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Practical ways to increase diversity in your organisation

17 October 2023

News and media


Many organisations and leaders talk about diversity and its benefits, but far fewer are getting it right. Work on diversity, equity and inclusion can be uneven, and rhetoric and good intentions don’t always lead to tangible results.

Leaders of organisations need to take responsiblity for diversity, but recognise that making it work requires change right through organisations, and can’t be solved by a shallow ‘food, fashion and festivals approach’, says former Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane.

Mr Soutphommasane is currently Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Oxford, and the author of five books on multiculturalism, citizenship and race. He presented a masterclass on Diversity and Leadership on 14 November 2023 as part of ANZSOG’s Public Leadership Masterclass series (PLM).

During the masterclass, he shared his experience and introduced participants to the latest in organisational research and thinking on how embracing diversity can benefit organisations.

Mr Soutphommasane said that diversity – which related to the composition of organisations – was not the same as equity, which was about ensuring people of different background did not face bias, discrimination or barriers within organisations, or inclusion which measured how at home people of different backgrounds felt in organisations.

“The case for diversity is strong. An Australian study of 50 global organisations found diversity enhances innovation by about 20 per cent, and that is replicated in other research. Organisations in the top quartile for gender diversity, are 25% more likely to outperform their peers, and the payoff of ethnic diversity is even stronger, being 36% more likely,” he said.

He said that in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand there was broad support for migration from different cultural backgrounds, but this has not been reflected in the ethnic make-up of either country’s senior leadership.

  • 84% of Australians agree that multiculturalism is good for the country
  • 71% agree that having immigrants from all backgrounds settling in the country makes Australia stronger
  • 89% of New Zealanders agree that it is a good thing for society to be made up of people from different races, religions and cultures

But he said that in political divesity, Australia was lagging behind the UK and that while 24 per cent of people in Australia had a non-European background, they represented just 5.1 per cent of people in senior leadership positions across the public and private sector.

The importance of senior leadership in building diversity

Mr Soutphommasane said that leadership from the top of organisations was vital for any diversity effort to succeed.

“When we are talking of questions of diversity we are also talking about cultural changes, and shifting mindset and attitudes,” he said.

“Leadership sets the tone – and can symbolise who wields power and influence. It is important to have an organisational response that is defined around leadership and culture – an articulated vision around what diversity and equity mean.”

He said that this needed to be backed up by concrete change right through organisations, including collecting data on diversity.

“How are you recruiting, retaining and promoting staff? Are you writing your job descriptions in the right way? What kind of language are you using when you think about who gets promoted?”

“Do you know what your workforce looks like, and where the pay gaps and bottlenecks are? Because what gets measured gets done, and you can then begin holding leaders accountable for them.”

He warned against the shallow ‘food, festivals and fashion’ approach to diversity, and the practice of pitting different groups against each other.

He said that a survey of organisations across the Asia-Pacific region showed that while 80% organisations said they were accelerating their diversity efforts, this was not always backed up by specific action. Only 32% said that they had a separate DE&I budget, and 60% did not have a DEI-dedicated role in their organisation.

“These roles also tend to be new – 80% of DEI roles have been hired in the last 18 months, meaning that most companies are at the beginning of their change journeys and we may yet see additional progress,” he said.

Organisations were struggling to turn good intentions into action, with 59% saying that ‘converting intent into pragmatic initiatives’ was one of their biggest challenges, while 52% nominated ‘changing behaviour’.

Mr Soutphommasane said organisations needed to strike a balance between moving too fast, and failing to make visible progress which could leave staff dissatisfied.

“You need to take a long view because you can’t achieve change in two or three years. You need to tap into your purpose as an institution otherwise you are unlikely to be successful,” he said.

“But slowness of change can feed a sense of fatigue and defeatism. Can you find ways to show people how it can be meaningful for them and personalise the issue? Can you get leaders to own the issue and see it as part of who they are and have skin in the game?”