Date: 
Wednesday 11 April 2018

Author

Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner

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 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?

Our latest study of cultural diversity and leadership suggests our success as a multicultural nation is far from complete. It’s one thing to see diversity among the ranks of our top students and graduates. It’s another to see such diversity being reflected within the leadership of our organisations.

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

I often hear from people that it will only be a matter of time before cultural diversity is better represented. We should be encouraged, for example, that there doesn’t appear to be any lack of European backgrounds among senior leaders. Just as it took time before we saw Australian CEOs from Italian or Greek backgrounds, we may have to wait a little longer before we see more from Asian, Middle-Eastern, or African backgrounds.

Time alone may not resolve the problem. Economists at the University of Sydney, in a recent study involving resumes, found that those with an Anglo name are three times more likely to be invited for interview, compared to candidates with a Chinese name. (The study also found that those with Chinese names who had an Anglicised first name doubled their chances of receiving a job interview.)

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.

The latest Leading for Change report, co-authored with the University of Sydney Business School, Asia Society Australia and the Committee for Sydney, was launched 11 April 2018.

Published in: 
Sydney Morning Herald