This is the third blog I've written for the AHRI National Convention on sessions I plan to attend. The original blog and those from other bloggers can be found here.
At a broad level, diversity in the workplace refers to the variety of differences between people in an organisation. It can encompass many factors including race, gender, ethnicity, age, personality, sexual orientation, cognitive style, family responsibilities and socio-economic background.
There has been much research about the importance of diversity in the workplace. It can’t be disputed that advancing diversity in organisations is important as a business imperative to stay competitive, reflect the customer base, avoid becoming too insular, and to disrupt and challenge the status quo.
David Thodey, former CEO of Telstra has said, “In an inclusive culture employees know that, irrespective of gender, race, creed, sexual orientation and physical ability, you can fulfill your personal objectives by aligning them with the company’s, have a rich career, and be valued as an individual. You are valued for how you contribute to the business.”
However, workplaces often regard diversity in isolation and view it as a target that must be met. Consideration is often only given to increasing representation in the following groups – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, people with disability, women, and people from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds.
I started my career in human resources as a workplace diversity coordinator in a large commonwealth government organisation. For me, like most HR professionals, diversity is not about quotas or targets; it is about people and equity. I’m therefore, very keen to hear Dr Tim Soutphommasane, the Race Discrimination Commissioner, speak on the subject of cultural diversity in leadership on Day 2 at this year’s national convention.
Australia is a country of considerable ethnic diversity. The 2011 census revealed that almost a quarter (24.6 per cent) of Australia’s population was born overseas, 43 per cent of people have at least one overseas-born parent and one in four Australian workers was born overseas.
More and more Australian workplaces are recognising the benefits of diversity all the time; but is that enough? There also needs to be an inclusive culture and consideration of how the workforce is managed. Having a workforce that reflects the customers served will still give no competitive advantage if the culture is inherently not inclusive, and if all staff from diverse cultural backgrounds are working at lower levels in the organisation and are not empowered to move into leadership positions.
Dr Soutphommasane will be discussing some of the barriers in Australian society to promoting people of cultural diverse backgrounds to leadership. I recently read a report from the Diversity Council of Australia called “Cracking the Cultural Ceiling” which described some of the main barriers as stereotyping, cultural bias, unconscious bias; lack of appropriate mentors, sponsors and networks; and a westernised leadership model.
This report was eye-opening for me because diversity is considered at a much profounder level. It means it can’t be enough for us to just employ more people from diverse cultural backgrounds anymore; it is crucial for organisations to start recognising barriers from within and start to dismantle them, build an inclusive culture and build leadership capability across all staff groups.
Dai Le who is the founder and CEO of the Diverse Australasian Women's Network (DAWN) describes some of these barriers as the “bamboo ceiling” but also adds that people’s cultural makeup can prevent individuals from climbing the corporate ladder.
Giam Swiegers, previous CEO of Deloitte said, “By understanding, appreciating, and leveraging the cultural diversity Australia has to offer, we will collectively advance local and global business opportunities for Australian businesses in the Asian century.”
In a way it is up to all of us then, as individuals, organisations, and especially as HR professionals, to call out barriers and poor work practices; to help build networks of like-minded people and be part of mentoring schemes; and for those from diverse cultural backgrounds to be willing and ready to build their capability to lead and take up leadership roles.