Current Issue #488

Modern Times:
Our monochrome corridors of power and influence

Do our workplaces and institutions reflect modern Australia?

Australian workplaces are a microcosm of our society, but often those who have power and access do not reflect the diversity of our community. This is the result of conscious or unconscious bias, and we must accept the responsibility.

A few weeks ago, a friend asked to interview me for a school assignment. The questions asked, and the answers given, caused me to reflect on this bias we have in our leadership. When the interview was over, I asked myself why I didn’t feel more indignant that a bias exists in Australian workplaces that slows and limits national progress and that of Australians who are not white and male. I should.

Myriad statistics demonstrate the over-representation of Australians of European descent. Only five per cent of ASX100 CEOs have non-European heritage. Around the same proportion are female, and the vast majority of those educated in Australia attended an elite private school. Our leaders are privileged, white, and male.

This is not unique to business. A quarter of Australia’s population is of non-European background yet this demographic only represents five percent of our leaders in politics, academia and public service.

It appears it is also harder for non- Europeans to access the first rung of the ladder to leadership. Australian National University conducted a study in 2015 that found applicants with Chinese, Middle Eastern and Indigenous names were far less likely to be called for interview. But such bias is certainly not unique to Australia.

In France, another great migrant country, a similar study recently demonstrated bias against job applicants with Islamic names.

Identical CVs were sent in response to real job advertisements. For each job advertisement, a CV from ‘Adam’ and an identical CV from ‘Mohammed’ were submitted. The sum of these applications showed ‘Adam’ was twice as likely to get an interview.

We are happy to celebrate diversity, so long as the keys to power and influence are kept firmly in the hands of men who share a common appearance and background. And if the explanation is not discrimination, what could it be?

It would be difficult to argue non- European Australians lack talent, as our system preferences skilled migrants. It would be similarly difficult to argue they are less competent than Australians of European heritage, as the children of immigrants easily outperform the children of Australian-born parents in our schools.

If we accept that bias exists in our workplaces, the issue should be part of our national conversation. Awareness that a problem exists will encourage employers to be conscious of who they recruit and promote. If each employer interrogates their decision-making and challenges their instincts, bias could be overcome eventually.

I recently attended the graduation ceremony of Le Fevre High School. The dux of the school was clearly a brilliant young woman, of non- European background, and with a fi ne public education. She deserves every opportunity to reach for the stars.

Andrew Hunter

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