Does business have a level playing field for ‘people of colour’?

My parents arrived in the UK as refugees from China in the 1950s. I grew up in the family Chinese take-away business in the north of England, spending my evenings serving customers with my Mum and chopping vegetables in the kitchen with my Dad.

Fast forward 50 years and I have to pinch myself every day to believe I’m a partner at KPMG Australia, and the Chair of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

Cultural background can be a thorny and complicated subject – many people cannot be easily categorised. Are Greeks, Italians, Chinese, Scottish and German people all equally ‘culturally diverse’? How do we classify mixed race people and what about Indigenous Australians? But this is a diversion from the reality of why Australia’s vibrant multicultural society is not reflected in leadership.

Most professionals in Australia accept the value of inclusion and diversity in business. The gender diversity journey has been under way for many years and provides many lessons for businesses to learn from, but racial diversity lags well behind.

The Leading for Change report demonstrated significant under-representation of people of colour in senior leadership in Australia. Using data from the last census they estimate 58 percent of the population has an Anglo-Celtic background whereas of the most senior leadership positions in Australia, 75.9 percent have an Anglo-Celtic background, 19.0 percent a European background, 4.7 percent have a non-European background and a miniscule 0.4 percent have an Indigenous background.

This raises the question of why is cultural diversity so lacking in senior leadership roles? Are people of colour somehow disproportionately less able or worthy? Or are there other factors at play. Do we really have a level playing field?

Some people say, ‘It’s not about race (or gender), it’s about merit’ or ‘it’s about diversity of thought that matters or, ‘I’m not racist/ I don’t see colour’. Many feel uncomfortable and prefer to avoid the issue altogether. Avoidance, although a seemingly easy response, will not change anything. The issue will not just go away.

Addressing cultural diversity needs a top down approach with an unrelenting commitment from leadership. The message must be clear and unambiguous; cultural diversity is an important business objective with a firm commitment to change. I’m particularly proud that KPMG Australia has announced a target of 20 percent (currently ~10 percent) of our Australian partnership will come from a culturally diverse background by 2025, bringing our leadership more into line with the wider Australian population. (23 percent according to the 2016 Australian census.)

There are so many ways Corporate Australia can drive positive change on a ‘no-regrets’ basis to make their workplaces better.

Don’t tiptoe around culture and race – increase your cultural capability and celebrate difference.

A simple way is to raise awareness and education levels around cultural events (Lunar New Year, Ramadan). Encourage people to talk openly about their cultural backgrounds and cultural differences. Promote curiosity.

Greater cultural intelligence reduces stereotyping and helps people engage and build stronger relationships with their culturally diverse colleagues, teams, clients, neighbours and communities. By connecting and empowering culturally diverse people across the organisation, through their networking and mutual support, they will establish a voice to help shape your progress. Encourage and support these networks and use them to help train leaders so they can recognise and mitigate unconscious bias.

Finally, document your progress, set targets and collect data around your goals. Use this to hold your senior leadership accountable and to demonstrate your intent to your whole business community. No single organisation has all the answers, so collaborate with other businesses to share knowledge and success – a united voice will be much more powerful than working alone. Together we can enjoy the benefits of a truly multicultural society.

21 March is the International Day for the Elimination of Racism observed annually on the day the police in Sharpeville, South Africa, opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid “pass laws” in 1960.

4 thoughts on “Does business have a level playing field for ‘people of colour’?

  1. Great article thanks Mike. I particularly like this point you make: “A simple way is to raise awareness and education levels around cultural events (Lunar New Year, Ramadan). Encourage people to talk openly about their cultural backgrounds and cultural differences. Promote curiosity.”
    With my family, I had the great privilege to live in Singapore for a couple of years, where the approach to cultural inclusion sets a good example with all the major religious celebrations observed as holidays. By sharing the festivals with the whole community, we experienced and learned so much about all the cultures in Singapore. It certainly promoted curiosity, and in turn promoted understanding. Equally, it was rewarding to be in a minority group, and to experience how that feels.

  2. Mohammad Chowdhury

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    Well said. We are a long way from this today. The gender v culture point rings true in particular. Cultural discussion is almost purposely avoided nowadays, a sign of far we have to travel. This needs a real effort for the coming decade. Especially as Australia also needs to integrate better with Asia in business.

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