Leadership | Diversity | Inclusion

Five steps towards cultural diversity in leadership

Cultural diversity in the workplace is not just an issue that senior leaders need to consider, the Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Tim Soutphommasane has told a CEDA audience in Adelaide. The promotion and support of cultural diversity should be an issue that all Australians see as a responsibility.


At CEDA’s Economics of diversity and discrimination event, Dr Soutphommasane outlined the findings of a project that the Australian Human Rights Commission convened with the University of Sydney Business School, Westpac, Telstra, and PwC, with the purpose of investigating cultural diversity in Australian leadership.

“We did this because although Australia is a successful multicultural society,” Dr Soutphommasane said, “We don’t yet see multicultural character reflected in the senior echelons of our institutions and organisations.

“Yes, we can celebrate cultural diversity when it involves food and festivals – by all means, we are comfortable with cultural diversity in the lunchroom or in the lobby – but strikingly we do not yet see much diversity stalking our corridors of power.”

In investigating the cultural diversity of CEOs of ASX 200 companies, the group found that almost 77 per cent of CEOs had an Anglo-Celtic background, and there was a roughly proportionate representation of non-Anglo European backgrounds compared to the general population; approximately 18 per cent.

However, there was a low representation of CEOs with a non-European cultural background and non-existent representation of CEOs with an Indigenous background – who are 11 per cent and three per cent of the general Australian population respectively.

In federal parliament, a similar trend emerged. “Almost identical in fact, if we look at the 226 senators and members of the House of Representatives in Canberra,” Dr Soutphommasane said. “Three quarters have an Anglo-Celtic background, just under 20 per cent have a European background – but again, we see an underrepresentation of non-European and Indigenous backgrounds.

“When it comes to the public service and the federal and state levels, the picture is again consistent. (The most striking statistic) is perhaps the 0.8 per cent of non-European and Indigenous backgrounds.

“To put that into absolute terms, that represents one head of a government department who has a non-European background, and one who has an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background. This is from a cohort of 124 government departmental secretaries and directors.

“So across all the sectors of our society and in all of our key institutions, you get a pretty definitive picture here of what Australian leadership looks like. It’s fair to say that the ethnic and cultural default of Australian leadership remains Anglo-Celtic. That should prompt us to ask: are we doing as well as we’d like to believe we are as a multicultural society?”

Dr Soutphommasane explained he had spoken to professionals from non-Anglo-Celtic backgrounds over the years, who had said that they didn’t feel they could make it to the top of their profession or industry in Australia – and who believed their best chance of achieving success would be to explore other opportunities overseas.

“That would be a really sad scenario for our country to be in – if we were to be a country that nurtures talent from our multicultural society, only to see the cream of that talent deciding that they have to go overseas in order to succeed.”

Dr Soutphommasane identified five areas where change needs to occur in order to see cultural diversity reflected in leadership positions in Australia.

Senior leadership committed to cultural diversity

“First, you need to have committed senior leadership on cultural diversity if you are going to see change. By that, I mean you need CEOs, government department secretaries, Vice-Chancellors, and also their deputies and others to send the right signal on cultural diversity… That’s a really fundamental and important requirement of change,” he said.

Systems in place to support cultural diversity

“By systems I mean (the) collection of data on cultural diversity. At the moment there’s still no uniform methodology, or authoritative methodology, on how you collect cultural diversity data.”

Setting targets

“There’s inevitably a question that will be asked, on targets and diversity, which is that of merit. Will setting targets on cultural diversity or gender diversity… compromise the ideal of merit? Shouldn’t we be making decisions about advancement and promotion based on the best person for the job, rather than their background?

“Now, often this question can act as a veto of any meaningful discussion of targets, but the right question to be asking on this is: what does one mean by merit? How do we define merit? And who decides what merit should mean? Because when it comes to leadership decisions, or decisions about leadership positons, the higher you get up in an organisation, the more subjective it becomes. And often we will have conversations about whether someone has the right fit with an organisation or for their role, or whether they’re ready for the role – and those ideas can be code for something else.”

Overcoming bias and discrimination

“If you have a Chinese name, your chances of being invited to interview for a job will be a lot less when compared to someone with an Anglo-Saxon name. This is based on research done by the ANU about six years ago. They sent out 5000 CVs with identical qualifications, all involving people born in Australia and speaking English as a native speaker, effectively – and they found that if you had a Chinese name you had to apply 68 per cent more times than someone with an Anglo-Saxon name to be invited to interview. If you had a middle eastern name, 64 per cent more times. The only surprise was that in Melbourne, if you had an Italian name that was a distinct advantage – that you were more likely than someone with an Anglo-Saxon name to be invited to interview.”

Professional development

“If there are forces at play that prevent a trajectory for culturally diverse talent that we would expect to be playing out, that can involve a top-down element; so bias or structural barriers, acting as a pressure that is applied downward towards cohorts of diverse talent. But there may also be a lack of propulsion, pushing that talent through. If we are to tackle the question of organisational culture, you need both to deal with bias and discrimination, but also to do more to nurture the talents of those with culturally diverse backgrounds.”

“The challenge is an ongoing one,” Dr Soutphommasane concluded. “It’s not confined just to senior leaders or those who are affected by cultural diversity issues. This is an issue that should be a responsibility for all of us – because it says a great deal about the kind of society we are, and the kind of society we aspire to be.”

Dr Tim Soutphommasane will be speaking at CEDA's report launch event Migration: the economic debate on 3 November 2016 in Brisbane.

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