Airport lounges as a metaphor for diversity and leadership ...

Topics Inclusion

By Lisa Annese, CEO of DCA.

I’ve always noted that the number of men and women, on any weekday, at an airport lounge was a good metaphor for how women are positioned in leadership in Australia.

Let me explain: I was recently waiting to board a flight from Dallas to Sydney, after speaking at the Eighteenth International Conference on Diversity in Organisations, Communities and Nations, where the focus of discussion was primarily on the merits of a diverse workforce and community more broadly.  

The irony was that the airport departure lounge, full of business people, was not very diverse.   

I looked around and thought: why are there only two other women? And mostly men? Probably straight white men. Probably with families at home, awaiting their return from doing their terribly important work.

It struck me how much airport lounges represent the lack of diversity in leadership: men talking loudly on their phones.  Drinking beer. Watching sport or the news. It’s usually not terribly culturally diverse either, and certainly there is no great representation of anyone whom I can easily identify as having a disability, or being different from the usual suspects in any way.

It’s exhausting when we consider how long and hard so many people have been working on this very issue.  It’s especially troublesome because we know that diverse talent is doing well at school, at university and is at least equally likely to hold high ambitions for their careers as the people who actually get the top jobs.  It is inexcusable frankly, when we know there are so many business benefits to diversity, both gender-based and cultural.  

See, the conference I was returning from at the University of Texas, Austin, was where I presented findings from DCA’s research Leading in the Asian Century: A National Scorecard of Australia’s Workforce Asia Capability (A-CAP).

In this research, DCA discovered that there is a strong business case for fostering workforce A-CAP. Seven out of Australia’s top ten export markets are in Asia, and constitute 63% of our total export market. More than 50% of the world’s population lives in Asia and its consumer demand is worth US$10 trillion annually, similar to the U.S.

DCA’s research (full findings from the report below) is global, cutting edge and has been built on a large evidence base of work in this area.  I am proud to say that even at international conferences it stands out as both rigorous in its evidence, as well as ground-breaking in its practical approach.  DCA’s long history of research in the cultural and gender diversity spaces culminated last year in the release of our Cracking the Glass-Cultural Ceiling. It found that, if ASX directors were 100 people, approximately 6 would be Anglo-Celtic women and only 2 would be culturally diverse women.

The irony of DCA’s research being reflected anecdotally in that airport lounge is never lost on me.

What I learned at the conference was what leading practitioners already know, that diversity and inclusion are complex practices that are absolutely worth it.  Certainly, there are not too many countries in the Asia-Pacific and North America who are doing better than Australia, although we do see a rise in gender representation once we cross the Atlantic from the US to Europe.  However in most parts of the world, we still have a long way to go.

So how will we know we are getting close?

One indicator I will use that will signal we’re heading towards something like gender parity in leadership when I start seeing men sourcing book-week costumes from airport lounges and skipping the champagne or beer in favour of a mineral water. 

I’ll know we’re there when, as I make my way down to economy class on the 6am Sydney to Melbourne route, I see more diversity in the business class section.  I know it’s an arbitrary measure, but it’s a good guide. And one that seems consistent with all the statistics.

So now that I’ve pointed it out, see if you notice.

Once you have. You can’t un-see it.


Full findings from DCA's Leading in the Asian Century research:

  • Asia capable talent is available. A-CAP is considerably higher in some groups – in particular the 16.7% of Australian workers who have an Asian cultural identity, the 15.9% who have lived and worked in Asia and the 20.9% who can read, write and/or speak an Asian language (at least basic proficiency level).
  • But a third of workers have low A-CAP. While one in ten (10.8%) of all Australian workers have excellent Asia capability, one third (34.7%) have none or very little. Close to two-thirds of workers have no or very little working knowledge of how to effectively manage in Asian business contexts. Overall, our workforce scores three out of five for Asia capability.
  • Senior executives & managers are more likely to have higher A-CAP. Australian senior executives and managers are more likely to have excellent Asia capability than non-managers (13.9% of managerial workers versus 10.3% of non-managerial workers).
  • Fluency in Asian languages is low. Only 5.1% of workers are fluent in one or more Asian languages (i.e. can comfortably discuss and write about highly complex issues with colleagues/clients in an Asian language).
  • Having business interests in Asia doesn’t guarantee A-CAP. Workers in organisations with Asian business interests are less likely to have excellent Asia capability (16.4%) compared with workers in an organisation with an Asian head office (29.8%).
  • There is too much talk and not enough action. While a fifth of workers said their organisations valued the A-CAP of their workforce (19.1% strongly agreed), fewer said their organisation was likely to effectively use these capabilities (12.6%).

For more, read:

Leading in the Asian Century

Cracking the Glass-Cultural Ceiling

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