Are cultural diversity targets the game-changer for senior leadership?

28 September 2017

“The boardrooms of Australia look nothing like Sydney’s Pitt Street Mall.”

This was the brutal assessment of cultural diversity in corporate Australia by the country’s Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr. Tim Soutphomassane at yesterday’s Allianz Dive In Debate.

The Commissioner moderated the event that brought together industry leaders in Sydney to debate the question: are cultural diversity targets the game changer for senior leadership?

The Commissioner said corporate Australia still had a long way to go to reflect the country’s diverse cultural make-up, where 14% of the population are from non-European descent.

“The ASX200 group of CEOs, for example, has a representation level of cultural diversity, namely non-European background, at 5%”, he said. “That number gets lower when you go through federal parliament ranks, when you go through government at senior levels and when you look at higher education.”

All debaters agreed that this was a concerning statistic; however, the teams were divided on whether targets were the best way to achieve cultural diversity.

On the affirmative team, who agreed with targets, Macquarie University Associate Dean Professor Lucy Taksa said vocal support on its own was not enough to achieve greater cultural diversity.

“Until you put metrics on these things and measure against them, you won’t have real change”, she said.

NSW Public Service Commissioner Graeme Head agreed.

“Targets are the game changer [for cultural diversity] because they anchor the discussion on what’s possible”, he said. “They’re a powerful tool in achieving an end point which is around inclusion and optimising the talent available in our community.”

Diversity and Inclusion consultant Mariam Veiszadeh added: “You don’t just set a target and walk away; in order to achieve that target you’ve got to have a body of work behind it in how you get there.”

The negative team, however, argued that targets are “tokenistic”.

“Does anyone want to say that they got to their role because of a quota?” asked icare Chief Executive Vivek Bhatia.

The Indian-born father added: “I don’t want my children to grow up thinking that because they have a father who was born in a different country that they have more opportunities because of a target, or less opportunities, because there is no target. I want them to have the same opportunities as everyone else.”

Author, comedian and television personality James O’Loghlin, said the game changer for achieving diversity is to fix the selection process by removing conscious and unconscious bias.

“When you fully remove bias the need for targets disappears because you have a process where pure merit is rewarded and nothing irrelevant is taken into account and so the make-up of your organisation quite naturally comes to mirror the make-up of society”, he said.

Fellow negative team member, Diversity Council of Australia Chief Executive Lisa Annese, said targets in isolation were too focused on results and could disguise bias.

“While KPIs are important, we need to focus on doing the right thing day in and day out and develop an authentic culture of inclusion”, she said.

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The Allianz Dive In Cultural Diversity Debate formed part of the Australian Dive In 2017 festival, a global initiative to promote diversity and inclusion in the insurance industry. Dive In will be held across 32 cities in 17 countries around the globe this week. In Australia, 10 events will be held in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth from 26-28 September 2017.