Taboos and Trepidation: How to Be Colour Brave and Support Cultural Diversity at Leadership in Australia

Taboos and Trepidation: How to Be Colour Brave and Support Cultural Diversity at Leadership in Australia

by Felicity Menzies
“Today’s topic specifically is about race, a conversation that’s difficult, at times uncomfortable; but the reality is, if we don’t talk about it, we’ll never make the progress that’s necessary.” Bob Moritz, Global Chair, PwC
It’s been over a year since I returned home from ten years living and working in Asia to launch the Sydney office of Since returning, I have advocated for greater cultural diversity at leadership in Australia. While my advocacy is motivated by a deep sense of fairness and rooted in my experiences abroad, my call for change is well-supported by a robust business case.

The Business Case for Cultural Diversity

McKinsey’s latest study of diversity in the workplace, Delivering through diversity, reaffirms the global outperformance of organisations with ethnically and culturally diverse leadership teams. Across geographies, companies in the topic quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity were 33 percent more likely to experience above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. This compares with a 21 percent higher likelihood of outperformance for companies in the top quartile for gender diversity.
The impact of ethnic and cultural diversity on organisational outcomes is magnified relative to other sources of diversity because cultural diversity is most likely to involve differences in perspectives, knowledge, and experience necessary for optimal information processing, decision-making and innovation, and for understanding the needs and concerns of different consumer segments and diverse stakeholders at home and across borders. Across cultures, 90% of our differences are psychological (differences in values, assumptions and beliefs collectively referred to as diversity of thought), while only 10 percent are tangible or visible differences. Contrast this with gender differences. Although psychological differences are reflected in many gender stereotypes ( rarely share their feelings, while women are more emotional) research has found that, in reality, men and women from similar cultural backgrounds are more alike than we think we are. Physically, yes. But, psychologically, no.
We are well-positioned to capture the potential outperformance from cultural diversity at leadership in Australia. Around 28 percent of our population was born overseas, with another 20 percent having an overseas-born parent. Forty-two percent of the general Australian population have a background other than Anglo-Celtic. Yet, as highlighted in the Australian Human Rights Commission report ‘Leading for Change: A Blueprint for Cultural Diversity and Inclusive Leadership Revisited (2018)’, Australia is doing a dismal job capturing this potential. Although those who have non-European and Indigenous backgrounds make up an estimated 24 percent of the Australian population, such backgrounds account for only 5 percent of senior leaders. Of the 372 chief executives and equivalents identified in the study, 76.9 percent of chief executives have an Anglo-Celtic background, 20.1 percent have a European background, and 2.7 percent have a non-European background. There is one chief executive who has an Indigenous background (0.3 percent).
Reasons for the underrepresentation of cultural diversity at leadership in Australia include rigid leadership stereotypes that endorse a Western leadership style, cultural and racial bias and stereotyping, and cultural differences. However, these challenges are not insurmountable. As has been demonstrated with women in leadership, corporates that commit to building inclusive workplaces and empowering underrepresented groups can achieve measurable progress in closing the gap and capturing the competitive advantages inherent in cultural diversity.

Taboos and Trepidation

Given the strength of the business case for culturally diverse leadership and the opportunities this presents for our corporates and the broader Australian economy, over the past twelve months I have been buoyed by enquiries from Australian corporates seeking solutions for cultural intelligence and inclusion—interventions that are highly sought after in culturally diverse Singapore and Hong Kong. In contrast with those cities, here in Australia, despite the talk, there is not a lot of walk. When it comes to investing in the competency-based programs for developing cultural intelligence and inclusion, Australian corporates hesitate.
In an effort to understand this hesitation, I have asked a lot of questions (paying attention as much as to what is not said as to what is said). Questions raised during cultural intelligence training and inclusion workshops also offer insights. What I have gleaned from those discussions and from discussions with other experts in the field is that Anglo-Celtic Australia is not comfortable talking about race and its close cousins—culture and religion. Further, our reluctance to challenge those taboos is holding us back from making progress on cultural diversity at leadership levels.

On the Topic of Race in Australia

Partly in response to our racist past, contemporary Australian society explicitly rejects racism. Although not denying the existence of overt or casual racism in Australia, socially it is generally considered unacceptable to refer to a person’s racial identity or to make a racist remark. These societal ideals are also codified in our legal system. Collecting data on a person’s race without consent is prohibited (the exception being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders) as is discriminating by race.
Although well-intentioned, social and legal penalties linked to the expression of racism create two significant problems for race relations in Australia. First, racist beliefs are driven underground. Rather than expressed racism, private and hidden beliefs and preferences persist and continue to influence our treatment of others. Sometimes, individuals are consciously aware that they hold negative attitudes and beliefs about other groups, but they choose to keep those ideas private to avoid social or legal penalties. More commonly, racist beliefs are unconscious and affect our thoughts and behaviours in ways in which we are not consciously aware and most probably would deny. Second, we shy away from conversations about race and race-related issues to avoid triggering accusations of racism. After all, isn’t discussing race drawing attention to our differences when we are seeking to do the opposite?
In reality, eliminating racism and other prejudices is far more complex than eliminating racial identities from public discourse. In fact, colour blindness prevents us from having the difficult conversations we need to have about racial and ethnic inequalities that persist in Australian society. If individuals and organisations are too scared to talk about race and ethnicity, then we cannot have frank discussions regarding the lived experiences of individuals with diverse backgrounds. Rather than dismantling systemic barriers, our silence on race is perpetuating the very prejudices and biases that hinder the employment prospects and career progression of cultural and racial minorities.

A Message for White Australia

“It is OK to talk about race. Celebrating the differences between people is what makes the most successful companies succeed.” The McGregor-Smith review.
Non-European Australia wants us to be colour brave. The multicultural community wants us to talk about race, ethnicity, culture and religion. It wants us to have the discussions we are afraid to have for fear of saying the wrong thing. It wants us to take risks. It wants us to learn about the experiences of its members. They want to share with us and celebrate with us their differences – their unique perspectives, beliefs and worldviews. They want to be recognised for the whole value they bring to our workplaces – including their cultural or racial identity. They are proud of their cultural identities and want us to be proud of them too.

How to be Colour Brave

In a fantastic blog post, Andy Woodfield shares some excellent suggestions for individuals and organisations on how to be colour brave. Following, I have listed Andy’s suggestion’s adapted for an Australian context and added a few more of my own:
  •     Be willing to have the conversation “why are CALD women and men not progressing as well as their Anglo-Celtic and other European counterparts in our organisations?” Recognise there is a problem.
  •     Remain curious. Many disengage from the conversation “for fear of getting it wrong”.
  •     Be honest about your private views. Learn about your unconscious biases and preferences as a first step and always question your judgements and decisions regarding others.
  •     Actively expose yourself to diverse perspectives by building diverse social and professional networks.
  •     Accept there is a problem. Educate yourself on the state of race relations in Australia.
  •     Learn about cultural differences beyond surface differences like dress and food. Explore differences in values and beliefs and how these influence work preferences and behavioural norms.
  •     Listen and ask questions to understand – we mostly listen to find a gap in the conversation to share our perspective, which means we’re not really listening.
  •     Accept the other person’s truth. Our formal education system has historically ignored the genocide of Aboriginal Australia. As a society, we are quick to dismiss claims that Australia is a racist country and aggressively defend our reputation as a ‘fair-go’ culture.
  •     You will never fully understand the CALD experience — Don’t pretend you have the answers.
  •     Take action – awareness is not enough – “Play in your lane – ask yourself what you can do with your new knowledge” – Do something with your power – engage – talk – amplify.
  •     Think about what YOU can do differently rather than what CALD people can do differently or how you can fix them.
  •     Every day ask yourself “is everyone in the room?” do we have all voices covered, see the diversity in the room., again ask why we don’t have everyone in the room, take action.
  •     Regularly check in with your CALD colleagues and seek honest feedback on how your communication and management or leadership style and your comments and behaviour make them feel.
  •     Identify measures of success, set goals and track results. Hold yourself and others to account.
For those of you seeking further support in becoming colour brave, PwC’s discussion guide ‘Being Colour Brave’ is an excellent experiential-based handbook. Also, if you haven’t yet watched Mellody Hobson’s TED talk, find yourself a quiet space and enjoy—it is by far one of my favourites.

Related Reading

Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.