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How arts organisations can reap the benefits of cultural diversity

Surely we can count on cultural institutions to be trailblazers in the quest for equality? George A. Spiva Center for the Arts, CC BY-SA

Earlier this month The Sydney Morning Herald reported that certain major Australian cultural institutions, including the Art Gallery of NSW and the Sydney Opera House, were failing to achieve workplace diversity targets. These reports emphasise the diversity paradox: organisations talk the diversity rhetoric, but fail to achieve diversity targets.

We might expect big business to discount the importance of diversity – but surely we can count on publicly funded cultural institutions to be trailblazers for workplace equality?

Purple Sherbet Photography

Look around you and what do you see? The world is culturally diverse and Australia particularly so.

One-third of the Australian population was born overseas. One in five Australians has a disability. Three percent of the total Australian population have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage. We are a diverse society – and yet our organisations do not always reflect this.

The Australian Securities Exchange introduced recommendations in January 2011 for listed organisations to set measurable, objective gender diversity targets, and to report on progress toward these targets in their annual reports.

In 2013, public sector organisations in NSW confirmed previously set targets to achieve workforces that reflect the diversity of the community. Targets are set for underrepresented groups, including women (often at senior levels), people with a disability, people from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds, migrants and people from culturally or linguistically diverse backgrounds. Targets represent the desire of governments to achieve their social responsibility objectives.

The benefits of diversity

Diversity in workplaces is not just about adequately reflecting diversity in the broader population. There are clear benefits for organisations in maintaining a diverse workforce. Jennifer Dulski, president and chief operating officer of, told The New York Times recently:

Diversity is perspective and you want to understand the differing perspectives of your user base.

Diverse groups engage in “creative conflict”, which leads to better decision-making, introduces new ideas into discussions and increases creativity and innovation. Diverse groups generate hard-to-imitate resources leading to competitive advantage.

Why is diversity so elusive?

If diversity is good news for businesses and cultural organisations, why do organisations find it so difficult to achieve?

According to well-established research, people like to work with people who are similar to them. There is greater trust when you expect other people to share your views; they’re more predictable. Since the majority of senior management is white and male, this explains the lack of demographic change.

Social networks also tend to contain similar others. When new positions are advertised, you’re more likely to tap the shoulder of someone like you, because your network contains people like you.

People are also getting tired of hearing about diversity. Diversity fatigue occurs when diversity programs fail, are changed slightly, are repeated, fail again and so on. Headlines that report “failed to reach diversity targets” are likely to elicit “here we go again” or “why are we still talking about this?” reactions.

Imagine the solo representative of a demographic group: the only woman in a group of men, the only employee of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage. These individuals are likely to feel different to the rest of the organisation and be identified as “the female employee” or “the Indigenous employee”. This creates extra stress. The employee feels that they represent their demographic group as a whole: how they perform reflects on all women, or all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

This “stereotype threat” can lead to stress and, if not managed, turnover. Turnover from a particular demographic group may lead to the belief that all individuals from this group are not suitable for the organisation. Hiring managers become once bitten twice shy.

Seven steps to achieving better diversity

The news isn’t all bad. Just as researchers have identified challenges to achieving workplace diversity, we also know that there are ways senior management of cultural institutions can improve.

1. Reach out
Contact advocacy groups, such as the Australian Network on Disability or Women on Boards, to see if they have registers of potential employees.

2. Widen the net
Include diversity in the brief when recruiting, whether this is via an internal process or via a recruitment firm. Make sure there are minimum numbers of qualified individuals from desired representative groups in your applicant and interview pools. Recruiters must think beyond convenient networks to find diverse applicants.

3. Start at the top
Organisations with diversity at senior levels send signals to labour markets about the sort of people who succeed there. This increases the supply of applicants because talented people see a future with the organisation. Senior staff are also well positioned to facilitate diversity. They can advocate for individual employees or potential employees and they have the power to set organisational tone for diversity.

4. Redefine merit
The traditional merit definition reflects a narrow section of the workforce: white males with industry experience, English as their first language and no breaks in work history. Why not consider talented candidates who may not fit this paradigm but who nonetheless bring strategic abilities, business acumen, fresh networks and great communication skills to the table?

5. Advertise the right way
If you’re looking for a diverse workforce, don’t include only one employee type (e.g. only young people or only white men) in your recruitment advertising. Be explicit that you welcome enquiries and applications from people with diverse backgrounds.

6. Have the right policies and practices
Diversity training helps managers understand needs specific to certain demographic groups. It can also highlight unconscious bias: quick responses based on past experience and your upbringing. Contact with different demographic groups can increase understanding and reduce unconscious bias.

7. Provide support
Mentoring individuals from low-represented groups provides professional and social support. Support can also be achieved by setting up employee resource groups, such as women in leadership or disability advocacy. Group members share experiences and offer advice on workplace issues, as well as providing a shared voice.

Organisations say diversity is important, but the challenge lies in turning talk into action. The benefits are clear – but until senior management put words into action, organisations will fail to reap the rewards that come from well-managed diversity.

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