We need to develop a more nuanced understanding of cultural diversity

Dimitria Groutsis, Jane O’Leary and Cathy Brown
Opinion pieces

Labor MP Andrew Giles recently called for our national census to be updated to give an accurate picture of ethnic diversity and help identify the population’s untapped potential.

As Mr Giles acknowledged, while our census data provides us with a static snapshot and a great benchmarking tool, it comes with limitations. It doesn’t give us a clear picture of who we are as Australians.

And while we applaud Mr Giles’ call for more questions in the census, the question we first need to ask ourselves is what those questions should be.

Cultural diversity is more than just how a census data point defines you, and it’s more than just your race or ethnicity – it is also about the way someone else defines you, and how you identify, with all the complexity that entails.

If we are not capturing this more nuanced information, then we don’t actually know much about the landscape of our society and more specifically, what our organisations and institutions look like.

To address this gap, the Diversity Council Australia and the University of Sydney Business School have worked together on a set of guidelines to help measure, monitor and report on cultural diversity at the workplace level. The guidelines were launched at Gilbert and Tobin in late September to a broad audience of corporate, government and non-government representatives.

The next phase of the research will involve testing a suite of questions with various focus groups across all institutions, sectors and industries to arrive at a meaningful, accurate and respectful approach for measuring and reporting cultural diversity in Australia. Ultimately the proposed questions will be used to establish a national standard of workplace practice for the measurement and reporting of cultural diversity in Australian organisations.

There are serious problems with the way that we currently count culture. This is best illustrated using the example of a fourth-generation Australian woman with an Asian cultural background.

She grew up in Australia. Her parents grew up in Australia and she speaks English at home. She identifies as culturally diverse, and is identified that way by others (she is constantly asked “where are you from?”) and yet, if her workplace conducted a diversity census using the traditional questions of ‘where were you/your parents born?’, it is unlikely the statistics would capture her as culturally diverse.

This one example highlights that we have a wonderful opportunity to develop a more nuanced understanding of what cultural diversity is within an Australian cultural context.

The business case for diversity and inclusion has been well-established, what’s more we know that culturally diverse workers have a lot to offer.

Therefore, at a simplistic level, mapping the cultural diversity of an organisation’s workforce will enable organisations to assess how well their current workforce supports the markets, customers, and clients they seek to serve.

But it’s much more than that.

While we currently know very little about who our workforce is, we do know that there have been consistent structural barriers to career progression for workers from a non-Anglo-Celtic cultural background.

Recent research by Diversity Council Australia and the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) highlights the lack of cultural diversity in senior leadership, in executive teams and in Australian boardrooms.

Without an accurate way to measure who is in our workforce, how can we capitalise on the capabilities and skills of our culturally diverse workforce? The sad reality is that the structures and systems have remained unchanged and unchecked and do not reflect the rich cultural diversity in Australia’s broader population. Decisions are being made, resources are being deployed in the highest layers of our institutions and yet, the voices of our culturally diverse population are silent in these decisions and in the distribution of resources.

Counting culture in a meaningful and respectful way isn’t simple.

That’s why Diversity Council Australia and the University of Sydney Business School have developed six guiding principles to steer business, government and non-government agencies on how to measure and report on the cultural background of employees in a way that is respectful, accurate, and inclusive, and well suited to our contemporary multicultural Australian business context.

These guidelines build on over a decade of research into the experiences of culturally diverse people in Australian workplaces, and recognise the specific workplace experiences of Australia’s First Nations people.

Our guidelines articulate a more complex way of viewing cultural diversity that includes physical appearance, accent, dress, languages spoken, name and ethno-religious affiliation or, a combination of these factors – which taken together become markers of one’s cultural identity.

As the example above illustrates, a person’s country of birth and languages can only tell you so much about an individual. How they identify is just as important to understanding their unique perspectives and experiences of the world.

But similarly, asking an individual only about how they identify is limiting. For example, a recent migrant to Australia might identify strongly as Australian, but also speak another language and have cross-cultural skills that could be invaluable to an organisation.

That’s exactly why we advocate that to meaningfully and respectfully capture this information, there must be multiple indicators.

Counting culture presents a watershed moment for understanding our multicultural society and our multicultural labour market.

Our hope is that our campaign for counting culture will start a conversation about meaningful measures of cultural diversity. Our intention is to grow this agenda by establishing a platform for measuring, monitoring and reporting on cultural diversity to ensure that the policies implemented create material outcomes for workers and business, and therefore going beyond a ‘‘feeling’’ of inclusion. In addition to providing a useful measure of the Australian landscape, they will also allow organisations to more effectively craft and implement diversity and inclusion policies to benefit workers.

Dimitria Groutsis is an associate professor in the discipline of work and organisational studies at the University of Sydney Business School. Dr Jane O’Leary and Cathy Brown are members of the Diversity Council Australia.

This article first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.

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