Australia: Why a cultural diversity target for public sector leadership is overdue

Surprising that Australia doesn’t have comparable reports to Canada’s employment equity reports. Their report is high level and has limited data tables, with visible minority data largely limited to immigrants. The Canadian approach of consistent detailed reporting, enhanced for the last five years with disaggregated data, has generated steady increases in representation:

The latest Census data shows that Australia is more multicultural than ever before, however senior leadership in the Australian Public Service (APS) does not reflect Australia’s diversity. A target should be implemented to elevate a greater percentage of culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) Australians into senior APS roles.

Introducing diversity targets in the APS is not a new concept. Targets are a tried and tested method of achieving systemic change and overcoming institutionalised biases in government hiring practices. For example, through a whole-of-government target, 50-50 gender parity has been achieved in all APS levels of leadership.

The latest Census data is concrete evidence of the increasingly multicultural identity of Australia, where half of Australians were born overseas or have a parent born overseas.

But rather than perceiving this as a “nice-to-have”, the business case for increased CALD leadership in the APS is clear.

The intercultural and linguistic skills of CALD Australians are invaluable in filling the capability gaps in the public sector. For example, leveraging the skills of the Chinese-Australian community will create a more China-literate APS, especially in roles relating to trade, foreign policy, national security, and cyber.

Cultural and linguistic competency is also relevant to domestic policymaking. During the height of COVID-19, Google Translate was used by the Department of Home Affairs to communicate public health messaging to CALD communities. If a senior public servant with multilingual skills and lived experience of engaging with CALD communities was present in the room at the time, they could have easily advised against the inadequacies of automated translation.

Enhanced CALD leadership can also increase staff retention in the APS. For CALD Australians who wish to ascend the career ladder but see a lack of diverse leadership above them, the problem of “you can’t be what you can’t see” serves as a barrier. One consequence of underrepresentation in leadership is increased turnover of staff from that underrepresented background.

For example, research from the UK government found that more than half of surveyed black, Asian, and minority ethnic employees perceived that they would have to leave their current workplaces for promotion opportunities.

While increased CALD leadership in the APS is a clear value-add, the road to reform will not be easy.

Existing CALD-related data in the APS is patchy since the provision of diversity data to the APS except for gender by employees is voluntary. Without comprehensive data, understanding the extent of CALD underrepresentation in leadership as a first step will be difficult to determine.

The finite pool of Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) resources in the APS is another roadblock. Addressing the systematic biases that plague other diverse groups such women, First Nations Australians, and people with disability is equally as important in achieving equity for all in the public sector. Implementing a CALD leadership target may detract time and effort from D&I initiatives aimed at these other underrepresented groups.

At the same time, public discourse has become more vocal in recent years regarding the importance of increased CALD representation in positions of power. The diversity gains in politics have been much applauded and are case studies for what public sector leadership could look like.

In 2013, now-deputy leader of the Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi was the first Muslim woman to enter any Australian parliament. Another win for diversity can be seen with Malaysian-born senator Penny Wong, who last year became Australia’s first foreign-born foreign minister.

Although the road to public sector reform is difficult, the creation of a CALD target in the APS is not impossible. The business case is there, and the public appetite for change exists.

All that’s left now is to convince government that now is the time to act.

Source: Why a cultural diversity target for public sector leadership is overdue