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I #ChooseToChallenge leaders to discuss Intersectional Feminism on International Women’s Day #womenlead

With the theme of International Women’s Day #ChooseToChallenge, and the UN theme of Women in Leadership, #womenlead, I choose to challenge business leaders, owners and C-suite teams on how they’re advocating for culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) women’s pathway to leadership. 

Why single out CALD women? Because while we celebrate all women on March 8th and the progress we’ve made and continue to push for, we need to remember that culturally diverse women do not spring from the same starting block as Anglo women. The additional challenges, barriers and constructs that CALD women come up against in the workplace are more complex and stem from a history wrought with exclusion and segregation.

What I write about is called Intersectional Feminism. Intersectionality simply refers to how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics “intersect” with one another and overlap to create compounding disadvantage. There is historical inequity with CALD women owing to these intersections, and the conversation is therefore not on gender equality but gender equity. 

We need business leaders (male and female) to understand this difference and articulate this advocacy for CALD women within their organisation because it’s a kinder, more humanistic way to do business and better for business performance.

First Challenge: Walk in their shoes

After launching MindTribes and Culturally Diverse Women (CDW) and working with clients I heard, and still do hear, some of the following messages from CEOs, Boards, senior executives, Chief People Officers and Heads of D&I, predominantly Anglo Saxon or of European descent:

  • Do you have to refer to Anglo Saxon, European, Women of Colour, CALD women – isn’t this in itself divisive?
  • Cultural diversity seems complex, we are not ready yet
  • We already recognise International Women’s Day, and then we also do Harmony Week
  • I am colour blind – I don’t see colour at all
  • Just be patient; just as the gender movement evolved, so too will cultural diversity

While these messages were frustrating and added to my feelings of exclusion as a woman of colour, they also did much to highlight the problem that we, at MindTribes, seek to solve. I share the above examples not to trigger you, the reader, the CEO, the Board Member, etc. as perhaps you have said or thought these things in the past, but to open your mind to ways in which you can support in redressing the inequity that CALD women in the workforce face.

So, my first challenge to you is to identify at least five women of colour in your business and consider where in the business they sit – how far are they from the executive leadership levels?  Consider how you can safely find out what their lived experience is in your organisation as CALD women – consider an experienced facilitator who is a CALD woman. You need to walk in their shoes – you need to listen non-judgementally to their story. 

Second Challenge: Acknowledge and sit with the facts 

In the last year alone, a lot of key moments have brought to light the existence of racial inequity and shed new light and understanding of how we must advance together from here on in. All of these moments have accelerated senior people in the private and public sectors saying no to racism and acknowledging the benefits of multiculturalism. 

As a result, I now see that at least people are in a dialogue, but we are in the space of getting familiar but not yet acting. As part of our collective learning and acknowledgment, I challenge you to understand some important statistics: 

The Scanlon Foundation’s social cohesion 2020 report revealed – that while 84% of respondents agreed that multiculturalism has been good for Australia: 

  • 37 per cent of respondents held a negative attitude towards Muslims
  • 47 per cent had negative feelings towards Chinese Australians.
  • 49 per cent of respondents said they held ‘very negative’ or ‘somewhat negative’ feelings towards people of Iraqi and Sudanese backgrounds

Twenty per cent of all women experience being an “only” in the room compared with 46 per cent of women of colour who experience this (Women in the Workplace, 2020 Report, Mckinsey US)

Only 15 of all 1,482 CEOs, 44 of all 2,437 senior execs, 188 of all 7,491 directors and 55 of all 1,350 CFOs are culturally diverse women (Diversity Council Australia 20170)

Only 1.9 per cent of ASX leadership are culturally and linguistically diverse women (Diversity Council Australia, 2017)

And finally, 

The 2019 Chief Executive Women’s report on “Increasing Male Engagement” found that; Whilst three out of four Australian men support gender equality, most of the same cohort don’t work actively to identify, hire, advance and support women in their workplaces.

This leads me to my third challenge:

Third Challenge: Act Now

While acknowledgment is important, the cynic in me also thinks it’s not enough, which the last statistic I shared illustrates perfectly – these are men and likely women too, who might very well be a woman of colour’s leader. 

How you ask? 

  1. Ask some questions: Let’s start with Anglo and European men and women in senior roles questioning; ‘what am I actively doing to advance women of colour?’, ‘Do I have those negative sentiments in my workplace (from the Scanlon Foundation)?’ or ‘Am I working at breaking down those negative sentiments in my workplace?’ 
  2. Long term planning for change: Are you moving toward a target with the number of CALD women in leadership? What is the investment you are likely to make over the long term?  
  3. Short term planning for change and agile in-the-moment allyship and advocacy: Agile, in the moment allyship means if you are in a meeting and you know a CALD woman is not being given the space to show her competence, open up that space on her behalf, “Quynh, would you like to share what you have been working on, this group would benefit from your expertise…” Be an advocate: sponsor change that improves a CALD women’s career trajectory and builds capability and agency in her. CALD women need a safe community to work through biases and barriers – this self-discovery, self-leadership and valuing of identity is best done with experts and other like-minded CALD women before including allies and advocates in the conversation. 

For example, our CDW Masterclass is a corporate-sponsored program that seeks to give CALD women the tools and agency to advocate for herself within her organisation, activate allies around her and to understand the bias and barriers she is faced with and set goals and milestones within this understanding.

Intersectional Feminism is Australia’s challenge in our International Women’s Day conversations and gender equality action plans. I myself can see the subtle shift – e.g., in the seven speaking engagements I have for IWD, six of them have never had a Women of Colour as a keynote – why? And I wonder what will happen next? Well, that is up to all of us working together but Walk in my shoes, Walk in our shoes first.

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Div Pillay

Div Pillay

Div Pillay is the CEO and Co-Founder of MindTribes, an award-winning organisation launched in 2012 to help businesses harness both the human and commercial benefits of greater inclusion and diversity. Recently named as one of two Australians in a list of 25 Global Influential Leaders by AACSB International – the world’s largest business education alliance.

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