Why is the chapter on cultural diversity one of the shortest in Stepping Up? It’s because people interviewed had less to say on this topic than others. That is, the lack of non-Anglo-Saxon people in positions of authority or power was not yet recognised as a cost or opportunity to society. How can we pride ourselves on being one of the most multicultural nations of the world and not notice that the only people we permit into the driving seat are descendants of those who arrived in the First Fleet?
Excerpts from Chapters 6 on Cultural Diversity
Those in Australia, who have worked in other regions of the world will probably agree that the senior ranks of corporate Australia are a little underweight in terms of cultural diversity by comparison. They will also be aware of the limitations of having a group that represents only one or two of the many possible views when analysing the problems and making the decisions. There are generally opportunity costs associated with such limitations; important information, skills and experience are missing from the table. If only one cultural group is represented, how will other groups who are members of the organisation, customer base or community feel about their decisions?Often we find that our strengths can at times also lead to weaknesses and having reviewed the interview notes I feel that we are not ‘out of the woods’ yet. There is no argument that Australia is one of the most multicultural societies of the world; many nationalities live here. But whether they are allowed to participate fully and equally in the economy and share in the good life, is questionable. Social stability is important, but so is being able to tap into all the skills and resources at our disposal.
First in, first served
I wanted to know why cultural diversity is not a high priority of business leaders of Australia and why in some cases it is completely absent from their radar. How can it not matter, given that since 1945, when the population was just 7 million, a further 7 million migrants (including almost 700,000 refugees) have settled here?
Of the 22.7 million people living in Australia today, 27 per cent (6 million) are first-generation Australians (people living in Australia who were born overseas) and 20 per cent (4.5 million) are second-generation Australians (people born in Australia with at least one parent born overseas). The rest were born as third- or fourth-generation (or more).
The top ten countries of migrants in descending order are: the UK, New Zealand, China, India, Vietnam, Italy, Philippines, South Africa, Malaysia and Germany. I am sure there are individuals among them who are visionaries and aspiring leaders and who might want to be involved in leading and shaping the country or local industry. Most populations can be described on a standard bell-shaped curve and if you assessed the skills, talents and capabilities of the people living in Australia the outliers are unlikely to come from just one cultural background.
Australians are proud of the fact that the country is multicultural, yet there seems to be a tension between letting people from other countries into Australia and allowing them to fully participate in economic, social and political leadership. The tension is most obvious between immigrants who look or sound like those who were ‘first in’, Anglo-Saxon settlers of the 1700s and 1800s, and those who don’t.
Immigrants from the United Kingdom and New Zealand who have English as their first language and are also Caucasian seem to have fewer concerns about settling in, compared to Asian or African people who don’t have English as their first language and whose cultures are substantially different. In my experience even Germans and South Africans, whilst also Caucasian, can experience some challenges getting accepted in Australia if they arrive with heavily accented English (which is their second language).Whilst Australia has a global reputation for having grown through a large immigrant population since WWII, it is also well known that the indigenous people have not always been treated equally, that the power base is still largely controlled by people from Anglo-Saxon backgrounds (Australia’s earliest migrants’ cultural origin) and that more recent immigrants from Asia, Middle East and Africa live in cultural clusters, are not fully integrated and face occasional racial unrest.
With the rise of China and the phenomenal growth of the whole Asian region expected throughout this decade, Europe and America will become less important trading partners and we will come to rely more heavily on Asia for both imports and exports. The sooner we open all the doors to our society to non-Anglo-Saxon people and encourage their social integration and full economic participation, the more quickly we will prepare a broader section of our workforce to operate across national borders.
Integration or ‘embracing difference’?
The official view is that ‘integrationist’ policies are not effective as a means of managing cultural diversity and that we should move away from trying to create a ‘melting pot’. Instead we are being encouraged to ‘embrace and celebrate cultural difference’, which is thought to be a better solution for Australia.Many of the 100 leaders interviewed noted Australia’s stated preference was not to integrate immigrant cultures but to recognise their difference and they contrasted this with the American melting-pot style of multiculturalism. However, they also talked about the success of the melting pot and how in America, immigrants of all generations proudly state that they are an American- Italian or an American-Japanese. Their confidence to be both American and acknowledge themselves as Italian or Japanese as well, seemed be very well known and admired. Americans are very proud people and from what you see from the outside, the melting pot seems to have worked well for them.
When I asked about which was better for Australia, there was less certainty. As Paul Waterman shared with us above, his experience is that Australians are less comfortable saying what their cultural heritage is and instead have a tendency to say ‘I am Australian’ and look uncomfortable if they are pushed to identify where their olive, brown or yellow complexion comes from. Why is that? Is it because they are concerned about racism, or is it because they want to separate from their cultural heritage rather than be proud of it for some reason?
When I asked people about their take on Australia’s level of success at multiculturalism, the most common theme was about food and restaurants. People commented how few Thai restaurants there were in the main cities in the 1970s and how there are now several in almost every suburb. I started to gain the impression that ‘to love their food’ was being offered as proof of the Australian people’s ‘acceptance of their difference’.
Since the First Fleet arrived in 1788, all 22.7 million Australians, except about half a million indigenous people, can trace their origins to an ancestor who has at some point arrived by boat or plane as an immigrant. As we noted in Chapter 5 it takes more than a couple of hundred years for a new country culture to mature and Australia is still looking for that single identity that all Australians can connect with.
I worry that if Australia continues to say that it should ‘value the difference’ instead of ‘integrate the group members’ that this might be another of those covert methods Ann Sherry, CEO, Carnival Corporation talked about – is this just another mechanism for blocking people out: marginalising the subgroups and keeping the control of business for the minority group at the top?
In my experience working with organisations that have stalled growth, cultural problems are nearly always part of the problem. Some of the causes of the cultural (usually described as behavioural) problems are: lack of clear leadership and common vision or goals; powerful and conflicting subcultures; and lack of proper post-merger cultural integration creating tensions and misunderstandings. All of these can create internal inefficiency, raise costs, and ignite conflict and disharmony.
Also, in many cases where I have seen a lack of cultural integration following a company merger or acquisition, it nearly always coincides with tension between subcultures and generates inefficiencies, which have been known to result in a de-merger down the track.I believe what we are seeing in Australia regarding the lack of immigrant integration has the same risks and costs. Like a poorly integrated acquired company, a country can suffer from the same reaction to a lack of acceptance of the new arrivals. If the country doesn’t have strong leadership and a clear vision that both the old and new residents accept and are prepared to follow, confusion can arise. If we don’t have agreement about a set of common goals and be prepared to work together in harmony it is likely to result in misunderstanding, lack of unity and disharmony.
Food-for-thought? Is it time to revisit our assumptions about ‘melting pot and integration’ (more objective) versus ‘embracing and celebrating cultural difference’ (more subjective) and should we also check our motivations and ensure we are not avoiding giving up something that we could do without?
Embracing cultural difference is of course what we all want, but if that subjective notion allows us to avoid providing full and equitable access to jobs and positions to immigrants ‘until they have proven they deserve it’ then it could be a bit like settling for the ASX’s ‘naming and shaming strategy’ to solve the gender imbalance when we really need quotas.
Advancing Australia’s culture is key: excerpt from Chapter 9Removing the barriers and embracing the breadth of skills and talents that people of all cultural backgrounds can contribute to leading businesses, government and society in Australia will require a shift in assumptions about ‘who can lead’, ‘rights of immigrants to lead’, ’abilities of people who were educated and trained elsewhere’ and ‘transparency in leadership selection’. These are just a few assumptions that might need to be ‘disconfirmed’ to stimulate a shift in attitudes and behaviour that would lead to greater diversity in leadership.
Chapter 9: Redirecting your Country Culture, can help here. It outlines how we come to hold values that reinforce behaviours that restrict greater cultural diversity from taking hold. How can we celebrate being a ‘diverse nation’ when we continue to block people from non-Anglo-Saxon backgrounds from rising to the top?
The force field (excerpt from Chapter 9)The force field phenomenon – which keeps returning expats, women, skilled foreign workers and immigrants from rising to the top – came up in a number of places in Part Two. It is the unseen and unconscious barrier (or bias) that serves to keep people from reaching the top levels of our organisations: it keeps trespassers out.
Earlier Stephen Roberts of Citi described the parochialism he experienced when he returned to Australia after being away for 17 years. I, too, experienced ‘the hand in the face’ as I tried to access opportunities in my first few years in Australia. I had to get enough notches on my metaphorical belt and get some local experience as there was little interest in the experience I obtained from my ten years working with global organisations in Asia or Europe.
I recently spoke with two other Australian male executives who returned from overseas postings to Singapore and New Zealand in the past 12 months. Let’s call them Dave and Dan. Both men are early 40s, one has a solid career in the food and beverage sector and worked overseas for six years in Singapore and New Zealand. The second man has a blue-chip experience in funds management. He worked in Singapore for almost five years.
When they returned to Australia, Dave and Dan were faced with two things in common. First, that no one was interested in learning about their experience abroad and that it did not add value to the recruitment conversation. They said when they started to talk about their experiences the person listening would display a lack of interest and change the subject. Second, they had to go backwards in their careers to secure employment. Both are now working at a level below their experience, for less money, and feel disappointed in their fellow countrymen.
This parochial behaviour, which I call the force field seems to affect most new arrivals to some extent and it seems we have come to accept it as part of the Australian culture. I know this because I questioned some Australian nationals about the existence of the force field and they did recognise the behaviour and either laughed it off or shuddered at the thought of it; but all thought it was poor form.
The force field is a mechanism which has been set up, consciously or unconsciously, by those who hold the power to manage who gets into the inner group; the top layers of the organisations. It is not necessarily a behaviour exclusive to Australia, but it does not sit well in a country that promotes egalitarianism, meritocracy and multiculturalism.
The Anglo-Saxon and male domination of politics, business and society combined with the force field which protects it must appear so unattractive to people who do not fit the mould. But that is not the greatest cost to our society: the apathy that I hear from people who are resigned to the fact that these limitations exist and who cannot do anything about it is the greatest cost.
If the majority of the people living in Australia believe they can never reach the top or that the battle to push through the barriers of the force field to get to the top is too great, then are we suffering as a nation? What greater performance are we missing? What heights could we reach as a nation if the pathways to the top were open to anyone based on merit, no matter the gender, race, colour, age or sexual orientation?
If in Australia we are not embracing the talent as it arrives, by making returning expats wait and blocking immigrants of other cultures to ‘the good life’ until the second generation, then we are not accessing the skill and knowledge available, which equates to loss of productivity and impacts on growth.
I worry that if corporate Australia’s force field continues to repel newly arrived skilled foreign workers, returning Australian expats and immigrants, the best people might just stop coming. How do we know that this is not already happening? How do we know that the best skills available don’t consider Australia a viable option?
How culturally diverse is your organisation at top levels?
Have you got a culturally diverse senior management team? Is it time to review the current state of affairs in the organisations you belong to? How can having people of different cultural backgrounds and experiences from different countries help you reach customers and employees?
Exploring the arguments in Stepping Up with your top team can expose you and your top team to issues and solutions that you might not have considered before. 100 leaders from 16 cities and 26 industries across Australia and Asia share their views for you to consider. Plus there are culture change frameworks that can help you lead the changes you need to put in place.
You can order your copy of Stepping Up here.