Why Australia’s business community needs a standardised approach to measuring cultural diversity

By
Lisa Annese, DCA CEO and University of Sydney Associate Professor, Dr Dimitria Groutsis
Opinion pieces

At the height of pandemic lockdowns last year, Australians shared details about their lives that captured a country going through a dreadful crisis and undeniable change. 

Last week, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released that data to reveal a nation that has grown to be more multicultural than ever, despite putting a temporary halt on migration. 

In our communities, homes and businesses, we reflect and represent cultures from across the globe. 

The number of us who speak Punjabi and follow Hinduism has risen after India overtook China and New Zealand to become the third-largest country of birth, more than one in four of us were born overseas and almost half of us have a parent born who was too.  

But the census also revealed the pressing need for more carefully curated measures of our nation’s multiculturalism. 

To date, the government has measured it by gathering data on our country of birth and the languages we speak, an approach that ethnically diverse communities describe as blunt and one which tells only part of Australia’s multicultural story.  

While our census data gives us an overview of the nation’s population, it doesn’t tell us about the richness of who we are as Australians, how we identify ourselves and how others identify us. Our cultural identity is more than where we were born and what language we speak. 

In Australia’s business community, there is no standardised, meaningful and informative way to measure and benchmark cultural diversity. Yet, research shows that effectively ‘counting culture’ in our businesses will help us better reflect our nation’s diversity and build inclusion with a better understanding of our workforces. 

For example, an employee may be born in Australia, have Ukrainian ancestry, speak Ukrainian, Russian and English, and identify as Orthodox. All of these are relevant to how someone identifies and their experience of inclusion in society and at work.  

We now have an opportunity to measure and report on cultural diversity more meaningfully to reflect the sentiment shared by ethnically diverse communities and better inform how governments, employers, and services represent and respond to people’s diverse needs.

Capturing cultural diversity at work

Beyond powering an inclusive society, diversity can be a significant contributor to business performance and profitability in Australian workplaces. 

In 2021, Diversity Council Australia and the University of Sydney released the product of a two-year research and consultation project, which was a decade in the making: Counting Culture, Towards a Standardised approach to Measuring and Reporting on Cultural Diversity In Australia

It shows that organisations and employers are yet to grasp the importance of capturing this data, not to mention how this should be done.  

In the report, we put forward that ‘counting culture’ at work is essential because it enables employers and organisations to understand how their workplace reflects, attracts, responds to, and services cultural diversity in the community and provides insights employers can use to build inclusion.

For instance, without capturing the data we cannot answer why, after almost 50 years of multicultural policy in a nation that boasts one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse populations globally, the executive teams and boards of public, private and not-for-profit organisations do not reflect Australia’s diversity. 

We know: 

  1. Most board and senior leadership positions are still held by Anglo-Celtic men, while culturally diverse women on a leadership track experience even greater barriers to accessing senior leadership positions. Our nation’s power brokers and decision-makers represent a limited demographic;
  2. Skilled and qualified migrants and refugees have and continue to experience insurmountable barriers to accessing positions representative of their skills and qualifications; and
  3. People from racially marginalised backgrounds have limited options to report racism and racial discrimination experienced in the workplace, which negatively impacts inclusion and safety at work. 

An evidence-based approach to counting culture

While our measures focus on the workplace context, they can be applied more generally to include health and welfare services, to name a few. 

In our research, we developed a set of simple and easy-to-use measures and reporting mechanisms to facilitate a more meaningful and informed approach to counting culture. 

Cultural background, language and country of birth are the core measures or minimum requirements to get a basic understanding of a workforce, but the addition of religion and global experience build a more detailed picture.  

These measures are separate to the inclusion of a stand-alone question about workers’ Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander background, centring Indigenous issues to diversity and inclusion. 

Failing to capture Australia’s cultural diversity is a missed opportunity for Australian businesses and the broader society. 

By creating a nationally standardised approach to counting culture in business, we hope that more employers will map the breadth and depth of the cultural diversity in their workplaces and beyond and gain meaningful evidence to drive change.

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This piece was originally published in SmartCompany.

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