Talking Cultural Diversity: An Interview with Associate Professors Dimitria Groutsis and Diane Van Den Broek

Many Australians boast a culturally diverse background, with 1 in 4 born overseas. Since the 1950’s Australia has seen continued migration from countries all around the world, creating an incredibly rich cultural tapestry, seen strongly in the huge variety of cuisines available around the country, and more deeply through a plethora of symbols observed and languages spoken beyond English.

This rich multiculturalism brings an array of opportunities as well as challenges – as many cultures may have different rituals, belief systems, needs and also ways of doing things.

We spoke to University of Sydney researchers Dimitria Groutsis and Diane Van Den Broek to discuss the unique challenges faced by culturally diverse staff in workplaces and what businesses can do to create inclusive work environments for all their employees.

Dimitria is an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney Business School and a co-convenor of the Migrants@Work research group, and research committee member of the Diversity Council Australia (DCA). Diane is an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney Business School and co-convenor of the Migrants@Work Research group and has worked with Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI) and the DCA on workplace diversity.

Australian research to date indicates that culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) workers have difficulty both accessing jobs appropriate to their skills, and also in advancing through their careers unobstructed.

This new research project, supported by Deloitte is designed to investigate the impact of neglecting culturally diverse workers’ unique intra- and cross-cultural attributes. Understanding these attributes is essential for businesses to fully capitalise on the skills and capabilities of their CALD employees.

What brought about your initial interest in cultural diversity?

Dimitria: I have been conducting research into migrant workers with a focus on the experience of skilled migrant workers for two decades now. Part of the discussion in my research has been an investigation of the laws and policies protecting migrant workers.

With the emergence of protective policies and initiatives at the workplace level in the 1990s – in the form of D&I policies – my focus moved to the workplace level with an examination of the strategies and initiatives which have emerged to benefit CALD workers; and as a corollary, my work has also examined whether or not organisations are capitalising on the skills and capabilities of CALD talent.

Diane: My research has focused on both skilled and more routine migrant work, ranging from projects that investigate the experiences of migrant nurses to temporary migrant horticulture workers. These projects analyse the various stakeholders and policies within and around migrant work, including analysis of employment and migration policy; migration intermediaries and business and workforce experiences and skills utilisation.

Tell us a little bit about the study you are working on with Deloitte

Dimitria: In 2011, I worked on the landmark report with the DCA: Capitalising on Culture: A Study of Cultural Diversity Amongst Australian Senior Executives and Their Immediate Pipeline. The study highlighted that, while the Australian talent pipeline is more culturally diverse than the broader population, the senior leadership suite does not reflect this diversity or the diversity of the broader community. This was the impetus of the project scope and for our discussions with Deloitte.

The project with Deloitte, titled: Disrupting Leadership Homogeneity by Mapping the Career Progression of Culturally Diverse Talent: Intervention strategies to Capitalise on Cultural Diversity seeks to understand the career progression and aspirations of culturally diversity men and women at Deloitte. We are currently working on this using a series of research methods including focus groups, one on one interviews, and participant journals.

What is the journey or process in conducting a piece of research like this?

Dimitria: The process thus far has involved extensive consultations with Deloitte; five focus groups with individuals located at various points in their careers – across two states; an extensive literature review and document analysis. In the forthcoming period, we will be inviting interested participants to take part in interviews in a bid to better understand their career experience and aspirations; and lastly, they will be asked to complete a diary narrative. In terms of deliverables we will produce a report for Deloitte, which will feature practical solutions to ensure career aspirations become a reality for all male and female employees – both culturally diverse and non-culturally diverse. There are both financial and non-financial gains to be made from taking a leadership role in this space and Deloitte is one Australian organisation doing just that.

What are the challenges that culturally diverse individuals may face in the workplace?

Diane: Each workplace is different, with its own unique culture and transitions – that culture may be interpreted in different ways by individual staff members. And while such cultures might be reflected in corporate mission statements or formal agreements – most often – corporate cultures can be ambiguous and opaque.

As a result, researching how a firm ‘ticks’ can be a fascinating exercise that dances between talking, listening and observing all stakeholders within the organisation. As researchers we try to let the story be told by those who know it best, in this case, through Deloitte staff. The challenge for us is to get this story as accurately and as true to what we hear as possible. That means trying to ensure that all participants that are engaged in our study feel confident that their voices will be heard and accurately reported.

We aim to develop conceptual themes that emerge from D&I literature we have analysed, and the focus group discussions we have undertaken. However, the reality is that there needs to be concrete outcomes and recommendations that a firm like Deloitte can utilise. This may include the need to formally measure and quantify existing initiatives with more ambitious initiatives in the future, in areas such as leadership, career progression and mentoring. These initiatives are progressing with respect to gender, however there could be more research in the area of cultural diversity.

How are these challenges unique to other marginalised communities (e.g. LGBTI or Disability)?

Dimitria: They are unique and then not. For instance, they are not unique in that everyone wants to feel valued and be recognised for their contributions. Everyone wants to bring their whole self to the workplace. From this perspective it doesn’t matter which group you identify with – you share these challenges.

However, it is unique in that determining cultural diversity requires one to self-identify, rather than to be cast into a particular group. Like other groups though, there are visible ethnic minority groups who do not identify with their visible ethnic minority group but are sometimes incorrectly categorised as such. It is important for us to be aware that each group is unique; each diversity pillar is unique, though they intersect at particular points. We are of course the sum of our parts, so we may well be part of and identify with various marginalised communities.

Generally speaking, are there any examples of initiatives you’ve seen that are helping to break the barriers culturally diverse staff experience?

Dimitria: Yes – in the NGO space and the public sector. Settlement Services International (SSI) does a great job of overcoming the barriers to culturally diverse workers and culturally diverse leaders. Cultural diversity is seen as an asset, a key competency. I think this is quite radical compared to most organisations I have spoken with.

Diane: There are specific initiatives that break barriers that culturally diverse staff experience which relate to explicit legislation around discrimination. However, the important work is to build cultures that utilise a broad range of firm-level experiences. The model practices I have become aware of are often initiated by an individual (leader) and while commendable, such initiatives must be embedded in firm practice to reap the full benefit of these initiatives.

Looking to the future, what will organisations need to do to win the war on talent?

Dimitria: Organisations need to be brave. We truly believe that Deloitte is brave in having this discussion, partnering with key bodies to conduct such research.

There needs to be a change in systems and behaviours to truly turn organisations around. To this end, organisations need to count culture; report on outcomes and on progress. Only then will true systemic and perceptual bias be overturned. We keep coming back to the fact that financial and non-financial gains are there for the taking. There is an underutilisation of the skills and competencies of particular groups and tapping into these is a win-win for all.

Diane: Deloitte has shown great commitment to the ideals and values of a diverse workforce. It is also very supportive of potentially doing more in this area and we are very grateful for the support given to this project. Where organisations can do more, is to look into their businesses and see what is important to their staff and to them as a collective entity. It is important to understand how these values are aligned and what role cultural diversity plays in developing these values now and in into the future. Being able to have honest discussions about these issues is definitely a very important step in the process and without companies like Deloitte I think the potential for positive change would be much diminished.

For more information about the project contact Adrian Letilovic, Diversity & Inclusion Communication Manager – Deloitte Australia.


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