Invisibility of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Australians in boardrooms: A missed opportunity?

31st May 2022

Authors: Dr Shaouli Shahid, Senior Lecturer and Mr Fred Yasso, Interim Director, Centre for Aboriginal Studies, Curtin University, Western Australia.

Rob Riley, a West Australian Aboriginal activist, and leader wrote in his suicide note, ‘I have experienced and witnessed so much trauma, shame and guilt that I can’t make peace with myself.’ (Beresford, 2006, p.1) Making peace to his conscience was critical for Rob’s health, wellbeing and survival. Rob had to be true to himself. He was fearless, was an active agent and fought for establishing Indigenous rights till his last breath. He felt the responsibility to be accountable to his own communities, ancestors, spirits and Country. In the end, he possibly could not cope with the sufferings anymore and lost the battle (Beresford, 2006). It is a failure of the structure of Australian society that has been unable to acknowledge, incorporate and accommodate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians (hereafter respectfully referred to as ‘Indigenous Australians’) knowledges, wisdom and rich cultural traditions and background into Australian forefront leadership and decision-making.

Prior to British colonisation and settlement in Australia, there were hundreds of diverse Aboriginal nations in this continent each of which had its own linguistic, legal, political, cultural traditions and customs. Indigenous Australians had complex rules and protocols that determined how to conduct businesses amongst different groups. Groups of peoples learning to share the resources of this land in a sustainable society that had navigated two ice ages and survived for at least 65,000 years through these vastly changing environments. (Clarkson et al, 2017) In contrast, non-Indigenous Australians are a product of Australia’s hidden history, with the systemic and purposeful ignorance of the existence of Indigenous Australians through Terra Nullius, Australian Constitution, and each of the State’s Protection Acts. This trove of legislation and governance structures defined the subservient relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The ignorance of the Federal government to the plight of Indigenous Australians and the removal of legal protection created by the first Constitution set the tone from the pinnacle of governance in Australia to one grounded in their ideas being superior to that of the uncivilised race. These structures were only legally deconstructed in the 1960s and continuing into the 1990s with Mabo. Alas, this governing culture of 204 years from 1788 to 1992 still permeates into the unspoken ethos of business and government that Indigenous Australians are not able to govern themselves, that Indigenous Australians need to be shown how to govern for their own good. These beliefs and attitudes contribute to the inability of successive governments to close the gap in Indigenous disadvantage.

The unacceptable Gaps exist in every sphere of Indigenous Australia lives, including, health, education, life-expectancy, socio-economic conditions, crime and incarceration rates. A recent report on the country's Indigenous employment in Australia has highlighted negligible representation of Indigenous Australians in leadership and corporate roles. Co-authored by the Minderoo Foundation, Murawin and Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre, the Woort Koorliny ('moving forward') report has revealed only 0.7 per cent of Indigenous Australians hold senior positions within the 31 employers that reported the relevant data (Tamer, 2022). This is not surprising or unexpected. However, Australian corporates and businesses are the losers who are missing out such a rich, diverse, authentic cultural perspectives and knowledges that could enrich business innovation, planning and decision-making. Noongar woman and CEO of Minderoo Foundation's initiative, Generation One, Shelley Cable expressed her disappointments, 'We know that there's such incredible leadership amongst Indigenous Australians in this country, and to see that not reflected in the leadership of corporate Australia, it's probably unnatural'. (Tamer, 2022)

We echo her disappointments because if we look at the Indigenous accomplishments, we will see that Indigenous peoples have successfully left their footsteps in science, education, arts, music, sports, politics and economy (Australian Government, n.d.). Yet, Indigenous voices have often been overlooked in decision-making and leadership. Stories of Indigenous achievements are rarely highlighted in mainstream media. For instance, the Young Indigenous Women STEM Academy helps young Indigenous women achieve their potentials in STEM fields. The Centre for Appropriate Technology (CfAT) works to bring infrastructure and technology solutions to the communities, and they have constructed two state-of-the-art commercial satellite ground stations in Alice Springs. Likewise, Australian Indigenous cosmetics and hair care brand Dilkara Australia is proving a hit with global consumers keen for products made from Australian native botanicals renowned for their healing qualities. James Curran, part owner of a pipeline construction business, is a finalist in the 32nd Ethnic Business Awards Indigenous in Business category (Australian Government, n.d.). These success stories and many more like these are a true reflection of what Australia is, and can be, utilising and capitalising on local resources, manpower and Indigenous knowledges.

The experienced, senior and respected Elders instead of ‘leaders’, ‘king’ or ‘chief’, actively play the leadership roles and are held in high esteem in Indigenous community decision-making. Traditionally, Indigenous languages did not have a word to refer to ‘leaders’. (Korff, 2022). Frances Morphy, a Fellow at The Australian National University explained, leadership must be 'constantly earned. It is a process rather than simply an ascribed position in a hierarchy'. (Korff, 2022) Indigenous knowledges are reflexive and based on a relational worldview. Relationships to land (Country), people and the environment are at the centre of the Indigenous worldview. All forms of interactions and actions take place respecting these relationships. Thus, Elders also do need to possess certain personal traits and characteristics that conform to this relational philosophical underpinning, including cultural knowledges, protocols and networks. Elders prioritise communal benefits over personal interests. They are negotiators who are respectful, fair, confident, honest, transparent, enthusiastic and non-egoistic, and are accountable to their own family and to their own communities. Elders do consult with everyone while making decisions in order to maintain a harmonious relationship within the community. Indigenous Elders reflect on own values, interests and beliefs in every step of their actions (Katsonis, 2019; Korff, 2022).

Determining leaders in Indigenous context is quite challenging as Australian Indigenous communities are extremely diverse – culturally, politically, economically, historically. Any policy, program and solution need to be tailored to address local needs. Similarly, local leaders/ Elders/ representatives also need to be elected locally (Korff, 2022). The dynamics of Indigenous communities and such diversities in the positions of ‘Indigenous leaders’ have hardly ever been taken into consideration by the White dominated ruling parties. White Australia always used their own lens and expected Indigenous structures to be like White societal hierarchies in political, administrative and civic spaces therefore bypassing the Indigenous communities’ leadership choices. This narrow lens fails to consider that Indigenous governance protocols and practices can teach modern leaders how to meet the demands of diverse communities in a way that is sustainable and self-determined. It has been our experience as minorities in Australia to witness successive non-Indigenous leaders struggle with the concept of innovative and creative leaders coming from minority groups without patronising remarks or feigned surprise about Indigenous leaders’ abilities and skill. Advancement for Indigenous employees has a ceiling within government and business to that of middle management. If there is an elevation to the upper echelon within these structures it is viewed as an oddity, peculiarity or unique event that can be waived away as tokenistic or a handout. As has happened in centuries past Indigenous Australians adapt and create and innovate solutions to bypass this exclusion. 

Indigenous peoples have also been excluded from the mainstream economy. However, Indigenous Australians are now taking up business ownership and small-scale entrepreneurship as a medium for self-determination and economic liberty. From a base of 4,600 Indigenous peoples being in business or self-employed corporations in 1991, today there are close to 20,000. Between 2011 and 2016, numbers grew by 30 per cent (Evan, 2019). Annually, Indigenous businesses bring in a total of $A4.9 billion which is well over the revenue of the entirety of Australia’s beer industry output. This does not include the additional economic, social and cultural benefits that these businesses and employment opportunities bring to Indigenous communities (Evans and Polidano, 2021). The Indigenous business sector is diverse and thriving and working in every industry sector. However, until now, there has been little insight into this sector. A concerted effort, commitment, and plan to support the development and continued growth of Indigenous businesses is required from the government. Employers should not be missing out on the values and the perspectives that Indigenous Australians could bring to the corporate tables. (Tamer, 2022)

Some initiatives are being undertaken by Australian government and Indigenous organisations in developing true partnerships to ensure Indigenous involvement in local and regional decision-making. The Indigenous-designed and led Empowered Communities [a transformational reform that aims to empower communities by empowering people] initiative is one such example. The Aboriginal Governance and Leadership Development Program is another multi-dimensional initiative providing opportunities for Indigenous peoples in corporate governance, procurement, and business leadership. This year, the Australian people voted in eight new Indigenous representatives in Federal parliament for the next term, along with two sitting senators (Zaunmayr, 2022).

Despite these efforts, Australia still has a long way to go. To move forward and to bloom with her true colours, Australian government needs to employ long-term, systematic, genuine and concerted efforts, partnership and planning to embrace Australia’s Indigenous heritage and cultures. Australia is a multi-coloured, multi-cultural, diverse country in the South-east Asian region. Respecting, embracing and capitalising on this diversity of Australia and this region is where Australia’s bright future lies. Along with ‘truth-telling’ [telling the truth about history] and ‘being brave’ [Theme of 2022 National Reconciliation Week in Australia] in admitting the punitive realities of colonisation and its aftermaths, the positive future lies in each one of our hands where all Australians can come forward to work together to write our reconciliated history together. This will be a statement of pride in true Australian cultural existence and inclusion.

Acknowledgement: This article has been generously reviewed by our colleagues at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies, Curtin University. We would like to thank Associate Professor Robyn Heckenberg, Mr Robert Shaw and Ms Jeannie Morrison for their time in reviewing this article and making suggestions. We also would like to thank Associate Professor Richard Oloruntoba for his support.


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