Shane Houston is showing off an Aboriginal sculpture that stands on his office balcony overlooking the quadrangle at Sydney University. He explains that the totem-like pole is an artistic expression of Aboriginal people’s attachment to place. Set against the backdrop of the hallowed Gothic Revival university buildings, the symbolism is unmistakeable.
Houston, who began working life as a foundry labourer, is Australia’s most senior Aboriginal academic. Deputy Vice-Chancellor since 2011, Houston laughs when he says that permission to erect the sculpture went through three internal committees before it was granted. The journey of Aboriginal students to a place like Sydney University and on into good, well-paid jobs has far greater hurdles to overcome.
But this is where they belong and this is where they have to believe they belong, says Houston. One of the biggest problems is perception. “For a start, people assume that most Aboriginal people live ‘out bush’. They don’t; 75 per cent live in major cities or country towns. Australia paints Aborigines as just a bundle of problems. It has created a series of lenses through which Aboriginal people are interpreted rather than looking at the reality.”
Workplaces, says Houston, are one of the most difficult environments to challenge stereotypical views. Many businesses will think that attracting Aboriginal talent is the challenge, but retention is often more problematic.
“When cultures bang up against each other, it can create friction. We don’t have to teach everyone about every culture in the world. But we do have to understand that we are all cultural beings and we bring a series of conscious and unconscious biases into work.”
Houston thinks it’s a shame that not enough investment is made in time or money to educate people about cultural differences in the workplace. “Take Sydney University. We don’t just want to be known as Australia’s oldest university. We want to be known as the university that engages with cultures from all over the world. How do we make the university reflect diverse cultures beyond the bricks and mortar, to the spaces in between the buildings and the activities that go on here?”
Diversity works only if it is part of the organisational culture of an institution, he says. “It’s not enough to say ‘We’ve always done it this way’. Systems and policies must be free of cultural bias and keep pace with changing circumstances.” Professional standards must also reflect an appreciation of intercultural space, “as well as individuals asking themselves, ‘What do I need to do to ensure I don’t exclude people so that, operationally, things aren’t based on my culture alone?’”
Houston’s own values were clarified by his father’s experience. A soldier during World War II and in Korea, Houston senior was paid less than the white Australians he fought alongside. “When I questioned him about it, he said, ‘One thing you have to know about going to war, son, is that it has nothing to do with what you are being paid.’ His absolute grasp of the things that trouble us and the things that give us hope influenced me a great deal.”
Houston, who describes himself as “a glass half full person”, believes employment attitudes are shifting. “We ran a survey that asked employers about building workplaces that have intercultural abilities and competencies. I expected the response to be, ‘We need to do this because it affects the bottom line.’ But the majority said first of all, it’s the right thing to do and secondly, it’s good for business. That surprised me but it also gave me hope.”
This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the May 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘A place for everyone’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.