There’s a popular saying among those of us who champion representation: that you cannot be what you cannot see.
If you have leafed through Diversity Arts Australia’s report into the state of cultural diversity in Australian arts, media and creative sectors, which was launched on Wednesday, you know that we absolutely cannot see enough diversity in the leadership of our arts, media and creative organisations. What we can see clearly, though, is the necessity of this research and its findings.
The report, titled Shifting the Balance, is a survey of 200 of Australia’s leading arts and culture organisations, government and funding bodies, festivals and prize panels. It found that culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) Australians are underrepresented at the leadership level of every single sector.
CALD Australians make up 39% of the population, but according to the report, just over half (51%) of the organisations surveyed had no CALD representation at any leadership level. ZERO.
That means more than half of these organisations have no creative directors; no senior executives; no CEOs; no awards judges; no board members; no board chairs or deputy chairs from a migrant background. That is a lot of boardroom tables in the arts and cultural sector without a single seat to represent 39% of the population.
I have only had two executives from a CALD background. One of them was Michelle Guthrie, and we all saw how that ended
“As one of the main expressions of our cultural life, the creative sector plays a crucial role in crafting how we see ourselves – the things we consider ‘Australian’ and the things we consider ‘other’,” Arvanitakis says in the report. “We look to our artists, writers, producers and performers to help us define ourselves and to investigate and express our identities. Representation in the arts matters, because the arts matter.”
In 2017 I made two seasons of a podcast called It’s Not A Race. Among my goals were to bring the authority and stories of Indigenous people and people of colour to the centre, and to assess the state of conversations about race and identity we were having in Australia.
In my current ABC radio show Stop Everything! we try to tackle conversations on race, representation and “diversity” (a word that I have a very ambivalent relationship with) through the prism of popular culture.
A few weeks ago, minutes before going live, I went to fill my cup at the water cooler next to the studio. To get there, I wove past former breakfast television host Karl Stefanovic. A flashy personality in the drab corridors of the national broadcaster! It was a dissonant to see him in that context, but there he was.
The fact that we skimmed orbits made me reflect on my own unforeseen path in the media since arriving in Australia 10 years ago. How is it that I – an Asian woman with a suspiciously American-sounding accent (I’m Canadian); an immigrant who showed up in 2009 with two suitcases, no job prospects, no connections and no clue about how to find work in an industry that looked completely inaccessible – would now be breezing by an actual tabloid-famous TV presenter, on my way to co-present my own national radio show?
The report cites research in 2016 which found that 75% of Australia’s media and entertainment industry were “white, male and aged over 35”. And that group makes up the majority of high-profile people in Australian media – on TV, radio, online, in print, at commercial and publicly funded media outlets. I am one of only a few visible women of colour in the national media, and I share my hour each week with another host.
In fact, during 10 years working in the Australian industry, I have only ever had two executive leaders identify as coming from a CALD background. One of them was Michelle Guthrie, former managing director of the ABC, and we all saw how that ended.
The only other time I have ever had an executive producer from a CALD background was during the production of an episode of season two of It’s Not A Race. That’s not a great strike rate, considering I’ve worked across three radio networks and seven programs – but it’s better than zero.
The disparity outlined by the Shifting the Balance report becomes particularly grave when you consider how broadly “CALD” is defined – a problem which Diversity Arts Australia acknowledge within the body of their report.
Here’s the definition: “People who are first, second or third generation migrants or members of ethnic communities. This includes Australian-born people who may self-identify or engage with the languages, customs or cultural specificities of ancestral heritages that differ from those of Anglo-Australians.”
Which brings me back to my friend Karl Stefanovic. He is third-generation Serbian Australian on his father’s side, and therefore – like me – a CALD individual proudly representing in the media. We have more in common than I’d thought.
I’m not saying this to paint another target on Stefanovic’s back; in this instance, he is an innocent bystander being used to illustrate my point. Nor do I mean to criticise Diversity Arts Australia for choosing to focus on CALD and non-CALD leaders. Not at all. We need a starting point, and this is it.
But just think about what their numbers would look like if we tightened the focus: to first generation and foreign-born non-Anglo Australians; to east and south Asian, African, Muslim and Arab people; to people from Central and Latin America diasporas; to people with disability; to people with diversity of gender, class and migration status. I strongly suspect we’d see an even starker dataset, with numbers approaching zero.
I encourage all the leaders across the Australian arts, screen and creative sectors – whether you identify as CALD or not – to look at the numbers in this report. Like me, be disturbed but not discouraged. Be challenged, activated and reflective. Have hard conversations, set goals, take risks and appoint new gatekeepers. Resolve to put these recommended changes in place and support their retention. Because shifting this balance is well within your power – and the health of your industries depend on it.
• This is an edited version of a speech Beverley Wang delivered in Melbourne on Wednesday, at the launch of Shifting the Balance.
• Beverley Wang is a journalist, producer and podcaster, and the co-host of Stop Everything! on the ABC.