Cultural diversity targets in corporate leadership are merely lip service.


Cultural diversity targets in leadership have failed to be met according to Leading for Change, an examination of corporate cultural diversity in Australia by Australian Human Rights Commission, University of Sydney, Asia Society Australia and Committee for Sydney. The 2018 follow up to the original 2016 report showed ‘there was not significantly more cultural diversity at the group executive level (C-suite) of Australian organisations’. Organisations included ASX 200 companies, federal ministries, federal and state government departments and universities.


According to the report “97% of chief executives have an Anglo-Celtic or European background. This is a dismal statistic for a society that prides itself on its multiculturalism”.


Of the Australian population, 24% are non-European and Aboriginal, yet in the study of 2490 senior corporate leaders, representation sat at a disproportionate 5.1%, and for chief executives, 3%.


"Clearly, there remains an Anglo-Celtic and European default when it concerns the cultural background of senior leaders in Australia.”


The not so subtle subtext is that the dominant culture, i.e. white men, need to recognise the power and value of greater diversity. Corporate hiring processes often focus on ‘good fit’- not just professional skills but relatability.


Affinity bias is likely at play, i.e. hiring and promoting in one’s own image. When we rely on unconscious knowledge, as we don’t always do so, our predispositions basically are our unconscious biases. We may prefer to associate with people who are like us in appearance, background, preferences and values among other attributes, i.e. people who make us feel comfortable. We may prefer them to people who are not like us, who potentially, in the shadows of our unconscious minds, make us feel uncomfortable.


Non-Anglo applicants and employees are also susceptible to backlash and evaluation bias when facing leadership applications and being considered for leadership pipelines.


We all have unconscious knowledge stored in our long-term memory, which includes stereotypes of what a leader looks like. When we rely on this knowledge, often without even being aware, we allow unconscious bias to influence our decision-making. If the stereotype of the person applying for a position doesn’t match the stereotype of the role, that person may be met with what is called evaluation bias, which leads to being rated lower on competence for the position. However if they act in a counter-stereotypical manner, or try to, in order to better match the stereotype of the position, they instead become subject to a bias called backlash, which results in them being rated as more competent, but less likeable, and therefore less hireable.


In this way, non-European applicants may be confronted by a sinister double-bind when it comes to applying for a leadership position There is, of course, the economic argument for diversity in leadership. McKinsey and Company research correlated gender and ethnic diversity across 1000 companies in 12 countries.


Besides the economic argument, the human argument would be that inclusive leadership that values diversity means feeling more affinity for those who are seemingly ‘not like us’.


This starts with recognising our unconscious knowledge, slowing down our thinking and preventing bias in bridging gaps in and across differences. This also opens us up to holding our own differences with integrity.


Cognicity’s Mitigating Bias in Selection Decisions e-learning course equips your organisation with the knowledge and strategies needed to minimise the effect of unconscious bias on your selection processes. From sourcing the candidates to making the final offer, the course provides insights into the end-to-end process of finding the best person for the position. By creating an environment which fosters inclusion and diversity, your organisation will be prepared to meet the challenges of a modern world.




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