Why are the top jobs in Australia still snowy white peaks?

24/11/2021 | 5 mins

This article by Professor Shamit Saggar, director of The University of Western Australia Public Policy Institute, was originally published in The Australian Financial Review on November 24.

Australia’s boast of its fairness and easy-going style is loud and unmistakable. When it comes to ethnic diversity in top jobs, it appears hollow and grating.

The boast permeates across all sectors, communities and states, highlighting that, as a country of immigrants, we are open to all walks of life with talent and personal commitment.

It has been a key factor in bringing Asian (and, to a smaller degree, African) newcomers to these shores in large numbers in recent decades.

Many advanced industrial economies have experienced similar large-scale immigration, resulting in the gradual yet unmistakable ‘‘browning’’ of the higher tiers of politics, academia, the arts, professions (both old and new), and business.

But Australia is different in one crucial respect – namely the huge weight placed on immigrants of all kinds to blend in to a dominant Anglo-Celtic national culture.

‘‘Fitting in’’ is used to justify the scant attention given to cultural diversity, particularly in the workplace. It is witnessed in the heavy anglicisation of ‘‘foreign’’ names. 

It is fuelled by a national habit of describing all non-white Australians as ‘‘ethnic’’, negating the fact that all groups have an ethnicity.

Above all, it is seen in the snowy white peaks of politics, business and the professions – underscored by the complacent traits of leaders who are unable to engage and extrapolate trends based on migration, trade, demography and social attitudes.

Pluralising and overcoming Australia’s Anglo-Celtic legacy is overdue by any international benchmark.

The UK’s Cabinet comprises seven visible minorities, the same as Canada’s.

Professor Shamit Saggar

Image: Professor Shamit Saggar.

A prominent Indian-American serves as the US Vice-President, highlighting a pool of dozens of accomplished minorities on the verge of dominating that country’s political landscape.

Australia’s task is made much trickier by the fact that today’s top circles are largely the product of the last generation who were born at the time that White Australia was dismantled and retired.

Like fish in water, most of that cohort have not much noticed the narrowness of their combined experiences and outlooks.

Many have been seduced by an exaggerated sense of the talent of their generation despite the small pool from which they have arisen.

It has urgency because a significant cohort of new ethnic minority Australians are rising rapidly through elite education, professional sectors and business. 

Our ability to meet their ambitions will determine a large slice of Australia’s global success in the next 20 years.

The worry is that too many mediocre white men have been over-promoted in top circles, breezing in as if it were their right.

Others, mainly visible minorities, have had to scramble their way there, in part because there are unspoken rules about how to operate and engage. 

The drinking habits of many workplaces is just one notable example. Another is unconscious bias that relegates minorities to technical, supportive and fringe roles despite their ample qualifications and experience.

But why should we expect them to race to the top? It is said that change takes time: migrants, especially from Asia, have yet to come through, generationally and educationally, to compete in numbers for senior jobs.

It is said despite the fact those with south-east and south Asian backgrounds have been embedded in Australian society for several generations.

To assess this standard retort, white and visible minorities in the labour market have to be compared on a like-for-like basis, stripping out the effects of generation, age, education, literacy and other factors that normally explain progression to senior roles.

On this better comparison, do minority high-flyers succeed at the same rate as their white counterparts? The evidence shows that they do not.

These findings may not be proof of discrimination, but they are a strong hint.

On one hand, doing well in employment is positive and encouraging, speaking to a level playing field. On the other, given minorities’ human capital richness, they should be doing much better, suggesting a bitter-sweetness to their success.

The reputational damage to brand Australia is substantial: the evidence and the lived reality clashes noisily with the country’s glowing self-image. 

At a push, it might be excusable if it is transitory: the implicit promise being that sacrifices today are worth it if there are equal chances tomorrow for the children of black and brown migrants.

Two generations after their parents and grandparents came to Australia, the danger is that many visible minorities will become disillusioned or worse.

Looking ahead, the pull of our ‘‘fair-go’’ society for future migrants is easily tarnished.

A basket of measures is needed to improve this bleak picture.

These include targets for the composition of boardrooms starting with the biggest firms; requiring that searches for very senior executive and non-executive roles include at least one minority candidate (using the Rooney Rule from the US); using specialist head-hunters to delve into new, diverse pools of talent; using multiple appointments as a default practice to allow better comparison (capitalising on Iris Bohnet’s findings on designing processes to eradicate gender equity); and streamlining statutory fair work procedures to make it easier for discriminatory practices to be called out.

Progress requires the investment of modest amounts of political capital, access to data, measures that put outcomes on a more transparent footing, sensible targets with clear communication to avoid backlash and, most of all, buy-in and backup from senior business, professional and political leaders to ensure that progress is embedded and accelerated.

Australia’s reputation as the lucky and fair country will be exposed if change is glacial and non-urgent. The doctorate-holding, Indian Uber driver is our early warning signal.

Professor Shamit Saggar is director of The University of Western Australia Public Policy Institute, and author of the Policy Exchange report, Bittersweet Success? Glass ceilings for Britain’s ethnic minorities at the top of business and the professions

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