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CEW member Dr Marlene Kanga AO’s speech

CEW member Dr Marlene Kanga AO’s speech

CEW has released a report calling on corporate Australia to amplify a conversation about gender and race as a crucial step in harnessing the full potential of women in leadership for the economic benefit of all.

The Unlocking Leadership: Conversations on Gender and Race in Corporate Australia report explores the experiences of culturally and racially diverse women in senior leadership roles in Australia’s ASX300 companies.

CEW member Dr Marlene Kanga AO spoke about the importance of this research at our launch event. Read her speech in full.

Dr Marlene Kanga AO:

A warm welcome to you all on this exciting red letter day with the big opening match tonight between the Matildas and Ireland before a sell-out crowd, as Australia hosts the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. A decade or two ago, it would have been unthinkable that the entire nation would be coming together to barrack for a women’s team. This achievement shows how blind we were at the time to the possibilities of women’s sport, the depth of talent that we have in Australia and of course all the benefits of health, fitness and engagement that results for us, as a nation.

The paper that is being released today is, I hope, the start of a similar trajectory of success that recognises the leadership potential of culturally diverse women and the importance of harnessing it. This report is another moment, the start of a new conversation and I hope that you will all engage in it.

Australia is indeed a lucky country. We have wide brown lands girth by sea and rich in nature’s endowments, enabling the wonderful quality of life we all enjoy. Every day, I pinch myself, and can’t believe how fortunate and proud I am to be Australian. The potential for a better life has attracted migrants and refugees from around the world. Many, like me, have arrived armed with qualifications, particularly in science, medicine, and technology, in itself a highly valuable asset.

The 2021 Census found that almost half of Australians have a parent born overseas. The top 5 countries of birth, excluding Australia are England, India, China, New Zealand and the Philippines. 5.5 million Aussies speak a language other than English, the top ones being Mandarin, Arabic and Punjabi, showing the significant shift from Anglo-Celtic culture towards Asia and Africa.

Importantly, first and second-generation migrants are doers.  Culturally diverse men and 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. Overcoming significant barriers on arrival, especially to have their qualifications recognised and to land their first job, they have higher incomes, and pay more tax, than the general population.

However, despite these talents and capabilities, they rarely achieve leadership positions, including on boards. According to one study, it would take an estimated 18 years for board leadership to mirror the ethnic diversity of Australia’s general population. According to another, 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 1st in the Asia Pacific region. We just need to take the next step and embrace broader dimensions of diversity.

Business and government need to recognise that Australians with multicultural backgrounds bring tremendous advantages that could be leveraged to benefit all Australians. Our geographical location in proximity to Asia, home to seven of the world’s largest economies by 2030, provides an enormous economic imperative. We have well-educated, tech-savvy and entrepreneurial leaders with the cultural understanding, language capabilities and business networks that can facilitate business relationships and trade. At a time of economic uncertainty and shifts in the geopolitical landscape, our multicultural workforce is a major competitive advantage.

As we address global challenges like climate change and rapid technological advancements, that have no geographical borders, our national interest and economic prosperity will depend on how well we harness our resources and continue to attract the global flows of ideas, capital and people and maximise their potential.

Importantly, in the global war for talent, we should note that millennials are demanding diverse and inclusive workplaces. This is critical to attracting and retaining them.

So what is the promise of modern Australia? Can we be a country that embraces the best of all cultural diversity in a healthy mix where everyone has equal opportunities including leadership?

Can Australia redefine its national identity where everyone genuinely has a fair go, irrespective of race, gender, or any other barrier?

Can we start the conversation and recognise the diversity imperative and the opportunity it provides to respond to the forces of globalisation, economics and changing societal values?

Can our leaders open their hearts and minds to genuinely recognise the untapped potential of the mother lode of talent in their organisations that will drive every measure of performance and outcomes? 

As leaders, this is our reality and our challenge, and we would be clever to welcome it.


Dr Marlene Kanga AO FTSE

20 July 2023


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