#IWD2024: Culturally diverse women an untapped resource for Australian business


    Culturally diverse women remain the greatest untapped resource for Australian businesses, according to Dr Marlene Kanga AO FAICD, who says leadership teams must reflect the communities they serve, with fewer blind spots.

    “Culturally diverse women leaders are a force to be reckoned with,” says the internationally renowned engineer, chair of Rux Energy and non-executive director of Endeavour Energy and Airservices Australia.

    “We have well-educated, tech-savvy and entrepreneurial leaders, many of whom have arrived in Australia armed with qualifications, particularly in science, medicine and technology, in itself a highly valuable asset. Yet, despite these talents and capabilities, culturally diverse women rarely achieve leadership positions, including on boards. Business and government need to recognise that Australians with multicultural backgrounds bring tremendous advantages that could be leveraged to benefit all Australians.”

    It’s been a long-held focus for Kanga, widely heralded for her work in championing diversity, including her involvement in a report released last year by Chief Executive Women — Unlocking Leadership — calling on corporate Australia to amplify conversations about gender and race as a crucial step in harnessing the full potential of women. 

    She urges leaders to recognise that for genuine cultural change to occur in their organisations, they must be highly visible to make a difference. 

    “Many leaders are stepping up, as can be seen through the great progress being made by the Champions of Change in every sector of the Australian economy,” says Kanga, whose was recently named on a Top 25 Most Influential Indian-Australians list compiled by The Daily Telegraph.

    Fewer blind spots

    “These leaders recognise the importance of diversity, not only from the perspectives of equity and ethics,” says Kanga. “There is simply no longer any doubt that diversity wins on every measure. Countless studies show that diverse teams perform better and companies with diversity have higher profitability, lower volatility of earnings, better risk management, higher levels of employee satisfaction and improved community engagement. 

    “This is because a diverse workforce, especially at leadership levels, reflects the community it serves. There are fewer blind spots.”

    Kanga believes a useful starting point for businesses in considering their approach is a strategy paper she authored for the engineering profession in 2014, which made the case for improving diversity in ways analogous to improving the culture for better workplace health and safety. 

    Kanga says that by framing the message in terms familiar to science and engineering organisations, there were fewer barriers to adoption.

    “Essentially, what I was saying to leaders was that you don’t even need to read this document,” she says of the strategy paper, endorsed by the federal government, Workplace Gender Equality Agency and Engineers Australia.

    “Just use the same processes to improve diversity as you have done to improve safety. Safety is now unquestionably ingrained in the way businesses work, so the same can be achieved to change the culture for diversity and inclusiveness. It’s all about the wellbeing of the team. It’s a structured strategic approach, led from the top, to achieve the cultural and diversity shift that is an essential hallmark of high-performing organisations.”

    Trajectory of a trailblazer

    Kanga’s trailblazing advocacy first ramped up in the early 2000s when she got behind the decision by Engineers Australia to declare 2007 the Year of Women in Engineering, an initiative aimed at attracting more women to the profession. Kanga, who ran her own consultancy specialising in complex safety engineering projects, was among only five per cent of the organisation’s members who were women.

    By the end of 2007, she was elected to the Engineers Australia board and in 2013, became its national president, only the second woman to hold the role in its 97-year history. Kanga’s influence grew internationally when, in 2017, she was elected president of the World Federation of Engineering Organizations, representing almost 30 million engineers worldwide. 

    “The argument for many years has been that the numbers of women are low because the women just aren’t there,” says Kanga. “But when they’ve actually looked, they’ve found many fabulous women who can do the job and do it really well. It shows that the talented women are there, you’ve just got to open the door and give them a chance.” 

    She notes that having a multicultural workforce provides a major competitive advantage to Australia, given its proximity to Asia, which will be home to eight of the world’s largest economies by 2030 (according to the IMF 2030 GDP forecast) as the geopolitical landscape shifts. 

    “It’s an enormous economic imperative to have entrepreneurial leaders with the cultural understanding, language capabilities and business networks that can facilitate business relationships and trade, as a potent economic force for Australia,” she says. “It’s also important to recognise that culturally diverse women are, on average, younger, have high educational attainment, are risk takers and entrepreneurs, ambitious and highly aspirational. They are hardworking and active across the spectrum of private and public sectors. Most overcome significant barriers on arrival — especially to have their qualifications recognised and to land their first job — and they have higher incomes and pay more tax than the general population.” 

    Boards need to catch up

    Kanga cites a 2021 study by Watermark Search International and the Governance Institute of Australia that has found it would take an estimated 18 years for board leadership to mirror the ethnic diversity of Australia’s general population. According to a 2023 Diversity Council Australia report, culturally diverse women have very low participation rates in leadership across business, government and academia. Yet Australia leads in terms of gender diversity on boards, ranking first in the Asia Pacific region. 

    “We just need to take the next step and embrace broader dimensions of diversity,” she says.

    For aspiring directors with diverse backgrounds, Kanga says it is important to develop necessary skills through courses like the AICD Company Directors Course and build networks, whether by attending AICD events or seeking non-profit roles where there are lower barriers to entry. But she also warns there is a long way to go to expel the unconscious biases still rife in many boardrooms. 

    “At the board level, you’re making critical decisions that involve risks and board members need to be able to trust their fellow board members,” she says. “So, if they are dealing with someone who is quite different to themselves, that trust comes less easily.” 

    However, she adds, those at the board table need to recognise that the reward-to-risk-return ratio is high. “Boards that embrace diversity in all its dimensions will reap rich rewards. I will always say to chairs, if you want a high-performing board, you should be looking for greater diversity. It’s good for organisations as well as Australia’s economy.”

    #CountHerIn #IWD2024

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