Leadership barriers continue to impact women from diverse backgrounds

Last updated on 13 February 2024

A new study from Monash University has sourced first hand evidence of the barriers facing diverse women seeking leadership roles in Australia. [Source: Shutterstock]

Impactful research from Monash University has explored the leadership barriers women from diverse backgrounds face, revealing ongoing resignation and despair over the lack of First Nations and Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) representation in leadership roles.

‘No one can actually see us in positions of power’: the intersectionality between gender and culture for women in leadership explored the wide range of intertwined factors that can impede career progression, including gender, ethnicity, class, sexuality and ability.

Lead author Professor Helen Skouteris said women are consistently underrepresented as leaders despite Australia being one of the most culturally, ethnically, and linguistically diverse countries.

“Yet women in leadership roles are currently not representing this diversity. We cannot continue to focus solely on gender inequity; the lack of cultural diversity in women in leadership is equally as serious and must be addressed urgently,” Professor Skouteris said.

Although there has been an improvement in the number of women occupying leadership positions, women of colour and women from minorities continue to be impacted by inequality. The research highlighted this still occurs in sectors such as healthcare even though female representation is well above average compared to other sectors. 

With a desire to learn more about what can be done, Professor Skouteris and her fellow authors contacted five female leaders to learn more about their lived experiences. The women included: Senator Penny Wong, Yoorrook Justice Commissioner Sue-Anne Hunter, Mariam Veiszadeh of Media Diversity Australia, Judge Nola Karapanagiotidis, and Duré Dara OAM, the first woman Victorian Restaurant and Caterers Association president.

Professor Helen Skouteris is the report’s lead author and an award-winning academic in multiple fields. [Source: Monash University]

Overall, the women acknowledged that a slow shift in culture has occurred and some gains have been made as women leaders break down barriers for the coming generations. Ms Veiszadeh acknowledged female advocates for their hard work as women are starting to see their impact in leadership spaces.

“We’re going to have to wait to see if there’s going to be systemic change but we are certainly starting to see a level of impact with a heightened level of awareness and it’s being done because of organisations like Women of Colour [and] other organisations that are starting to quantify what the problem is by putting research out there that speaks to this specific issue,” she said.

What does change look like?

The interviews and research conducted by Monash University identified key themes such as ongoing European and masculine privilege, a lack of awareness towards systemic barriers and limited understanding and approaches to First Nations and CALD leadership.

“I think society still privileges, values, identifies particular traits as leadership, which are associated with how men have led, and a particular type of man,” Senator Wong said.

“I think the more important thing for us to think about is… within the broader society, how do we engage with men and women who may have a view that equality is a good idea but don’t necessarily see or understand the ways in which behaviours can ratify existing structural inequality?”

But what are the ways to create understanding and influence change? First and foremost, feedback points to put an end to barriers and provide more room for understanding how complex diversity truly is.

“It is a different experience to a woman of a non-European background, a woman who’s born in Afghanistan like myself, a woman who’s got a darker skin tone, a woman who has an accent, a woman that has to contend with being visibly and physically different,” Ms Veiszadeh said.

“The value of a First Nations person is very low in this country. The value of a First Nations woman is even lower, white men and white women cannot and do not actually see us in positions of power,” Ms Hunter added.

Greater flexibility, established leadership diversity policies, more mentoring and female collaboration and a language shift from exclusion and division to inclusion were also identified as much-needed changes. Additionally, the authors made four recommendations for those looking to strengthen leadership diversity:

  • Intersectionality matters: The intersection between gender and race is missing in the structural work being undertaken to promote women in leadership.
  • Understanding the problem and generating solutions: Women with lived experience must have a voice and the opportunity and support to lead discussions and decision-making.
  • Reversing existing paradigms: Equity and inclusion of women from diverse racial backgrounds in leadership requires system-level change.
  • Layers of intersectionality: Other layers beyond gender and race shape the experience of First Nations and CALD women, who may face further disadvantages due to sexual identity, gender identity, disability and/or migrant or refugee status.

While some of the recommendations and changes may not be easy to enact when asked what ‘better’ looks like, the women agreed that recognising disadvantages and supporting diverse women to occupy leadership roles is one simple way to achieve better.

“Much more diversity of roles and structures of people working together challenging all the structures of leadership – it has to be looked at because it has been encapsulated by one culture,” Ms Dara said.

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