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Managing Diversity: Zita Antonios(1997)

Race Race Discrimination

Managing Diversity

Speech to have been delivered
by Zita Antonios, Race Discrimination Commissioner, to the Women, Management
and Industrial Relations Conference, 29 July 1997

Let me begin by thanking
Ed Davis and the Macquarie Graduate School of Management for the invitation
to speak this morning on the topic of managing diversity. I have to admit
though that I often have difficulty with the idea that diversity is something
to be managed. In the way that the term is sometimes used, managing diversity
is too often about addressing the diversity "problem" and there
are times when managing diversity sounds a little too much like controlling
diversity for my liking. Diversity is a fact of life and a reality for
modern management, but I would assert that it is not a problem to be managed.
Rather diversity is a source of untapped potential.

So today, I want
to talk more about valuing diversity. To ask you to think about the importance
of managers embracing the opportunities of diversity. My comments today
are about finding strategies to embrace a workforce which is more highly
diverse than ever before.

I should also say
at the outset that when I suggest the workforce is highly diverse, I am
talking about more than ethnic and cultural diversity. As the Race Discrimination
Commissioner, I am keen to point out that Indigenous Australians and people
from non-English speaking backgrounds continue to be disadvantaged in
employment. The racism that we know exists in other areas of public life,
also exists in employment and if we are to value diversity at all, we
must face up to this reality.

But a discussion
of valuing diversity must also be about more than race. It must also be
about gender, age, disability and sexual preference. It must be about
the diverse skills, professional histories and personal values of our
workers. It should also be about the different ways we like to work and
the ways we view the world. In short, valuing diversity is about the infinite
variety to be found among Australian workers which includes cultural diversity.

There was a time
when there was no need to talk about workforce diversity. When Henry Ford
harnessed the power of mass production and gave the world a model T ford,
it seems unlikely he was particularly concerned about who his workers
actually were. So long as they could learn to perform a simple and discrete
task accurately and quickly, the production line would keep on going and
profits would continue to pour in.

Many year’s
ago, Ford’s factory symbolised workplaces in Australia as well. Decisions
were made by a manager. Workers carried them out. Systems were developed
by bosses and performed by their staff. Change meant developing a new
rule book or production line. Management was the task of determining the
actions to be performed and just about anyone could be trained to do them.
Diversity simply wasn’t a management issue.

Not that we said
much about diversity in the rest of our lives either. Australians did
not engage with the world in nearly the same way as we do now. Travel
took longer and cost more. Men and women had clearly defined roles and
we expected migrants to be absorbed by the dominant culture.

The image of our
workforce was overwhelmingly male and white. While Aboriginal peoples,
South Sea Islanders and other migrants made significant contributions,
particularly in rural areas, they were the exception that proved the rule.
Relatively few people undertook higher education and those who did trained
in a relatively small number of professions. Workers developed skills
on the job, working their way through secure firms, taking over a family
business or using their skills of trade. Not a lot of diversity to manage.

Over time the task
of management changed. Partly inspired by the economic advances of Japanese
manufacturing, employers found they could improve their productivity by
focusing on staff morale and workplace culture. A happy worker is a better
worker and a worker that believes in the goals of the company is even
better again. The role for management focussed not only on the tasks to
be done but also the people who would do them.

And those people
were becoming far more diverse. An active migration program and changing
role for women meant that the workforce no longer looked the same as it
once had. Managers had to learn to pull different workers together for
the good of the corporate goal. As women, Aboriginal peoples and migrants
became more assertive about their aspirations and less willing to put
up with discrimination, legislation was passed to protect peoples’
rights and prevent harassment.

In 1975, the Racial
Discrimination Act
was enacted sending a clear signal that it was
not acceptable to treat people differently because of their race. This
was followed by the sex, and eventually disability discrimination acts.
Over this time states and territories introduced their own anti-discrimination

Employment has always
been a key element of anti-discrimination measures. Protecting peoples
right to work and to develop economically was a vital part of a social
justice imperative to address racial inequality. Employment cases have
always accounted for the bulk of complaints received under the Racial
Discrimination Act
as people have protected their right to equality
in employment.

Throughout the 80's
and 90's we have become more refined in our understanding of indirect
discrimination. We have started to debate the existence of glass ceilings
and segmented labour markets. We have seen the need for career development
strategies for those who don’t get invited to the boys’ club
after work. Equal employment opportunity and affirmative action programs
are now a feature of modern management bringing greater equality between
different elements of the workforce. Managers now talk about diversity
both to keep on the right side of the law and to make sure that new parts
of the workforce maintain a commitment to the organisation and its goals.
Diversity became a fact of life and for many managers anti-discrimination
policies a necessary evil.

But the 1980's saw
another fundamental change in the nature of work and the Australian economy.
Deregulation, economic rationalism, the floating of the dollar and public
sector reform have forced many employers to realise that change is perhaps
the only constant. We are continually told that to survive our manufacturing
must be internationally competitive, our community services cost effective
and our workers highly responsive. Quality assurance, bench marking and
performance appraisal are now common tools developed in an environment
where we constantly have to find new ways of doing things and innovative
approaches to meet new pressures and demands.

Our workforce needs
have changed accordingly. We have begun to hire rain makers, lateral thinkers
and problem solvers. We have had to call on the diversity that exists
within our staff and learn new ways to work productively.

And as women, Indigenous
Australians and migrants have slipped into our professions and our boardrooms,
we have just started to see that more diversity in management itself may
also mean different ways of doing things.

This is a very different
Australia from the one my family migrated to in the 1950's. It is an Australia
drawn from 160 different national backgrounds, with 40% of the labour
force being born overseas. It is a more highly educated Australia. Not
only are young people staying in the education system longer, but their
parents are studying alongside them, retraining through the increasingly
specialised courses of their choice.

Australians have
a wider array of personal aspirations and values. People wish to combine
family and community responsibilities with professional and career ambitions.
Managers today have no choice but to think about diversity.

My reason for looking
back at the changes in work and society is that I think we have seen two
profound changes, both dealing with diversity. The first is that we have
developed a society and workforce that is more diverse than ever before
not only in terms of its ethnic and cultural diversity but also in terms
of its history, experience, training and values. Secondly, all employers,
whether private or public, in finance, manufacturing or community services
need to call on a diverse package of business strategies and a diverse
range of skills if they are to achieve their corporate goals.

If we are to respond
effectively to a new world of work then we also require a new model of
management. And that is what we are talking about today. The new model
however, needs to go beyond simply managing diversity. It has to seek
it out. Management has to value diversity as a path to success.

We cannot afford
to dismiss diversity issues as politically correct, social justice issues
from a bygone era. Quite apart from the ongoing social benefits of employment
equality, valuing and managing diversity is good business. Globalisation
has brought a new imperative to discussion of diversity issues, the imperative
of the dollar.

I am certainly not
the first to suggest this. Enterprising Nation, also known as the
Karpin Report, severely criticised Australian managers for their lack
of skills in capitalising on the diversity of the Australian population.
The report found that:

poor management
of diversity ... which impedes the efforts of individual employees to
progress through management ranks, are inefficient and are poor business
practice. there is also a need for Australian management to think more
creatively, to develop new business elements and to combine old elements
in new ways. The valuing of difference in organisations can uncover
new perspectives, tap different knowledge and experience, and generate
ideas, suggestions and methods not previously considered. Tapping diverse
resources enhances the ability of organisations to respond more imaginatively
to opportunity.

Karpin’s insight
is important. There is a glimpse of the opportunities we are yet to fully
take. Unfortunately however, the report did not give us many practical
strategies about how to capitalise on the diversity we have before us.

Bill Cope and Mary
Kalantzis have tried to do just that. Their recently published book, Productive
Diversity: A New Australian Model for Work and Management
is well
worth a look for managers trying to think through what social and workforce
changes mean for their style and I have found its analysis useful in preparing
this discussion today.

In their book, Cope
and Kalantzis tell the story of the Prestige Group, cookware manufacturers
who owe their current business existence to the diversity of their workforce.
In the early 1990's faced with possible closure, the business was revived
by picking up on a suggestion from their Asian staff.

Staff said that ordinary
cookware was too hard to lift, particularly when they were cooking for
their extended families. Instead they wanted large saucepans with two
handles, easily transportable and large enough to feed ten. The organisation
kept talking to its workers and new pans were designed. The line was a
winner and is now sold overseas.

The Prestige story
is a simple example, but it sheds some light on successful management
in contemporary Australia. For a start there is a diverse workforce willing
and able to make suggestions about the direction of the company. This
is not a story of workers adhering to a predetermined corporate goal.
It is a story of workers who use their broader experience cooking for
their extended families to develop a business strategy that works.

Secondly, there is
communication. Clearly there were some way by which decision makers could
hear the suggestion and then keep talking about it. Through conversation,
and probably a level of debate and disagreement, the organisation came
to release the new range.

Thirdly, the Prestige
story is about realising that a diverse range of skills in a new combination
can bring unexpected results. No one worker, not even the General Manager,
has all the answers. But with the freedom to be innovative, skills and
perspectives worked together.

Prestige is not the
only firm to see the sense in maintaining a diverse workforce. The finance
sector is placing increasing value on those workers with second language
skills. The National Australia Bank, has been using the diversity of its
workforce to build relations with ethnic communities for many years and
have recently developed a banking education package with the Adult Migrant
Education Program of Victoria. Australia Post has developed an active
and effective recruitment and retention strategy for Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander people. Public sector agencies which have endeavoured
to meet employment targets for some time, are also starting to look at
ways of maintaining diversity through strategies to retain staff and give
them career paths. The NSW Police Force, emerging from the Wood Royal
Commission, has been targeting ethnic and gay and lesbian media in an
effort to recruit a workforce more representative of the policing issues
it responds to. All of these examples are positive signs that we are becoming
more aware of diversity in the workplace.

But there is another
reality in Australian workplaces. And it is the reality that the benefits
of valuing diversity are still yet to be heard in many places. Between
1991 and 1996, over half the complaints of discrimination and harassment
made under the Racial Discrimination Act, related to employment. During
the 1996-97 financial year, sexual harassment cases accounted for just
under half the complaints under the Sex Discrimination Act. Most
of these complaints were in employment.

Many of you may be
surprised at the blatant nature of some of the discrimination complaints
that come to the Commission. Let us take just one example, the case of
Alex Rugema. Mr Rugema, is a French national of black African origin.
He was employed as a machine operator for six years and was efficient
and qualified to perform his work. He was also subjected to an ongoing
campaign of racial abuse and harassment, including racial slurs and the
display of signs including the words ‘whites are superior’.
Mr Rugema complained to his employer, but with no proper processes for
investigating complaints, no action was taken. After just over six years
of employment, Mr Rugema developed a major depressive illness and post-traumatic
stress symptoms. He still has not fully recovered. And all of this occurred
between 1989 and 1996. Racial harassment is still very much a problem
of today.

Alex Rugema was awarded
a compensation payment of $55,000, the largest compensation award ever
made by the Commission. Perhaps, the size of the payment will lead other
employers to give greater importance to the issue of racial harassment.
Needless to say, nothing can take away the long-term health effects that
the harassment has caused.

Some commentary in
media reports of the Rugema decision seems surprised that racial harassment
is an issue with which employers have to deal. Many employers are still
to appreciate that race, and indeed diversity more generally, are management
issues. There are a large number of employers that are a long way from
valuing and capitalising on diversity in the manner we have been discussing
today. For every workplace that has come to see new opportunity in diversity,
I can show you one that hasn’t.

Indirect discrimination
is also an ongoing issue in employment. Ian Watson and the former Bureau
of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research, released a report
last year arguing that a glass door existed for managers of a non-English
speaking background. The report argues that while the few migrant workers
who break through into management have a chance to go all the way, very
few people born outside Australia make the transition from staff to management.
Watson suggests that interviewers presume highly qualified people from
non-English speaking backgrounds are not able to become managers, because
they do understand elements of the cultures of their staff.

My colleagues in
the Sex Discrimination Unit released the results of a study into the careers
of women in the Australian finance industry and revealed that women are
not advancing primarily due to organisational culture. Despite the fact
that women make up the majority of workers and that the industry makes
broad use of part-time employment, the ways of advancement still follow
the traditional career paths of men. There is still a need for change
in the way organisations are managed and the values that they rely on.

Research by Bob Birrell
and Lesleyanne Hawthorne, from the Centre for Population and Urban Research,
recently found that while Australian migrants are increasingly skilled,
they are not achieving the same employment results due to a strong business
preference for Australian-trained workers. There is a pool of skills in
the Australian workforce that are being under-utilised by recruitment
managers who value more strongly particular parts of Australian society.

While the public
sector is acknowledged as having increased its diversity in recent years
there are still real issues about ensuring that all levels of the public
service reflect community diversity. In 1995 only 18% of the most senior
commonwealth public servants were women and only 10% were from a non-English
speaking background. Women from a non-English speaking background number
just 28 from a total group of 1600, a tiny 1.75%.

So where do we go
from here?

I don’t pretend
to have all of the answers. In fact if we are to be true to our rhetoric,
then the best results will probably come out of discussions in our workplaces
and through the exchange of experiences at conferences like this. But
here are few suggestions to get started:

  • ask the diversity
    questions. Workplaces need to think about the diversity they need to
    succeed. Ask questions about the language skills you need, the professional
    backgrounds you should draw on, the various informal skills that would
    offer a new perspective on your particular situation. I am pleased to
    see that in his current revamp of the Public Service Act, Peter
    Reith has included a requirement that all agencies develop a diversity
    plan. Modern management includes diversity.
  • collect the data.
    There is nothing discriminatory in asking staff to volunteer information
    about their ethnicity, skills, backgrounds and abilities. It may also
    demonstrate that your organisation contains a wider array of talent
    and potential than you realise. This is important information to work
    out whether you need to recruit new skills or have untapped potential
    sitting at your fingertips.
  • bring quality
    into equal employment opportunity. The goal of equal employment opportunity
    needs to be about more than access and numbers of people from target
    groups at various levels. Diversity in management itself will only be
    maintained where people are appointed to positions but are also able
    to bring their different experiences and skills to their work. EEO has
    a role in ensuring that all workers have quality jobs on their own terms.
  • develop strategies
    that deal in the reality of diversity issues. In 1997 social inequality
    still leaves workers at different places in the labour market. Valuing
    diversity suggests that we need to develop human resource strategies
    that deal with this reality. Aboriginal people for example have far
    lower participation rates in formal education and training and do so
    at different stages in their lives. It is impractical to expect Aboriginal
    workers to arrive with the same qualifications other workers might.
    Valuing the diversity that Aboriginal people bring to many workplaces
    and businesses, therefore means developing strategies that allow for
    on the job training, career paths and mentoring, rather than the recruitment
    of individuals formally trained and qualified.
  • avoid stereotyping
    diversity. While it is undoubtably true that the bilingual skills of
    workers from non-English speaking backgrounds are a resource to be called
    on, valuing diversity calls on managers to look at their staff more
    holistically than this. Many workers from ethnic and cultural minorities,
    find themselves marginalised in their workplaces, seen as a specialist
    community relations officer with little to contribute to the remainder
    of the organisation. It is a mistake to presume that when a Vietnamese
    worker comes to your organisation that she will be best used as informal
    translator. Valuing diversity means treating workers as individuals,
    and therefore using the fact that your new worker may also hold an unrecognised
    engineering degree that well equips her to work as a project manager
    on a major construction project.
  • review the way
    you recruit and what you recruit for. In 1992, as part of the workplace
    relations program, HREOC worked with a manufacturing firm to improve
    their commitment to diversity. Recruitment was one way in which simple
    changes could produce better results. The firm abandoned their practice
    of advertising vacancies on the factory gate in favour of using the
    CES to refer job seekers to them. The firm found not only did the diversity
    of their workforce increase but so too did their productivity and staff
    retention rates. By being clear about the skills they needed and more
    open in the way they advertised, the firm started to reap the benefits
    of diversity.
  • train managers
    and staff in cross-cultural communication. The ability to communicate
    with different people is essential if we are to value diversity. Training
    should focus on where each organisation needs to improve its internal
    communication. It may cover awareness of Indigenous history, information
    on gender issues or attempt to span a generation gap. There is a need
    for workers to be able to communicate between professional groupings
    and across levels. Cross-cultural communication is essential if our
    staff are to combine their difference into better results.
  • work flexibly.
    Remember that one of the reasons diversity assists your workforce is
    because of the skills that people bring from the remainder of their
    lives. There are advantages to be gained by finding ways for workers
    to combine not only their professional and child rearing commitments,
    but also their involvement in community organisations, professional
    bodies and education. Flexible work not only allows workers to achieve
    their personal goals in conjunction with meeting business imperatives
    but it allows them to bring new skills and experiences back into the

We also need to
look at some structural issues that will make valuing diversity in individual
workplaces possible and more successful. There is an ongoing role for
governments, researchers, educators and bodies such as HREOC, to create
the structural supports to value diversity.

As a start we need

  • continue social
    research. Social research gives us the opportunity to assess where we
    are up to on diversity issues. We need to continue to monitor the overall
    progress of various parts of the population and the barriers they face.
    Not only do we need to continue to watch the progress of women and migrants
    but also people with a disability, workers of different ages and particular
    ethnic communities. We need to be aware of how traditional barriers
    to education and training affect our workforce.
  • teach diversity
    in our management and business schools. Colin Hay of KPMG, reported
    recently that while most business educators felt students would have
    a comparative advantage by being trained in cultural diversity, very
    few of them were actually doing it. Educators did not perceive that
    there was either student or employer demand.
  • promote the business
    as well as the social justice imperative. Whilst we must never lose
    sight of the social reasons behind equal opportunity, many firms need
    to hear the message that valuing diversity improves business too. We
    talk a lot about the business gains to made by engaging with the world,
    particularly Asia. Elements of the business community need to hear that
    the same can be said about engaging with the people of the world living
    in Australia.

There is one more
strategy, that at the end of the day may be the most effective. It is
one that relates neither to the structure of our economy nor to the strategies
of our workplace. It is simply this. Value diversity in your own work
and management. More than anything else, managers and organisations need
to see diversity at work and bringing results. Practical examples and
people implementing the theory are perhaps the most powerful tool we have.


Birell, Bob
& Hawthorne, Lesleyanne

and the Professions in Australia
(1997) Centre for
Population and Urban Research

Cope, Bill
& Kalantzis, Mary

Diversity: A New Australian, Model for Work and Management

(1997) Pluto Press


Flexibility: Enterprise Bargaining, Women Workers and Changes to Working
(1996) HREOC

Hay, Colin

Cultural Diversity: Opportunities for Enhancing the Competitive Advantage
of Australian Business
(1996) BIMPR

Karpin, David

Nation: Renewing Australia’s Managers to Meet the Challenges of
the Asia Pacific Century (1995) AGPS

Sex Discrimination
Commissioner, HREOC

Bargaining: A Manual for Women in the Workplace (1996) HREOC
Sexual Harassment: A Code of Practice (1996) HREOC

Still, Leonie

Glass Ceiling
and Sticky Floors: Barriers to the Careers of Women in the Australian
Finance Industry (1997) HREOC

Watson, Ian

the Glass Door: Overseas-born Managers in Australia (1996) BIMPR

updated 1 December 2001