the managers, or even the individuals at times. So you don't even know what your barriers are or why you're being held back. And there's so many I feel like there's a lot of creativity and performance and, of course, engagement being left on the table because people are sort of shoehorned into operating in a way that doesn't get the best out of them. I think this is if you think about one team for each member of that team, if you're leaving something on the table when you walk in the door, that's quite a big impact. But if you think about that at a function or business or society level, it's really huge. So I think there's all this potential that we can unlock if we can just understand what is it that you need in order to be your best self? And I think this interestingly enough, when we're thinking about what barriers are, this might be around, having representation and role models, or it might be having ramps for example, is a visible thing that comes to mind in terms of access. But the most common workplace adjustment that people ask for is actually flexibility. And I think this is the beauty of if you think about universal design so providing something that has a benefit of everyone, flexibility is perfect example of that. But flexibility has a disproportionate benefit for certain minority groups that allows people to I mean, be it from a neurodiversity lens or it might be from a socioeconomic lens or it could be a disability lens, then what that allows for you in terms of being able to perform at that next level. Certain groups are going to benefit largely from that. So what you will often find is that when you really dig in and understand and meet the needs of the individuals, then actually that has a very broad effect on the whole company. So I think that, with diversity that will change without you even doing anything. This is becoming a more heterogeneous society. You will get that and with inclusion, there's policies and procedures you can put into place. But I think equity is something where unless you raise the awareness about it and you actually put things into place to make it easy for people, it's just not going to change by itself. 

CB 15:52 

Yeah, it does require much deeper systems change and I agree with you, Ruth, and I think one of the things that prevents equity from happening is a perception that it's a zero sum game that someone has to lose for someone to win. And that sort of brings me onto an equitable policy that Frucor introduced a little while back, which is your gender equal paid parental leave scheme, which is a lovely example of systems change and taking sort of a whole of system approach as opposed to a tactical approach, which may benefit one group but not another. So love to hear a little bit about why this was sort of called out as something you wanted to do and yeah, just some of the experience of making that happen. 

RM 16:48 

Yes. So this is we we introduced our paid parental leave scheme in 2020 and it's really, for us, about embracing our Yatta Manahare spirit and just getting in and making that happen. We saw this opportunity and there wasn't any hesitation. We just saw this as something that needed to be done and we did it. We had received feedback from our people in our engagement survey that this was important. And also, parenting is a really big life moment for people and we wanted to make sure that we were supporting people in this and also not losing people to other companies that might have more flexibility in terms of what they offer. So this has been a really big retention driver for us and we're in our third year and we know that it's something that's really important to our people. 

CB 17:40 

Yeah. And it's great to see that. You have listed your policy on the Crayon Parental Leave Register as well, and making it really visible. So what's the impact has it had on your workforce? What sort of feedback have you been getting Ruth, on the rollout?

RM 17:59 

So there's a great sense of pride here, and I remember when this was first announced and there was just such a buzz about it. But it wasn't just the people for whom this policy would apply. Even for people who felt that they were past their parenting years, they were really excited as well. So I've heard nothing but positive in terms of the response to this policy. It's something that people are proud to talk about both internally and externally. And I think the people that have used the scheme are really grateful and loyal as a result of that. So I think it's something that's just had a really positive effect across the board.

CB 18:47 

For both men and women in the organisation, for parents overall.

RM 18:52

Absolutely. And I think when I heard about it, I was just so happy to see that this was offered to secondary carers as well as primary carers. And I think that's what was a little bit different at the time when we launched this, um I've always you know, you have these in the past, you've had these traditional roles. And I just remember when I was in the Netherlands, and it was very common in the Netherlands for males and females to both work four days a week. And it was very much a shared parenting was a shared experience, and every family makes their own choices, and and if we can make it easier for families to make the choices that they want to make, then I think that's something we can feel really good about and I know certainly in my situation, my husband did a lot of more of the child care responsibilities, the pickups and drop offs. My daughter's 15 now, and even until just a few years ago, he was working part time. And certainly to have had something like this in place, that would have been amazing. And I think to a lot of the secondary carers that are taking this leave, they're getting time with their young kids that they actually wouldn't have the opportunity to do. And I just think that that's such a great thing. I really do believe that it does drive loyalty. When my daughter was a baby, I had such great support from my boss at the time and my company, and I had flexibility. This was 15 years ago, I was working two days from home at a time where that didn't really happen. And my boss was absolutely fine with that. And that was a real retention driver for me at the time. And after that, I mean, it's hard when you're a new parent, right? It's hard financially, it's hard physically, it's hard emotionally. And when I was given that support and then I went into managing a team of 20, mostly women, a lot of them with young kids, my view was, what can I do to make your life just a little bit easier? And I think these types of things, they help make people's lives a little bit easier in what's quite a challenging time. And I think that whilst help in terms of engagement and retention, it also just feels like the right thing to do. And it's something personally, I feel really good about, and I know a lot of other people do at the company as well. 

CB 21:38 

Yeah. It's so interesting because oftentimes well, working inside organisations, we do inherit a lot of societal biases. This is a fact. Right. But it doesn't mean organisations are not empowered to actually change that, because we can change that. We can be the change we want to see. And this is a great example of although society has very strong bias these around gender roles and who should do what, it doesn't mean we have to perpetuate that inside the organisation. And by supporting women, we're supporting by supporting men, we're supporting women and the other way around as well. 

RM 22:16 


CB 22:17 

As you say, giving parents the choice as opposed to making the choice for people when there's a variety of choices that want to be made.

RM 22:27 

Yeah, absolutely. 

 CB 22:30 

 So what's next on the agenda for you in terms of DE&I, Ruth? Where's Frucor heading? 

 RM 22:39 

Um, so we the thing that we we have a number of initiatives that we're working on. So we're looking at, as you mentioned earlier, our inclusive hiring practices, women in leadership, and we're looking at there's some cultural pieces of work we've got on as well. But one key piece of work that we're doing is looking into putting a workplace adjustments program in. And this talks to the equity discussion we were having a little bit earlier. So at the moment, if you want an accommodation, it's generally up to the individual to identify what the barrier is, what the help is that's needed. Whereas not only do we want to make it easier for that individual, we also think that it shouldn't be just up to the individual, it should be up to the manager, and it should be up to the company to provide as much support as possible. So what this means is we're looking to put together a toolkit for managers to help to educate them and then provide easier ways for people to identify what it is that might help them to be able to overcome barriers that they might have and then perform at their best. So that's a piece of work that we're doing at the moment. 

CB 24:02 

Yeah, fantastic. And that's definitely a little bit groundbreaking and forward thinking, which is fantastic. It's putting accountability on the organisation, but also taking responsibility for upskilling people. And as you say, that continuous feedback loop of understanding what it is that people actually need on the ground, what's important to them. 

RM 24:23 

Yeah, that's really good. And also the other thing we talk about quite a lot is not just demographic diversity, but also cognitive diversity. So bringing in the different thinking of different people in order to come up with more creative problem solving strategies and ideas. And I think when you're in a VUCA world where everything's changing and you don't have all the answers, and sometimes you have to make decisions on the fly, you need to think differently. You need to pull in the information that you have now. But you need to sort of challenge your way of thinking and start to look at problems differently. And by being able to connect to people and bring in different ways of thinking, then you can get to outcomes that you never would have got to on your own. So that's another one. We just try to model that behaviour and really ask encourage people to create an environment where people can ask questions and speak up and disagree because sometimes those challenges this is a part of the Equity discussion is that you can have someone sitting there in the meeting who has a great idea and you just never hear it. And what is it that's stopping that person from bringing that contribution to the table? 

CB 25:51 

Yeah, absolutely. Wonderful. So, final question. If other organisations out there are thinking, "gosh, we would like to take more of a systems approach and focus more on equity", what's some advice that you could offer them if they're sort of just starting out on this journey, Ruth? 

RM 26:10 

Yeah, so I think for me, the most important thing is that Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, going on this journey, this is not a little thing you do off to the side in order to tick a box... a few passionate people over here. This is something that underpins your business performance. So if we can, be it the D & I agenda, well being, talent... what you're doing is creating an environment where people can be the best they can be, and that's allowing you to be able to deliver better on your strategy and get better performance. So what we need to look at is this is a fundamental change to the mindset and the way people think and the way people do things, because I think sometimes it gets shoehorned into this box, into the side over here. But to do that, it's really about understanding where you're at and understanding what your key priorities are in terms of moving the needle and what are the things that you have to put in place to get there. So I think when ultimately you want to be in a position where you don't have a DEI agenda because it's so embedded into who you are that you don't need any policies and procedures and processes in place, it's just how you are. But in order for us to get to where we are now, to that point, there are things that you need to put in place. You do need to have the KPIs, you do need to identify what those key elements are. And there are commonalities across businesses, but they will be bespoke to your business. Different people have different needs and different businesses are at a different maturity level along the way. So really getting in and understanding what the key challenges and opportunities are and putting a plan together of how you're going to get there. 

CB 28:16 

Yeah. Great advice, Ruth. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise and thoughts and experiences with us. It really does reinforce that it's not a one size fits all and you really have to go there. So learning from the practices that you've put in place and the opportunities you've picked up, and I suppose also being, ah, comfortable with failing fast and pivoting and trying again, but connecting continuously with your people, it sounds like it's the way forward. So we really look forward to seeing what Frucor does in the space, and you're definitely on the radar as an organisation that is forward thinking in this space. So thanks so much for your generosity in sharing some of your thoughts and ideas and practices and we look forward to seeing what happens in the future. 

RM 29:17 

Great. Thanks so much, Carol. 

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