Boosting public service diversity through inclusive leadership

By David Donaldson

Friday July 29, 2016

Leading for Change report front cover from the Australian Human Rights Commission

Australia is one of the world’s multicultural success stories — but people from non-European backgrounds are still under-represented at leadership level across our society.

The public service is no different. It’s estimated that perhaps one-third of Australians are from a non-Anglo-Celtic background, but only comprise around 18% of public service department heads across the country.

Diversity is “dramatically under-represented” in Australia’s government sector, argues an Australian Human Rights Commission report released Friday.

“These conversations require an honest recognition,” argues Tim Soutphommasane, the Race Discrimination Commissioner.

“Attitudes and cultures will have to change — but change won’t be inevitable. It may be resisted. Overcoming this requires not only talk, but also action. Good intentions must be turned into staunch commitment. ”

The statistics are worse when you break it down further. Most of the 18% non-Anglo-Celtic leaders are from other European backgrounds. It’s thought 10% of the population are non-European; according to the Human Rights Commission just 0.81% of secretaries are Indigenous, others comprise only 1.61%.

In concrete terms, that’s one indigenous head of department at state or Commonwealth level, and two non-Europeans.

While calls for increased diversity are often resisted on the basis of meritocracy, the whole point is that it is about merit, says the Human Rights Commission.

“A considerable body of research now demonstrates that we are not always perfectly rational — that biases can affect our decisionmaking, as individuals and as organisations. … The level playing field presumed by meritocracy does not always exist.”

This is a problem not just from a social justice perspective — government makes decisions impacting Australians’ lives, so it should understand who Australians are. Research shows the range of perspectives brought by more diverse leadership leads to better decision-making.

A perception of pervasive bias among employees also damages productivity and leads to higher turnover and absenteeism. If unconscious bias or discrimination holds back talented individuals from culturally diverse backgrounds from contributing, the organisation suffers.

Creating inclusive leadership

The answer is inclusive leadership. But how does this work in practice?

This requires action in three areas, thinks the AHRC: leadership, systems and culture. Leadership is needed to get change off the ground, but will struggle to endure without updated systems and culture.

Leaders should consider increasing diversity as a personal mission and set the tone by speaking about its importance, says the commission:

“Using opportunities to speak about cultural diversity sends a powerful signal about leaders’ commitment to it. Noteworthy within the Male Champions of Change experience was that some chief executive participants made a conscious effort to track and monitor the frequency with which they spoke about gender diversity. Those who decide to lead on cultural diversity may well decide to do the same.”

Speaking about diversity empowers change and increases the confidence of minority employees, but is also important to prevent the perception among white employees of it being a zero-sum game.

Increased collection and reporting of data helps organisations understand where they stand and what needs to change. It serves as an ongoing reminder of what is to be achieved. The commission recommends implementing targets and making them a part of managers’ performance appraisals.

But first: what is leadership?

It’s important to consider unconscious bias. Indeed, the very notion of merit or leadership may be problematic; privileging of Anglo cultural behaviours may hold back equally talented individuals used to a different way of operating. This has been canvassed particularly with regard to the so-called “bamboo ceiling”, which is blamed for the low number of people of Asian background in leadership positions in Australia.

While part of this is due to stereotypes held by others, cultural norms can be a problem too: a study by the Diversity Council of Australia found 61% of Asians surveyed reported feeling pressure to conform to Anglo styles of leadership, emphasising self-promotion and assertiveness.

Organisations need to work to promote diverse talents, argues the AHRC. This means actively working with individuals identified as potential leadership material, as well as reconsidering and tackling the aforementioned cultural biases and norms. The commission also thinks aspiring individuals should be aware how their own behaviour may be perceived against dominant norms.

Mentoring and sponsoring helps people understand and navigate the unwritten rules and networks that exist in all organisations.

“Those who seek career advancement require mentors and sponsors — trusted advisors who can give assistance, make introductions to contacts, and act as one’s advocates. For many from culturally diverse backgrounds, realising this reality sadly comes too late. This may be especially the case where people have cultural settings where asking for assistance is regarded as a sign of weakness.”

The mentee may feel they are being too demanding of the mentor, so ensuring there is structure and guidance around what mentoring involves is helpful.

Finally, the commission argues organisations should empower their culturally diverse talent to speak up and stand out.

“Speaking up does not come naturally to all; it comes much harder to some people from certain backgrounds. It is not uncommon for those of culturally diverse backgrounds to be relatively anonymous within an organisation. Having a high profile may seem to be the exception, even among culturally diverse employees who are high-performing. Often, however, visibility is a prerequisite of advancement. … Such things can be taught or coached. But they may come easier when there is also a culture of professional development.”

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