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Diversity in the workplace

Introduction

Cultural differences can sometimes complicate the process of university teaching and learning. Similarly, cultural diversity within the workplace environment may affect your professional practice and learning during the practicum placement. It is important, therefore, that you are aware of and prepared to work with the cultural variables you may encounter in the workplace.

Cultural diversity

Cultural diversity refers to differences in values and customary practices between groups of people from different backgrounds. These ‘cultural variables’ include such factors as:

  • Sense of self (including assumptions about autonomy and responsibility to others).
  • Communication and language (including verbal and non-verbal expression).
  • Understanding of (and relationship to) authority.
  • Use of physical space (e.g. what is considered an appropriate distance for conversation).
  • Use of time (e.g. speed of carrying out activities, promptness in keeping appointments).
  • Food and customs around eating (e.g. whether eating is seen as a social or individual process).
  • Attitudes to work (e.g. whether work is seen as a high status activity or an unfortunate necessity).
  • Definition of success (e.g. whether measured in terms of income, social esteem or self-fulfilment).
  • Beliefs about how relationships should be conducted.
  • Value placed on personal appearance or hygiene.
  • Beliefs about education and its worth.

(Adapted from Pamela Myers Kiser, ‘Getting the Most from your Human Services Internship’, Wadsworth, Belmont (Calif), 2000, pp106-107)

These cultural variables may differ according to a wide range of contextual factors: age, gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, religious affiliations or personal circumstances. In this section of the module we will touch on three of these: race, ethnicity and gender.

Race

If your placement is in a rural/remote environment, you are likely to have some contact with clients or colleagues from Aboriginal backgrounds. The history of the relationship between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals in a workplace or professional setting incorporates many stories of cultural misunderstanding and prejudice. Reading this account of labour market marginalisation and this report on communication problems in the classroom should help you gain some insight into this history and make you aware of why some relationships are the way they are today.

Ethnicity

Despite over a hundred and fifty years of migration to Australia from Europe and Asia, there is still a lack of understanding about cultural differences among people from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB).

Ignorance of these differences can adversely affect professional work and client relationships, as illustrated in these accounts of intercultural communication in legal, employment and welfare settings.

Gender

Some writers argue that the differences between males and females in western countries are as important as the cultural gaps between different societies. John Gray (‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’, Thorsons, London 1993) argues that men and women do in fact think, feel and behave differently, and that these differences can have a significant impact on interpersonal relationships.

So what are the cultural differences between the sexes in a workplace environment? How do men and women think, feel and behave in this environment, and what are the implications of this? Deborah Tannen (‘Talking from 9 to 5’, Virago, London, 1994) suggests that the way medical students feel about asking questions in workplace settings can differ according to gender, with important implications for patients as well as the students’ careers. Do female and male medical students think, feel and behave differently? Are male students more likely to make an educated guess rather than risk their reputation by asking for clarification? How many medical errors have resulted from decisions to guess rather than ask? No doubt you have you own thoughts on this, but you may find it helpful to have a look at this fact sheet on male/female communication styles.

Communication style differences between genders may create problems, but if you are prepared to recognise the differences and allow for them in your workplace relationships, you should not have too many problems. Candy Tymson’s views on the problems of gender communication and her tips for both men and women make interesting reading, and Ellen Barry’s article Mars and Venus Go to Work provides an extended commentary on the topic of gender differences in the workplace. What do you think of these views? Note your thoughts in your Portfolio, giving your reasons for either agreeing or disagreeing with Tymson and Barry.

Other resources

There are many different ways to understand diverse groups, their worldviews and the cultural variables that affect these. Films can provide insights into the lives of others and allow us to appreciate diverse worldviews. The film ‘Once Were Warriors’ comments on class, gender relationships and race issues in New Zealand. ‘East is East’ shows a humorous account of a Pakistani family’s survival in the foreign environment of Northern England, while ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ is a sensitive portrayal of the cultural tensions experienced by a young Australian girl from an ethnic background. ‘Bend it Like Beckham’ portrays gender, race and cultural issues. Can you think of other films with a multicultural theme? Make a note of these in your Portfolio.

Other art and literary forms also portray diverse worldviews and the problems encountered by ‘foreigners’ in countries or situations in which they do not belong to the dominant culture. Can you think of any novels, poetry, paintings or sculptures that portray worldviews different from yours? List these in your Portfolio. You may like to discuss these with your friends, family members and fellow students.

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