Ideas for shifting the status quo on the lack of cultural diversity in leadership

Ideas for shifting the status quo on the lack of cultural diversity in leadership

cultural diversity
It’s common knowledge that the boardrooms and upper leadership circles of major businesses in Australia are a far cry from gender equal. But there’s another insidious problem that often goes unrecognised: the lack of cultural diversity.

When it comes to the country’s top positions, just 4.7 per cent of Australia’s 2490 most senior leadership roles are held by people with a non-European or Anglo-Saxon background, according to 2018 research from the Australian Human Rights Commission. Even more starkly, just 0.4 per cent of these leaders identify as Indigenous.

Meanwhile, a University of Sydney Business School study of ASX 100 companies found that board members are overwhelmingly drawn from male-dominated business networks. As report author Associate Professor Dimitria Groutsis said: “Our interviewees made it clear that in order to get somewhere, you needed to keep your head down, speak with an Australian accent and belong to a matey club.”

For women, this can create a ‘double jeopardy’, as Harcourts CEO of property management Sadhana Smiles explains:

“Not only do we have to break the glass ceiling in our own culture, but we then have to come to work and break the glass ceiling in the Australian business culture as well. It’s bloody hard work!

“As a woman you might think, ‘I’m just not getting enough support in either area, this is just not worth it.

“We could all better support people through those environments if we understand what they are going through.”

Sadhana Smiles

Just two per cent of ASX 200 board director roles are held by non-Anglo women, according to 2017 research from the Diversity Council of Australia. Unfortunately, the push to see more women on boards over the past decade has not resulted in a significant uptick in the number of those from a culturally diverse background.

This is despite demonstrable evidence of diversity’s myriad benefits; particularly in driving innovation, creating better decision making processes and supporting greater overall company performance.

Women’s Agenda worked with Hall & Wilcox as part of our ‘disrupt the status quo’ series to discuss what’s going on in Australian leadership when our senior leadership positions still fail to represent the communities they serve. In a series of roundtables across Sydney and Melbourne, we asked, what can be done? And we heard the experiences and stories of special guests including Sadhana Smiles and Deloitte Digital senior partner Kimberly Change.

Hall & Wilcox partner Fay Calderone opened the session in Sydney by sharing her own story as the child of refugees who relocated to Australia in the 1970s. She recalled not speaking a word of English when she started school in Western Sydney and being one of the only non-Anglo kids. Later, she became the first in her extended family to go to university, despite her parents having 16 siblings between them.

Fay Calderone

Calderone’s just entered her 20th year of full time work in private practice, starting right out of university, and moving across to Hall & Wilcox earlier this year. “My story is by no means unique but my experience as a culturally diverse woman is different,” she said.

“Our nation is built on a rich tapestry of diversity and stories of resilience and determination. Success lies in creating a strong foundation of diversity, embracing inclusiveness in every way, harnessing the strengths we each bring and respecting one another and our unique gifts.”

So how can Australian businesses achieve this?

Below are some suggestions from the Sydney/Melbourne roundtables:

Make the conversation about much more than women

Discussions around diversity in corporate Australia continue to rely too much on gender alone, according to a number of those at our roundtables.

“We are replacing ‘stale, male, pale’ with ‘stale, female pale’,” said Sadhana Smiles.

“Reflecting the diversity of the community is not just about getting an equal mix of men and women. It’s about people. People come in different packages.”

So has the push for gender diversity been a distraction from the broader discussions on diversity?

Smiles said that while efforts to get more women promoted and into leadership positions are well intentioned, they can risk overlooking the broader elements of diversity, including cultural diversity.

“You get corporates saying ‘we’ve got women on boards, in senior leadership, we’ve ticked the box!’ But have they ticked the right boxes?” 

End the assumptions

Smiles added that there is significant unconscious (and often conscious) bias at work: assumptions around language skills, level of ambition and cultural choices that can hold some people back in business.

These simply must shift. While unconscious bias training can play a part, it’s not enough. Leaders need to drive change from the top: they need to acknowledge how their organisation is tracking, identify the problem areas and push the change needed to ensure stereotypes and assumptions are not standing in the way of an individual’s success.

Ensure ice-breakers don’t become icebergs

In business in Australia, talking sport and ‘having a few drinks’ have long been considered typical ice-breaking activities for teams and clients.

But as Xplore for Success’ Amanda Webb points out, for many people these can be “icebergs”, given their hidden bias against fully including some people.

The roundtable in Sydney suggested a number of other options for ‘breaking the ice’ during meetings – such as doing prior research on LinkedIn to find things that can be asked about and topics to bring up that don’t make assumptions about an interest in sport.

Pronouncing people’s names correctly may take a little extra effort – and require you to ask the question on just how it is pronounced – but it can make a significant difference in making people feel included.

Other simple things can include respecting a team member’s dietary restrictions or choices around alcohol, as well as if there are any days of the week or periods of time where they are unable to participate in out-of-work activities. Making an effort to celebrate a wide range of festivals and holidays can go a long way toward making people feel comfortable and at ease within a team.

Leverage the strong business case

We’ve heard the business case for gender diversity and seen the numbers on how a higher number of women on boards and in leadership positions can positively affect the bottom line.

But the business case for cultural diversity is not shared nearly enough. It’s not just about ensuring a broader range of experiences and inputs in teams, but also finding people who represent broad customer and client bases, in order to thrive in global markets.

Smiles shared the Harcourts experience in Victoria at the local level. Working in real estate, they knew they needed people who could best reflect the communities in the suburbs they were selling property in, and would in some cases wait years to achieve the right mix of staff.

“We make deliberate decisions and I can say proudly, that in my organisation of 800 plus people in Australia, we represent the communities we serve really well – largely because we know that we can’t connect with those communities if we don’t.”

Help others find a voice

Working in tech and consulting throughout her 20+ year career, Kimberly Chang said she initially saw gender as her greatest barrier (although not until a few years into her career).

As she progressed from junior positions to more senior ones, however, she realised her voice wasn’t being heard as much as others. She wondered if she had hit a glass ceiling. “I remember the first time I looked around the room and noticed, probably six years into my career, that I was the only female.”

Chang said she did question – a little – if her cultural background was also a factor. “In my upbringing, my father was always really strong, and there was always a level of respect I’d then carry into a meeting. A respect for elders, and I was bringing this cultural upbringing into my work environment.”

Kimberly Chang

That, along with frequently being the only woman in the room, saw her conclude that she needed to find a different voice. “Until that moment, I was the keen, eager, naive, happy to help and wanting to help person. Not threatening to anyone or their role,” she said.

With help from a leadership coach, Chang said she worked on developing an authentic voice that would allow to be heard at work. Since then, she’s successfully negotiated pay increases, and also overcome some cultural barriers that were hindering her career growth. Starting with Deloitte in 2017 after 27 years with Accenture, she believes the coaching enabled her to start strongly with the organisation.

While Chang said she put significant work into uncovering her own authentic voice, she notes that as a leader she’s mindful to ensure that others can speak up too, and makes a point of providing as many opportunities as possible for other to do so.

Incorporate blind recruitment into hiring practices

A number of employers represented at the table, including Hall & Wilcox, shared the powerful effects of de-identification recruitment practices, particularly when recruiting at the graduate level. “We are seeing enhanced diversity among our graduate lawyers,” said James Morvell, Partner and Chair of the Hall & Wilcox Diversity & Inclusion Committee.

“When reviewing applications that have been de-identified, you do feel your lens is adjusted more to the pure content of the applications: how strong the applicants are academically, their areas of interest, their other experiences and achievements, and how all these piece together in making the person the right fit for the firm.”

A recent Hall & Wilcox graduate told the group in Melbourne that the very presence of the blind recruitment program (Recruit Smarter, by the Victoria Government) attracted her to the firm. The program blocks out names, gender and other identifying features from CVs and resumes.

Persistence matters and plans are essential

Almost three quarters (74.3%) of employers now have an overall gender equality strategy, according to 2018 figures from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, demonstrating gender diversity is a major consideration at most organisations.

However, we need this same data around other organisational diversity strategies and for the discussion to become more commonplace.

Sadhana Smiles believes that simple goals can provide an excellent start for organisations looking to address cultural diversity deficits – it could be as simple as undertaking internal audits which has taken off at a number of US  tech companies.

“Goals and plans should be agile and flexible and change with time – but it needs to be written down as a start.”

Clients can and will drive change

Clients are increasingly driving the conversation and making requests of their  suppliers to address cultural diversity in their organisations. “This drives a response to make internal change because if you want to survive in business you need to respond to what clients are asking,” said Antoinette Totta from Hall & Wilcox.

As a client or purchaser of services or products, it’s an opportunity to make a difference. And as a supplier, it would be wise to get on board ahead of time, becoming a thought leader and driver  of change.

The advantages in difference

Swati Dave, the managing director & CEO of Efic, shared her experience of starting out in banking. “I was the only woman, and of course I was the only non-Anglo woman. My name was always a bit difficult for people to pronounce or understand. But the thing is people remembered it, because it was unique,” she said.

“We can assume everything about us is going to be a disadvantage, but we need to flip that idea on its head and say there is something here that will differentiate us, and push to use that as an advantage. Find what that is for each of us and how we can use it.”

Dave also noted that working in predominantly male environments, and amongst those with A-type, competitive personalities, that the men were often trying to outdo each other. “My style was different. I would say something in a different way, and people would listen,” she said.

Australia has an opportunity; will we use it?

In Sydney, our roundtable spoke at length about the opportunities available to Australian businesses in harnessing diversity to help leverage our proximity to Asia.

“More than other countries in the world, our prosperity and our future depends on the region and we simply have to get to know it really well,” said Swati Dave. “What is it we want our children and grandchildren to have in the future: is it one where we didn’t acknowledge the opportunity right on our doorstep?”

“If we are going to be effective as a nation, we need to do this really well. It needs to be normal.

Dave added that businesses will take more notice when the push for diversity is seen as a bigger, macro opportunity. “People pay attention when they think that it’s a bigger problem than one involving people from a smaller group being disadvantaged.”

“Imagine winning business because of our diversity.”

Read more: 

We recently published this excellent piece by Winitha Bonney (who was also at the Melbourne roundtable) on why the “new normal” in leadership will happen when it’s ‘colourFULL’.

Also check out these recent piece from Sadhana Smiles: 

Press for progress: An agenda for men and women from a female CEO

Diversity is about much more than ‘Gender Balance’


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