Call to speak out against race 'hysteria'

'We need more advocacy and agitation from those affected,' says Dr Tim Soutphommasane. (AAP) Source: AAP

Australia's race discrimination commission says 'friends of diversity' must speak out now against the hysteria and panic building around race issues.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has urged "friends of diversity" to speak out against growing racial hysteria and embrace change at the top end of town, as a study reveals Anglo-Celtic men dominate Australia's corporate leadership.

The University of Sydney Business School report Beyond The Pale, released in Sydney on Monday, found while Australia's overall cultural diversity has increased over time, men with Anglo-Celtic heritage still dominate the boards of the country's top 100 ASX listed companies.

Just over half of all Australians, 58 per cent, are from Anglo-Celtic backgrounds, 18 per cent are of European heritage, 21 per cent are non-European and three per cent are indigenous Australians.

The study shows 75 per cent of Australian CEOs are from Anglo-Celtic heritage, 18 per cent are European by descent and five per cent are indigenous or non-European.

Of the 2500 executives surveyed, 97 per cent were Anglo-Celtic or European.

"Our interviewees made it clear that in order to get somewhere, you needed to keep your head down, speak with an Australian accent and belong to a matey club," Associate Professor Dimitria Groutsis, the report's author, said on Monday.

The report quotes one of Australia's few non-Anglo board members as saying she was "tired of being asked about recipes from her homeland rather than being listened to" by her colleagues.

Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane said growing "hysteria" around African gangs, ethnic ghettos and illegal migration was threatening progress on the issue of diversity.

"All friends of diversity must consider their responsibility to speak up, right now, as the hysteria and the panic builds," he said at the report's launch.

Dr Soutphommasane warned Australia's already homogenous corporate leadership groups were at risk of taking "backwards steps" in response.

The report called on Australia's top companies to consider establishing cultural diversity targets for their senior ranks.

It also called for more transparent pathways to the top so positions aren't simply filled by people already in the "network".

Business School dean Greg Whitwell warned if Australia's top 100 companies failed to take advantage of the nation's cultural diversity their creativity and decision making could suffer.

Some directors quoted in the report acknowledged the makeup of their boards did not reflect wider society and they'd failed to capitalise on leaders who understood non-Western markets.

Dr Soutphomasamme said it's taken 10 to 15 years of lobbying for gender equality on boards to see the beginnings of change in recent years.

Cultural diversity could face a similar timeline.

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