Leadership: the cultural divide

13 April 2018
A new report from Australia's Human Rights Commission, Leading for Change, indicates that the lack of cultural diversity among the country's leaders could threaten our economic and social fabric.

L-R: Dr Michael Spence, Vice-Chancellor and Principal; Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner; Ms Cilla Robinson, Partner, Clayton Utz; Ms Swati Dave, Managing Director and CEO, Export Finance and Insurance Commission; Professor Greg Whitwell, Dean, Business School


Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence, has committed the University of Sydney to producing leaders who respect cultural difference.

They should also be able to celebrate identity and be willing to talk across the barriers that currently divide Australia’s multicultural society.

Dr Spence has described cultural division as one of Australia’s “most pressing problems”, and has indicated that it could threaten Australia’s economic and social wellbeing.

The Vice-Chancellor issued the warning while launching a report on ethnic diversity among the nation’s corporate, political and academic leadership, prepared by Australia’s Human Rights Commission.

The Leading for Change report, which builds on a 2016 study of cultural and ethnic diversity, refers to a ‘persistent lack of cultural diversity’ among Australia’s leaders.

Up to 97 percent of the nearly 2,500 executives surveyed for this latest report had Anglo-Celtic and European backgrounds. Race Relations Commissioner, Dr Tim Soutphommasane, has characterised the finding as a dismal statistic for a society that prides itself on its multiculturalism.

Of the 372 people in CEO positions, only 11 had non-European or Indigenous cultural backgrounds.
Dr Soutphommasane

“That’s enough for a cricket team but not enough for a multicultural Australia. We must talk about cultural diversity and recognise we can do better.” Dr Soutphommasane said.

Dr Soutphommasane also pointed out that cultural diversity is particularly low within the senior leadership of Australian government departments and Australian universities.

The Race Relations Commissioner went on to call for more data on Australia’s leaders and for targets to redress the cultural imbalance at the most senior levels of Australian society.

“Our message here is a very simple one, targets give you something to aim for and if we celebrate our diversity and believe it is important, then it is only right that this is better reflected in our leadership,” he said. “We need to tackle bias and discrimination and do it in a forthright way.”

L-R: Dr Michael Spence, Vice-Chancellor and Principal; Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner; Ms Cilla Robinson, Partner, Clayton Utz.


Reflecting on the University of Sydney’s efforts to deal with cultural and ethnic bias, Dr Spence said the University “has to take responsibility for training our students to think differently”. He went on to talk of the University’s wider leadership role.

Whatever we may or may not have been in the past, we are committed as an institution to be part of the solution to what we think is one of Australia’s most pressing problems if we are to remain an effective, dynamic and agile economically productive society which is also a great place to live.
Dr Michael Spence

“The University needs to make sure that we are preparing leaders who can work in a society like Australia; who can build the kind of relationships overseas this country needs to build and can do so in a way that respects difference and celebrates identity,” Dr Spence said.

Both Dr Spence and Dr Soutphommasane talked of a reluctance among Australians to talk openly about their differences and urged them to develop an ability to “disagree well’.

The latest Leading for Change report is based on research undertaken by the Race Relations Commission, the Asia Society Australia and the University of Sydney Business School, which last year added a core inclusive leadership unit to its undergraduate bachelor of commerce degree program.

Commenting on findings of the study, the Dean of the Business School, Professor Greg Whitwell, said that there was “a reluctance to accept that cultural diversity has a profoundly positive effect on an organisation”.

“Diversity inherently provides the opportunity to hear and explore different perspectives and viewpoints,” Professor Whitwell said. “It should also lead to more robust questioning of assumptions and better decision making.”

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