If education and hard work were enough leadership would be culturally diverse

If education and hard work were enough leadership would be culturally diverse. How can we fix the imbalance?

Catherine Ngo
I grew up in South-West Sydney which is home to Australia’s most diverse communities. The kids who excelled in school were usually from culturally diverse backgrounds. I’m not talking about chess club: it was across the whole gamut of literacy, maths and science.

Recent research from OECD shows that the children of migrants from India, the Philippines and China were outperforming their Australian-born classmates – by significant margins. NAPLAN results last year revealed that children who grew up speaking a language other than English were outperforming native English speakers in spelling in some states.

So why don’t the top leadership positions in Australia reflect this? 2018 research into the cultural makeup of those who hold the 2490 most senior leadership posts in Australia found that 95% have an Anglo-Celtic of European backgrounds, which doesn’t come anywhere close to reflecting our general population.

It’s not as simple as getting a good education and working hard

Growing up where I did in Sydney, little me thought all I needed to do was work hard in order to get ahead. 

Fast forward to my corporate career where I’ve worked in HR, Corporate Affairs and Communications in some the largest organisations in the world and I thought I’ve made it! But when it came to a seat at the leadership table, no matter how much I ‘leaned in’, or played ‘by the rules’ of office politics, there was something holding me back.

And as it turns out, I’m not the only one being held back by it.

I’ve since learnt that there is strong evidence of a ‘double jeopardy’ affecting women (when gender and cultural background combine), and standing in the way of us getting corporate leadership opportunities

And it’s not hard to see this if you scan the leadership teams across major corporate and government organisations, where the shades of colour gradually get paler the higher you move up the chain. 

Woolworths Group was recently crowned No. 1 in Australia for diversity. While this is a great achievement, I couldn’t help but notice that there does not appear to be much cultural diversity in the Group Executive Committee

Why should we care about cultural diversity?

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull frequently boasted that Australia is the most successful, multicultural society in the world.

Indeed, we are very multicultural, with 2016 Census data showing almost 50 per cent of Australians were born overseas or had a parent born overseas. The data also indicates that almost one quarter of Australians speak languages other than English in their homes.

It’s been established for a long time that there are huge socio-economic benefits of diversity and inclusion.

So why aren’t we seeing culturally diverse leaders?

In an ideal world, leadership teams would reflect contemporary Australia. 

But believing that will simply happen is wishful thinking, as we saw by the recent study of more than 2000 senior leaders mentioned above.

Research shows there are a number of hindering factors including: 

The mindset that it’s only a ‘matter of time’ before we see diversity. It’s complacent to believe that it will only be a matter of time before cultural diversity is better represented. That idea relies on an assumption that everyone plays on an even level playing field and that the best person for the job gets the job — and such success has nothing to do with coming from the right family, having the right connections or ‘right’ background. A level playing field does not exist. And knowing this makes a lot of people uncomfortable. No one wants to admit privilege.

Poor recruitment practices and lack of development. Recent research found that resumes with an Anglo name are three times more likely to be invited for interview, compared to candidates with a Chinese name. Those with Chinese names who had an Anglicised first name doubled their chances of receiving a job interview. These inherent biases occurring at the recruitment level need to be addressed. 

Internally, organisations may not be promoting the best people for the job or providing opportunities for growth. People have a natural tendency to hire and promote those similar to themselves which then creates a homogenous workforce.

Unconscious bias. Unconscious bias are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Our brains are wired to form views based on demographics (age, race, appearance, wealth, gender, etc). A common misconception is that Asians lack ambition and assertiveness and therefore have no leadership aspirations, due to assumptions of what a leader should look or sound like.

Lack of cultural intelligence. Smart leaders avoid focusing on cultural differences and instead, develop cultural intelligence.  A person with high cultural intelligence has the capability to relate and work effectively in culturally diverse situations. But unfortunately, not all leaders are aware of the need to improve their cultural intelligence or thing it’s something they need to consider. 

There’s a lot of talk about quotas for women, so are quotas the answer to promote culturally diverse leaders?

There’s a lot of talk right now about the need for the Liberal Party to introduce quotas for women, given the huge underrepresentation of female in the Morrison Government. 

Discussions on quotas invoke both emotions of fairness and equality. 

Personally, I shudder at the word quota. It’s feels like force feeding overcooked veggies.

I do, however, feel that if we’re going to discuss quotas, we need to consider quotas that extend beyond that of just gender. Right now, it feels like cultural diversity is number two or three on the diversity agenda, when they should all be prioritised equally. 

So without quotas, what can we do?

Instead of introducing quotas (which are enforced), there are a few things organisations can consider according to the Blueprint for Diversity:

  1. Support and equip leaders. Provide authentic and humble leadership on cultural diversity. Support leaders from diverse backgrounds to be role-models and prepare leaders to respond to any push-back.   
  2. Collect meaningful data, measure progress and ensure accountability. Collect data on cultural diversity and use this to inform deeper conversations and also to measure diversity and progress.
  3. Consider having achievable targets and hold leaders to account. Targets are different to quotas in that they are aspirational. The experience of gender equality has demonstrated the power of having data and reporting on gender. If we’re committed to deepening our success as a multicultural society, there must  consideration given to the better collection and reporting of comprehensive data on cultural diversity within Australian organisations and institutions
  4. Build an inclusive culture. An inclusive culture is one that accepts and respects the differing values and views as strength we all bring to the table. In an inclusive environment, people can freely express who they are, their own opinions and points of view but at the same time, feel safe from abuse, harassment or unfair criticism.
Over to you

No matter what your cultural roots are, everyone can influence and lead change on cultural diversity if they are serious about reflecting the voices of our customers and communities.

It’s worth noting that a leader doesn’t have to have formal authority over people. Great leadership is usually believed to include high emotional intelligence and in this case, taking that step further and developing a high cultural intelligence will make a huge impact to the people in your own sphere of influence. 

In my view, it all starts with an inclusive mindset, authentic leadership and commitment to measuring progress through targets — not quotas.

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