Asian Australian Foundation

Tim Soutphommasane delivering the AAF oration.

The Asian Australian Foundation inaugural Oration Dinner has raised the lack of multicultural diversity in the top positions of leading Australian organisations, in a speech delivered by Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane.

The annual oration, which was held this year at the Melbourne Arts Centre on 5 June, aims to showcase and celebrate the contribution and impact of significant leaders of Asian heritage to Australia, communities and the world.

During his speech, Soutphommasane discussed his recent research into the ethnic background of 2,500 senior leaders in Australian organisations, which he conducted in partnership with the University of Sydney Business School and the Asia Society Committee for Sydney.

“Close to a quarter of our population, or 24%, has neither non-European background or indigenous background, but if we look at our senior leaders, we find only 5% have a non-European or indigenous background,” Soutphommasane said.

“If you look at the [CEOs of] ASX-200 [companies], you find the number is eight – just enough to fit in a Tarago.”

Soutphommasane said that while the figures shouldn’t make Australians from Anglo or European backgrounds feel bad, they should prompt us to ask questions about why the underrepresentation is happening.

“If we are such a successful multicultural society, if we see diversity so richly represented in our top achieving students in high schools and universities, and among graduates getting into our most prestigious institutions, then does it not strike us as unusual or amiss that we have such a disproportionate representation of diversity in our leadership team?

“Some would say that it is only a matter of time, but this is a product of time.”

Soutphommasane said the vast majority of Australians are willing to do the right thing and are committed to non discrimination. However, preserving Australia’s success as a diverse nation of migrants means that everyone has a responsibility to show leadership.

“Those who care about diversity need to speak up on behalf of diversity, because if you are not going to do it, no one is going to do it for you. But on speaking up, we need to take heart from knowing that when voices come together, when people express solidarity, things can happen,” Soutphommasane said.

“I reflect on my five years as racial discrimination commissioner and nothing gives me more pride than seeing indigenous Australians, migrant Australians, and Australians of goodwill more generally speaking up in defence of racial equality and tolerance.

“I look at what the Asian Australian Foundation is doing in the realm of philanthropy, I look at the people gathered here and I am confident here that if there are to be challenges to our future, if there are to be threats to our harmony, then we will again see people stand up.”

The AAF was founded in 2015 by former KPMG Asia Pacific chief operating officer for risk Cheri Ong with the aim of providing a platform for Asian Australians to not only contribute but practice leadership and changing mindsets to create a more empowered and giving community.

Generosity recently spoke to Cheri Ong about the Asian Australian Foundation, The Gathering Circle and challenging stereotypes. Click here to read the interview.