TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE. Australian business and other organisations persistently fall short on cultural diversity.

Australia is widely celebrated as a multicultural triumph, but any such success remains incomplete. There remains significant under-representation of cultural diversity in the senior leadership of Australian organisations. Our society does not yet appear to be making the most of its diverse talents.

Doing so is important, not only as a natural progression of our multiculturalism but also because it is necessary. Australia needs a diversity of ideas, capabilities and cultural intelligence to navigate technological, social, economic and geopolitical changes.

If you want to see what Australia’s multicultural success looks like, go to a high school prize night in one of our major cities. Chances are you’ll see children of migrants dominating the prize-winners.

It’s not just an anecdotal observation. Just last month, research from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) showed that the children of migrants from India, the Philippines and China were outperforming their Australian-born classmates – by significant margins.

What happens, though, to these high-performing children of multicultural Australia? Do they graduate into success stories in our universities and in our workplaces? What kind of professional future are they likely to enjoy in our business, government and other institutions?

We started to examine these questions two years ago when we researched and published a statistical snapshot of the cultural diversity of senior leaders in business, politics, government and higher education. 

The story we told in Leading for Change: A Blueprint for Cultural Diversity and Inclusive Leadership (2016) was an unhappy one. There was an almost total absence of non-European backgrounds represented among the cohort of chief executives in Australia.

During the past two years, more attention has been devoted to getting cultural diversity right. There is growing recognition that efforts on diversity and inclusion have focused primarily on gender, and have downplayed or ignored culture and race. This is a welcome, though overdue, development.

At the same time, concerns about cultural diversity are still often assimilated into discussions about gender diversity. For example, while there are some similarities in the obstacles for greater gender and cultural diversity in leadership, the issues are by no means identical. There is a need to give dedicated time and energy to cultural diversity in its own right.

Today, we continue the story. Our new report provides an updated overview of the representation of cultural diversity in the senior leadership of Australian organisations. Leading for Change: A Blueprint for Cultural Diversity and Inclusive Leadership Revisited, written in partnership with the University of Sydney Business School, the Committee for Sydney, and Asia Society Australia, gives a breakdown of the cultural diversity of the two most senior tiers of senior management within the ASX 200 group  

of listed companies, Commonwealth and State government departments and universities. The report also provides statistics for the cultural diversity of the Australian Parliament.

The findings of this report suggest we have a long way to go before realising the full potential of our multicultural population. If progress is being made on cultural diversity, it remains slow.

Based on the 2016 Census data on ancestry, we estimate about 58 percent of Australians have an Anglo-Celtic background, 18 percent have a European background, 21 percent have a non-European background, and 3 percent have an Indigenous background.

However, our examination of almost 2500 senior leaders in business, politics, government and higher education shows only very limited cultural diversity. Almost 95 percent of senior leaders at the chief executive or ‘c-suite’ levels have an Anglo-Celtic or European background. Of the 372 chief executives and equivalents we identified, 97 percent have an Anglo-Celtic or European background. 

Here’s a breakdown. Within the ASX 200 companies, there appears only to be eight CEOs who have a non-European background – enough to squeeze into a Tarago. Of the 30 members of the Federal Ministry, there is no one who has a non-European background, and one who has an Indigenous background. It is similarly bleak within the public service, where 99 percent of the heads of federal and state government departments have an Anglo-Celtic or European background (that’s one of 103). Universities don’t fare much better: just one of the 39 vice-chancellors of Australian universities has a non-European background.

All up there are 11 of the 372 CEOs and equivalents who have a non-European or Indigenous background. A mere cricket team’s worth of diversity.

These are dismal statistics for a society that prides itself on its multiculturalism. They challenge our egalitarian self-image. And they challenge our future prosperity as a nation. If we aren’t making the most of our multicultural talents, we may be squandering opportunities. 

We reiterate that improving the representation of cultural diversity requires action at three levels: leadership, systems and culture. Through a series of case studies drawn from Australian organisations’ experience, we highlight examples of how such concrete steps can be taken.

This report does not purport to provide an exhaustive treatment of cultural diversity and leadership. It aims, though, to provide a reference point for understanding how we are faring. 

This report also aims to provide some thematic guidance to organisations, in light of current debates. In addition to the inherent challenge of dealing with race and culture, a contemporary backlash against diversity might also impede progress. In the United States, Britain and Europe, political debates have exhibited a hardening of sentiments against immigration and multiculturalism. This has been accompanied by notable campaigns against diversity initiatives within workplaces, including within Silicon Valley. There are signs that such sentiments may also be gaining strength here in Australia.

None of this gives us a reason to abandon cultural diversity. The fact that something is hard to do does not in any way mean that it is not the right thing to do. But it does mean advocates for cultural diversity must be prepared to update their thinking and reinvigorate their language.

If we are serious about shifting numbers, it may be necessary to consider targets for cultural diversity – if not quotas. Such measures don’t stand in opposition to a principle of merit. After all, meritocracy presumes a level playing field. Yet do we seriously believe that a perfectly level playing field exists, when there is such dramatic under-representation of cultural diversity within leadership positions? 

Multiculturalism can be as superficial as food and festivals. But if we’re serious about our diversity, we must be prepared to hold up a mirror to ourselves – and ask if what we see looks right for an egalitarian and multicultural Australia. 

Dr Tim Soutphommasane is Race Discrimination Commissioner. The latest Leading for Change report, co-authored with the University of Sydney Business School, Asia Society Australia and the Committee for Sydney, is launched today (11 April).


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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3 Responses to TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE. Australian business and other organisations persistently fall short on cultural diversity.

  1. Avatar Nick Agocs says:

    As a person who has spent 40 years of his life working in the multicultural/NESB/CaLD
    area can he please name me any migrant from the 1950s being welcomed with open arms by mainstream Australian society be it in the economic, social, political, sporting or religious fields. We had to fight tooth and nail to get anywhere. Those who are prominent in the economic area built up their own businesses. In sport, especially cricket, you would find no first or second generation “Newstralians”. Religion – the Irish dominated Australian Catholic clergy would not allow us to form our own parishes. Medicine was a joke – there were medicos from Eastern Europe who taught many Australian in the postgraduate area here as refugees emptying bed pans in hospitals rather then being allowed to practice medicine.

    Can I please suggest to the Commissioner that he and his team undertake a study of the situation before we , that is my generation, pushed for full recognition of our place in Australian society which now benefits all migrants and the Commissioner is so critical.

  2. Avatar David Maxwell Gray says:

    Dr Soutphommasane:

    Your points are all valid. Parallel studies could be conducted at lower levels in organisations, probably leading to similar results.

    Skilled migrants bring enormous benefits to Australia, but many of the potential benefits are also unrealised.

    For instance, we often talk about engagement with Asia, but maintain barriers to entry to good jobs in many parts of industry and commerce where resident and migrant Asians’ language skills and cultural knowledge could add to their relevant professional know-how in export oriented activities. A recent Landline (ABC) programme had a story about a very well educated experienced Indian who has started a canola oil processing plant at Wagga Wagga which, after decades of non-Asian Australians talking about the need to add value to agricultural products, but achieving very little, has already established good markets in India and the USA for its canola oil. Where were the Australian banks? The founder needed to get Indian banks and investors involved to get the project up.

    In education, despite a strong need to learn and teach Asian foreign languages, artificial barriers ( in obtaining teaching credentials) are maintained which make it very difficult for resident or migrant Asians to teach the languages they know. Similar comments could be applied to the teaching of cultural knowledge about their home countries.

    Australia should use the skills it has here, not maintain these barriers.

    For the higher positions (CEO’s and so on) your study addresses, some of the invisible barriers to senior leadership are, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, class-based, in my view, not just Anglo/Celtic versus the rest.

    • Avatar Rosemary O'Grady says:

      Where were the Australian banks?
      You might well ask.
      We know where they are today, of course, at last, and not for long.
      Masochism is a big, unacknowledged aspect of Australian identity, whatever that is, and this sort of article might be seen as feeding that need for self-abasement – which, if true, might be traced to the conditions of non-indigenous arrival in the continent. ‘Anglo-Celtic’ is an easy brush-off upon – which, it sometimes seems, entire careers hace been built, advocating multi-culturalism and ‘diversity’ -mao-maoing the flak-catchers as Tom Wolfe had it.
      Spare a thought if not a word for the socio-economic conditions which brought those ‘Celts’ (empty word scientifically but you know what is meant) and spare another thought for the traumatizing effects of institutionalized famine and denial of human rights, and the generations of trauma they entail. The art of successful multi-culturalism is in learning to get along, that is: good manners and committment to equality; it is not a race to the bottom of the biggest victim tub.

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