How is Australia tracking on cultural diversity & inclusion – are we acknowledging racism where it happens to rise above it and take inclusive action?

National Geographic acknowledged their racist past this month, a vital step in overcoming cultural diversity barriers. 

National Geographic acknowledged their racist past this month, a vital step in overcoming cultural diversity barriers. 

As we celebrate Harmony Day and our cultural and linguistic diversity in our schools and workplaces throughout the past week, it’s time to reflect on how well we are really doing at embracing Australia’s cultural diversity, and eliminating racial discrimination.

The recently released Gallup Migrant Acceptance Index gauging public response to new migrants was reported in the SMH this week, and showed Australia is ranked the seventh most accepting nation out of 140 countries. However, if we look at the corridors of power in our ASX 200 corporations, government and tertiary institutions they don’t reflect the cultural diversity of our population. 32 per cent of Australians have a background other than Anglo-Celtic yet just five per cent of our leaders – that’s 10 people – have a non-European background.

Our tendency to culturally stereotype people different to ourselves is a major barrier that can get in the way of us recognising talent. A powerful example of such stereotyping was shared by Professor Nailni Joshi – one of Australia’s most senior mathematicians. When she was speaking at the National Press Club as a co-founder of Australia’s national Science in Australia Gender Equality (SAGE) project, she consciously wore a cotton shirt, stating that when she wears suits at work functions she is often mistaken for a member of the wait staff. 

The importance of acknowledging the existence of such cultural stereotyping and unconscious assumptions, and consciously addressing these, is vital to overcoming them. Over the past week I was inspired to read National Geographic’s decision to admit its racist past based on an examination of the archives; focusing on not just what made it into the pages of the magazine, but also what was left out. As editor Susan Goldberg noted 'How we present race matters,' and 'to rise above our past we must acknowledge it.' I thought the image on the National Geographic front cover of 2 sisters, one with black skin and one with white skin, with the headline “these twin sisters make us rethink everything we know about race” was a powerful and effective depiction of the complexity of this issue.

Back in Australia, we saw customer service staff at Myers Flagship Perth store accused of racially profiling a 16 year old Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander boy, with multiple security staff called when he was in the changing room alone, after his father left briefly to take a phone call. When his father questioned why this had happened upon his return, the staff member told him that last week a purse was taken from the service area, expecting him to understand. The staff looked confused and embarrassed after the pair left the store purchasing over $200 worth of clothing.

Myer’s public defense to this embarrassing and humiliating incident was an impressive diversity & inclusion statement, but this clearly has not translated effectively to its staff’s practices. It is clear this is not a one-off either, and that this issue of stereotyping leading to racial discrimination is common for non-Anglo Australians.

Last week we also saw Lewis Hamilton call for greater ethnic diversity in Formula 1 at the Melbourne Grand Prix. As the sports first and only black driver, the world champion stated 'There’s barely any diversity in F1. Still nothing’s changed in 11 years I’ve been here. Kids, people, there’s so many jobs in this sport of which anybody, no matter your ethnicity or background, can make it and fit in.'

It’s important to be aware of our cognitive and personal biases, as research shows that the brain is ‘hardwired’ to notice difference in human skin colour as danger automatically to keep us safe. If we don’t manage this, we unconsciously stereotype others who are different to us, and favour people like ourselves. Overcoming such assumptions is vital for business success, as senior research fellow Jesse E. Olsen from The University of Melbourne explained 'There’s a strong business case for more cultural diversity in Australian leadership so that we can tap into the increased creativity and adaptability that diverse teams bring, as well as connecting better with our diverse customers.'

So what can you do to reduce the risk of stereotyping your customers, clients and staff so that they can fully contribute and achieve their potential?

·       Gather data on the cultural diversity of your staff and customers and see if it reflects the Australian population.

·       Consult with your culturally diverse staff to understand their lived experience of equity, diversity and inclusion in your organisation.

·       Equip your managers with an inclusive mindset, skills and behaviours to help them identify, mentor and sponsor culturally diverse staff with high potential for leadership roles.

·       Rather than train your customer facing staff on what not to do, train them on how to recognise and address their cognitive and personal biases.

To assist you in setting your staff up for success to improve your customer inclusion, request an outline of our proven diversity, inclusion and unconscious bias training today.

Image via National Geographic

Fiona Krautil1 Comment