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Cultural diversity in the workplace

Race Discrimination


Many of you will have seen some advertisements not long ago from Beyond Blue’s Stop. Think. Respect. campaign, which highlighted the presence of ‘the invisible discriminator’. The advertisements were aired to raise awareness about the harms of racism against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. They featured a number of scenarios.

A man sits next to an Aboriginal youth in a shopping centre – only for a man, the so-called invisible discriminator, to whisper in his ear: ‘Are you sure you want to be there? Maybe you should slide over’. The next scene, we see a woman walk into a corner shop getting herself a pint of milk: the invisible discriminator emerges to whisper in the shopkeeper’s ear: ‘Are you sure you know what she’s doing?’ Then you have a woman stepping onto a bus: the bus is almost full, there’s one seat free next to an elderly Aboriginal man who picks up his bag to make the seat vacant. But the invisible discriminator tells this young woman: ‘Don’t make eye contact.’ The young woman declines to take the seat and remains upstanding on the bus. Perhaps most pertinent to all of us here today, there’s another scene, involving an interview. A young Aboriginal candidate is there, sitting across the recruiter and the invisible discriminator emerges once more: ‘Could you really rely on her?’

Those advertisements may have been aimed at raising awareness about racism for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but their content are applicable to cultural diversity more generally. Could you really rely on her?  Do you think this candidate really has the right fit?  Could you imagine, really imagine, this person managing this project?  Do you think they could really do this under pressure?  Could you really imagine them as a leader?  These are some of the questions an invisible discriminator may be posing in that scenario involving an interviewee of a minority racial or ethnic background.

Australia’s cultural diversity and multiculturalism

Let me share with you some other scenarios, quite different from what I’ve just mentioned. I want to talk to you about the old neighbourhood where I grew up, here in South West Sydney. 

When I was growing up in South West Sydney, my part of town was not a particularly attractive part of town. It was the 1990s and if you wind your clocks back a little, you’ll remember that a place called Cabramatta was the heroin capital of Australia, the hub of ethnic crime.  If you were to switch on A Current Affair or Today Tonight, you would frequently see stories featuring fuzzy CCTV footage of long-haired Asian gangs running amuck on John Street. To an extent, the reputation that Cabramatta had was well-earned: there was a problem with drugs, it wasn’t a pleasant place. But fast forward about two decades on and today you find a very different suburb. In fact, for those of you visiting Sydney this week, if you were to pick up a brochure about what to do in the city, you would most likely find Cabramatta being mentioned as a food destination, a place where you can make a day trip to sample the authentic delights of South East Asia.  Ethnic ghetto one decade, a tourist attraction the next.

I do reflect, though, growing up in that area. I used to catch my bus and my train to school from Cabramatta Train Station. But I think about the town square there, where there is an ornate gate that was erected in the 1990s. It has on it a number of inscriptions in a number of different languages, in Chinese, in Vietnamese, in Khmer, in Lao and in English.  The inscriptions on one side say, ‘The world is for us to share and respect.’ On the other side, it says, ‘To be renovative and integrate.’ There are other plaques there which have the words ‘liberty’ and ‘democracy’ inscribed on them. If you look at that gate and how it has stood the test of time, what you have is you have a physical expression of a community’s aspiration to integrate into a community, perhaps to renovate some of their traditions and some of their receiving society’s traditions as well.

We can take a great deal of pride in our success as a multicultural country. Very few countries have managed to conduct the programme of immigration that this country has had since the end of the Second World War period – and do so without experiencing significant social fragmentation or division.  But if that is the case, if we have been a successful multicultural country, how then do we reconcile the persistence of racial discrimination, how do we reconcile the lingering, insidious presence of that invisible discriminator who continues to whisper in the ears of many, including in the workplace?  We’re talking about a society where about 20% of Australians experience racial discrimination of some kind.  About 11% say that they’ve been excluded from the workplace or from social settings because of their race, about 5% say that they’ve experienced physical assault because of their racial background.  So the problem we’re talking about here is far from marginal; it is something much more prevalent than what you might expect.

Diversity in the workplace

Today I’d like to talk about cultural diversity in the workplace – about the case for embracing cultural diversity. But I also would like to challenge you about how you should deal with cultural diversity, because too often we think of diversity as just being about festivals, about being about lunches or maybe an event or two that we should have in our workplace to celebrate our diversity and show how inclusive we are. Let me ask you: is that enough?  Are you doing enough? Or are the things that you’re doing designed more to mollify our own feelings than to tackle the real challenges brought up by diversity?

Our workplaces across the country are, of course, manifestations of the diversity that we have. Here’s a quick picture of what Australian society looks like: 28% of our population was born overseas; another 20% have a parent who was born overseas; about 20% of our population speaks a language other than English at home.  To put it in one way, we can say that almost half the population is either first generation or second generation Australian.

In our workplaces, most of us would accept cultural diversity as part of everyday life.  If we were to think though about why embracing or being explicit about celebrating diversity matters, I think we can put it in the following terms: it is about capturing talent, it is about boosting innovation, it is about encouraging productivity.  Let’s think about what the future Australian workforce is going to look like.  If we are talking about a country that still takes in a significant number of immigrants every year, where almost half that population is first or second generation, then this diversity isn’t likely to diminish in any way.  If you think of the source countries of our migration at the moment, the two biggest source countries are now India and China.  Diversity will endure.

There’s a negative case too – if we can call it that – for thinking about cultural diversity in the workplace.  Where an organisation is able to manage its cultural diversity and be inclusive, it is more likely to reduce the cost of staff turnover, more likely to minimise legal and compliance risks, more likely to negotiate any negative publicity that may arise from mismanaging a case involving diversity.  There are some interesting statistics from America, which illustrate that share prices for publicly listed companies can drop significantly within 24 hours when a diversity related complaint becomes public.

There’s also a positive case. Economists from Stanford University and the University of Chicago recently finalised some research looking at labour productivity in the United States from 1960 to 2008 and they found that 20% of productivity growth over that time can be attributed to a reduction in racial discrimination.  Other research shows that companies with high executive and board diversity had returns on equity that were on average 53% higher than those with low levels of diversity.  In the US over a 10 year period, the top 50 companies for diversity outperformed the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index by 25.8% and the NASDAQ by 28%.  In the Financial Times, there was a report about a study by the American Sociological Association which found that every 1% rise in gender ethnic diversity results in a 3-9% rise in the sales revenue.  So the numbers look pretty convincing and compelling when you aggregate all of that. The picture’s pretty clear. 

So how then do we embrace diversity in the workplace? What does this practically look like?  We can reduce it to a question: is it about festivals or fairness? I’m sure we all here love our Harmony Day lunches on 21 March. Many of you would have had delicious lunches in your workplace; you might have might have encouraged workers to dress up in their ancestral costumes or do something to express their cultural heritage.

Now I think it’s worth reflecting on where Harmony Day comes from.  Harmony Day, 21 March, happens to coincide with the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.  Now that has a slightly different ring to it. But 21 March was proclaimed by the United Nations as that day in 1966 to commemorate the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa which occurred on the 21st of March 1960.  There you had 5000 people gathering in this township to protest against new laws that had been introduced by the apartheid government, namely, the so-called ‘pass laws’ which required all black men and women to carry personal identification papers.  Anyone who was found without a reference book was to be arrested and detained for up to 30 days. 

There was a protest. It began as a peaceful protest. But what began as a peaceful demonstration ended in bloodshed, because three hours into the protest, police moved to disperse the thousand strong crowd.  Up to 300 police officers in armoured vehicles opened fire into the protesting crowd.  Sixty-nine people were killed, more than 100 people were injured.  Here’s what the Police Commander of the Sharpeville township said, a Mr D H Pienaar: he said it started ‘when hordes of natives surrounded the police station. If they do these things, they must learn their lessons the hard way.’ 

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the origin of Harmony Day.  It’s worth us thinking about what it is exactly that we commemorate on the 21st of March, I think we can probably do both, we can probably celebrate our diversity, but it does strike an odd note to find that the true provenance of Harmony Day is often unknown.

How well are we doing?

For all of our cultural diversity, for all of our multicultural success, we don’t seem to see this being replicated at the levels of leadership in our institutions.  Let’s begin with our most public of institutions, our parliaments.  Let’s begin specifically with our Federal Parliament.  We have 226 members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, but only a handful of those 226 come from non-European backgrounds. There are only currently two who are of Indigenous background.  If you look at our public service, you see a similar pattern as well.  Let me just read to you the list of the names of the 17 heads of Federal Government Departments.  Moraitis, Glyde, Clarke, Richardson, Paul, Leon, Tune, Varghese, Halton, Campbell, Bowles, Beauchamp, Mrdak, Pratt, de Brouwer, Thawley, Lewis, Fraser.  Now there’s only one of those names that comes from a non-European background.  You might say well maybe it’s a bit unfair if we are just look at Departmental Secretaries; if we were to look the rung below, perhaps we might find a different, more positive, encouraging picture. Well, based on an exercise I did in 2014, of the 64 Deputy Secretaries in the Australian Public Service at the time, there were only a handful of those with non-European backgrounds. Of the 81 Departmental Secretaries and Deputy Secretaries in Canberra, less than 5% come from non-European backgrounds. 

Let’s consider as well our universities and the senior leadership of our universities.  Again I did an informal audit of the Group of Eight last year at the levels of Vice-
Chancellor, Provost, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Pro Vice-Chancellor.  Of the 49 senior executives at these ranks in the Group of Eight universities, I identified a total of four who had non-European cultural backgrounds, which comes to about 8%.

What about the private sector?  In the past year or so, the Diversity Council of Australia studied the cultural origins of Australia’s business leaders. They did so with particular attention to leaders from and Asian cultural background. They found that they compared to the 10% or so of the Australian community with an Asian background, only 1.9% of executive managers and 4% of directors have Asian cultural origins.

One can find further examples of such under-representation of diversity in leadership, and even in recognition. Consider the honours lists around Australia Day and the Queen’s Birthday.  I give you the example of the Queen’s Birthday Honour’s List from last year.  You may recall that at the time that there were vocal criticisms – and rightly so – that women comprised only 32% of the recipients of the Order of Australia awards handed out on the Queen’s Birthday.  What was interesting to me, though, is that no-one seemed to be interested in the almost complete absence of non-European background Australians among those awarded ACs, AOs and AMs. So, again, based on a quick, informal audit of the 800 odd recipients of Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2014, there were only about 25 names of apparent non-European background. That comes to about 3% of the total.  To give you some sense of how this stacks up in terms of representativeness, this would be equivalent to women comprising only 15% of total honours recipients.

I make this point of comparison here very deliberately, because I think in our conversations about diversity and inclusion, sometimes there isn’t much oxygen left for a conversation about race after we have a conversation about gender. That is a real pity. It is a pity if advances in diversity and inclusion were to occur unevenly, whether that’s across gender or race or disability or sexual orientation.  To put it another way, you could say that breaking the glass ceiling or cracking the cultural ceiling are things which are not to be regarded as mutually exclusive. Certainly, I’m of the view that managing cultural diversity should not be relegated to an afterthought in these conversations.

Dealing with discrimination

So how are we to deal with all of this? And how are we to explain that persistence of such under representation of cultural diversity?

Discrimination is a factor: we know that. I draw your attention to research done by Australian National University in 2010 involving resumes, 4000 resumes which were sent to prospective employers.  Many of you will be familiar with this example: all the qualifications were identical, they involved people who were born in Australia (so can be assumed to have mastery of the English language). The only variable that was amended was the names. Some had Anglo-Saxon sounding names, some had Chinese sounding names, some had Middle-Eastern sounding names, some had Italian sounding names, some had Aboriginal sounding names. The researchers found that if you had a Chinese sounding name, you had to apply 68% more times in order to be invited to interview compared to someone with an Anglo-Saxon sounding name. If you had a Middle-Eastern sounding name, you needed to apply 64 more times to be invited to interview. If you had an Italian sounding name, 12% more.  The one aberration that was found in the research was that in Melbourne it was in fact an advantage if you had an Italian sounding name, not a disadvantage. 

Now you might say such findings relate only to discrimination at the entry level of employment. Discrimination, if it does occur at other levels in an organisation, can be more difficult to identify. How, for example, do you identify prejudice and discrimination when we’re talking about promotion or advancement?  And I think this is part of the difficulty we have with having a conversation about cultural diversity and leadership. Quite often, it is going to be subtle. It’s going to be very difficult to disentangle from other judgements or evaluations that you may be making about people’s suitability for leadership.

I do want to say a little about unconscious bias and culture because this is important to our conversation. It is important that we are able to identify this as a possible cause for the under-representation of diversity.  And for me, unconscious biases cannot be separated from broader social attitudes that we may have about our cultural diversity. 

There’s particular value in looking at how unconscious bias might exist, for example, with respect to one group that has been typically identified as a model minority.  Now as a general proposition, the data tells us that the children of migrants are out-performing the children of native born Australians when it comes to education and employment. Those of Asian cultural background over the last three decades or so have been readily identified as part of a model minority stereotype.  Picture the law-abiding, hardworking family with studious, obedient children. Now, so far as stereotypes go, you might think this is pretty benign. Surely, if this is a stereotype, it is a good stereotype; it doesn’t reflect any adverse judgement based on culture or ethnicity. 

But if we were to look at the positive stereotypes or evaluations that we make, we may find them to be double-edged in nature.  What one person may regard, for example, as the qualities of being inoffensive and diligent and productive, can sound a lot like another way of saying passivity, acquiescence, subservience. These can be embedded in the evaluations that we make and the responses that people make to unconscious bias when they may have experienced it can contribute to this. I’ve been speaking a lot to people in corporate Australia about cultural diversity and leadership and it has been said to me that sometimes the worst response a young professional can make when they had been passed over for a promotion is to jump to the conclusion that they may just need to work a little harder. To think that the next report or the next pitch is going to be even better than the last one – to be convinced that sheer work and merit will ensure that their boss cannot overlook them for that next promotion. It may be the case that some from particular cultural backgrounds are especially prone to thinking in those terms.  But the way that such responses can be interpreted by those in leadership positions can be quite different. Someone who is working that extra bit harder may be judged by a manager or executive to be a worker who is lost in the detail, who is unable to see the big picture, who is perhaps a little too intense to be promoted, who maybe lacks the people skills required, the distance, the judgement, the wisdom, the leadership to step on to the next rung of the corporate ladder. Which all goes back to some of those questions that I posed at the outset involving our imaginary, invisible discriminator. Do you think they really have the right fit? Could you really imagine them managing this piece of work? Do you really think they could do this under pressure? Can you really imagine them as a leader?

How we should respond

Let me speak now about the responses that can be made to all of this and some of the work we do at the Australian Human Rights Commission.  A central part of our educational work involves the National Anti-Racism Strategy, which has been running since 2012 and which aims to empower Australians to speak out against prejudice and discrimination.  As part of that work, we have a public awareness campaign called ‘Racism. It Stops With Me’. What we do with the campaign is we invite organisations across the country interested in demonstrating their commitment to tolerance and diversity and inclusion to join as supporters, to undertake some work in countering prejudice. To date, we’ve had organisations from corporate Australia and higher education and sport, from local government, to name but a few areas, come on board. At the moment, we have about 350 organisations that have done this. 

We think it’s a modest but important way that organisations can signal that they are taking prejudice and discrimination seriously, because we can’t combat this problem through legislation alone – although I do think legislation does play a fundamental role in setting the tone of our society.  Many of you will be familiar of course with the intense debate that has taken place during the past year and a half or two years around the Racial Discrimination Act, particularly the racial vilification provisions of 18C and 18D.  Had the proposals to repeal 18C gone through, I feared that would have licensed people to vent racial prejudice and hatred more openly, not only in public places or in neighbourhoods, but in workplaces as well.  Why? Because the law rightly dictates the standard that is acceptable in our society.

In addition to our ‘Racism. It Stops with Me’ campaign, we conduct more systemic work around discrimination. Take the Cultural Diversity Workplace Tool that we have developed to help organisations gauge how well they’re embracing cultural diversity: you can go and do this online, it’s free and confidential, via What the tool consists of is 30 items across areas including leadership, strategy, staff, culture and monetary.  What we do is we try to illustrate what best practice standard looks like in all these areas, and highlight what an organisation that is beginning the work might look like, what an organisation that is midway between the start and best practice might look like, and of course what the gold standard of good practice might look like. 

Let me conclude now with some questions for you.  What is exactly the role of Human Resources professionals in all of this?  I’m interested in your answers, but I do believe the challenge that we have is one about changing attitudes. And it’s one that can be summed up in three words: empathy, power, privilege.  In order to understand what prejudice and discrimination look and feel like, we need first to be able to put ourselves in the shoes of someone who may be on the receiving end of prejudice and discrimination. 

We should be clear that empathy doesn’t require us to do an exercise of impersonation. We don’t, for example, need to conduct a radical experiment in the form what John Howard Griffin, an American journalist in the 1950s, did. Deciding that he wanted to understand racial segregation, Griffin, a white American, underwent ultraviolent treatments and began taking drugs in order to turn his fair skin into a darker pigmentation.  Now we don’t need to do anything as radical as that to be able to empathise. Quite often, it begins with just asking people about their experiences and listening. 

As for power and privilege – when we’re challenging prejudice and discrimination, we are in one very basic sense challenging power.  If we are not honest about that, we will not get anywhere. It is not about fairness alone. It is about ensuring that the status quo does not serve to advantage others and disadvantage others.  Related to that is privilege.  Can someone who does not ever have to experience discrimination be honest about the possible privilege that they may be experiencing?  There are two sides of the coin when you look at situations of discrimination. Let’s return quickly to that ANU study involving resumes, which found that people with Chinese sounding names or Middle-Eastern sounding names suffered from ostensible discrimination.  Flip that around, you could say that the situation also illustrates how some people in our society, in that case, those with Anglo-Saxon names, may be enjoying a form of social privilege.

But I leave you with this question. Which interest do you serve as a Human Resources professional or diversity and inclusion practitioner?  I’ve spoken to some who have suggested to me that if you’re really serious about diversity and inclusion, you can’t put your faith in human resources, at least in human resources alone. We can all agree that leadership is important, but whose interest do you serve in your work?  There is, naturally enough, an organisational interest in harmony, in stability, ensuring that people can get along. But if we are in the business of challenging power, or if we find it necessary to ask people to think about privilege, there may be times when disruption might be necessary.

Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner