Australia’s population is culturally diverse. The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) recently estimated that:
The AHRC commented that “according to these estimates, Australia’s cultural diversity has increased over time.”1
With this breadth of cultural diversity in the workforce and population, it is both troubling and curious that this diversity is not reflected in Australian corporate leadership. Research by the AHRC reveals that men with Anglo-Celtic heritage overwhelmingly dominate the senior executive level of large private sector organisations.2
Specifically, the AHRC’s Blueprint on Cultural Diversity in Leadership (2016) reported that in ASX 200 companies, more than 75% of CEOs are of Anglo-Celtic heritage, 18% have European heritage, 5% are from a non-European background and no CEOs whatsoever have Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage.3
Similar findings were reflected in the public sector, federal and state parliaments, government ministries, and in the leadership of our universities. The AHRC’s follow-up report Leading for Change (2018) noted that up to 97% of the nearly 2500 executives surveyed had Anglo-Celtic and European backgrounds. In contrast, the report notes that although those with an Indigenous and non-European background account for 24% of the population, these groups comprise only 5% of the senior leadership suite.
Despite almost five decades of Australia’s multicultural policy and a country with one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse populations,4 these figures suggest there are factors which inhibit the progression of culturally diverse men and women into senior leadership positions.
In a collaboration between the University of Sydney Business School, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Australian Institute of Corporate Directors, we sought to uncover three things:
In response to interviews with 18 non-executive directors and chairs of boards and nine representatives from premier executive search firms, we constructed a suite of seven strategies to progress the conversation on cultural diversity on Australian boards.
Senior executive team experience is the training ground for access to boards. There is a serious under-representation of culturally diverse individuals in this strata of Australian business which impacts available supply of board members.
Pathways to board membership remain difficult to navigate without the right information, networks, mentors and know-how. This results in an ‘in group’ mentality to board accession and a process of putting known and trusted names in the mix when recruitment decisions are being made.
Cultural diversity on boards has become framed as an impediment to ideal type of leadership.
Current network arrangements in corporate Australia remain the almost exclusive preserve of white, (predominantly) male privilege and as such reinforce and reproduce exclusionary barriers.
Successful change campaigns provide crucial insights to systemic and perceptual transformation.
There is a tendency to discuss a ‘global mindset’, ‘cultural awareness’ and ‘cultural diversity’ as being the same thing and use these terms interchangeably as evidence of cultural diversity on boards.
There are currently no reporting mechanisms for cultural diversity on boards. A lack of measuring, tracking and reporting on cultural diversity negatively impacts good governance practices.
This is the start of a conversation which we hope will drive change as the findings from our discussions reveal there is a need to:
For more information, download the Beyond the Pale: Cultural Diversity on ASX 100 Boards report (pdf, 2.4MB).
1. The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC, 2016: 75–76) uses four broad classifications for cultural background. See page 4 of the Beyond the Pale: Cultural diversity on ASX 100 listed boards for definitions.
2. Australian Human Rights Commission, 2016 and 2018
3. AHRC, Leading for Change: A blueprint for cultural diversity and inclusive leadership, 2016
4. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2017