We need a different lens to identify the barriers to improving cultural diversity in senior leadership positions.


Much more meets the eye

On her path to becoming a big four firm partner, Rebecca*, an Asian-Australian, had the support of several sponsors. She also benefited from being assigned stretch assignments, an overseas secondment and a personal coach, and attending leadership development programs. Unfortunately, Rebecca’s experiences are the exception rather than the norm. Estimates suggest that people of non-Anglo-Celtic and European ethnicity still hold less than 5 per cent of senior leadership positions.

Further, only 16 per cent of Asian men and 20 per cent of Asian women feel fully included at work, according to a recent Bain & Company survey that included Australians. Again, this is lower than any other demographic group.

Lack of progress despite the business case

Numerous studies show that greater diversity can lead to a diversity dividend. Further, most leaders today recognise that embracing workplace cultural diversity supports their business growth.

Substantial immigration has sustained the Australian economy for many years, benefiting the wellbeing of all Australians. Since the pandemic, employers have struggled to recruit the talent they need, particularly in high-growth sectors that employ skilled migrants.

Nevertheless, many Australian organisations’ diversity initiatives still concentrate on gender. While women’s leadership representation has improved, the prevalence of high-profile harassment and bullying incidents reveals that further shifts in organisational cultures are required. Regrettably, the same level of attention to gender diversity has not been devoted to cultural diversity, with initiatives commonly limited to setting up employee resource groups and hosting festivities. While
these increase the visibility of culturally diverse staff, they do not always decrease inequalities.

Many Asian-Australians are challenged in the workplace due to the “bamboo ceiling”, a combination of individual, cultural, and organisational factors that impede Asian-Australians’ career progress inside organisations. In addition, many remain anxious since the pandemic because of continued racism.

We need a different lens to identify the barriers to change and potential solutions to tackle the lack of culturally diverse leadership.

Organisational cultures can inhibit progress

In today’s challenging business environment, employees are exhausted after extended pandemic lockdowns.

Under stress, many people exhibit unconscious and sometimes defensive behaviours towards others, frequently displaying defences such as scapegoating, denial and rationalising. In groups, they tend to fight, withdraw or align themselves with influential leaders. People are naturally biased towards the status quo, so they collectively cling to familiar habits, structures, narratives and attachments that provide them with meaning and belonging.

However, when these ways of dealing with challenges become the norm within organisations, they become dysfunctional.

My research found that aspiring leaders find working in these environments tricky and emotionally taxing. Moreover, those from culturally diverse backgrounds face additional identity conflicts between their personal and organisational values and struggle with authenticity.

To support organisational diversity-related change, chief executives commonly default to rational solutions. These include targets with leaders focusing on meeting diversity targets, believing that “what gets measured, gets done”, and policies. In addition, accountability is frequently delegated to human resources or the chief diversity officer. Still, not all initiatives lead to the desired change hoped for – some have been found to exacerbate the problems they were designed to resolve.

At times, leaders fail to recognise that social bonds – deeply held beliefs, practices and basic assumptions – between people within their corporate cultures can inhibit progress in improving diversity. People neither discuss openly nor challenge constructively their organisations’ underlying assumptions about how things “get done”. This can conceal the real, undiscussable or unknown problems.

When the root cause of behaviours is not well understood, leaders may misdiagnose problems because of a cognitive bias towards favouring what is recent and known. In this case, “superficial interventions to support diversity and inclusion miss the mark”, INSEAD management practice in organisational behaviour professor Michael Jarrett says. Instead, leaders must address the deeper structure and underlying basic assumptions within organisations to overcome these patterns.

Diversity programs succeed when there is psychological safety

Real change is messy. Successful C-suite leaders who foster culturally diverse leadership understand what people say and how they feel and what leads them unconsciously to behave in specific ways.

Discussions exploring race and ethnicity are uncomfortable topics many Australians do not want to discuss. It makes them uneasy and leads them to bury their emotions.

Nevertheless, being politically correct or even silent is not a solution. Silence helps manage short-term anxiety but not long-term performance.

Companies that have psychologically safe holding environments foster greater culturally diverse leadership.

Their organisational culture balances the interests of performance and people. Their people all believe they won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.

Finally, their leaders are reflective, empathetic and regularly reassess whether their people live the values and behaviours expected of them.

Bringing to awareness feelings and concerns about how people feel about cultural diversity is crucial to progressing the change journey. Open and honest discussions should cover how individuals think and feel individually and in teams.

Karen Loon is the author of Fostering Culturally Diverse Leadership in Organisations: Lessons from Those Who Smashed the Bamboo Ceiling, out in August.

* Name changed

First published in The Weekend Australian on 11 June 2022.