Leadership: a collective effort

Photo from the Leadership Development Course for Islamic Women Leaders visit to MCWH.

Photo from the Leadership Development Course for Islamic Women Leaders visit to MCWH.

Once again, new data confirms that women from immigrant backgrounds are disadvantaged when it comes to progressing to leadership positions in the workplace. This latest finding echoes the Australian Human Rights Commission’s study from the same time last year that highlighted key leadership positions across the business, government and tertiary sectors are still the stronghold of Anglo-Celtic men.

How can we make headway on the lack of immigrant women in visible leadership? Given that white men are not inherently better leaders, why do they dominate the leadership ladder while immigrant women are left to cling to the bottom rung? While more research is essential (good policy should be the result of good evidence), we think it’s equally important to make visible the contexts in which great leadership is recognised, valued and nurtured.

One step toward this is rethinking the idea of leadership as being only about individuals, as if personal characteristics are the deal-breakers in leadership success. There are, of course, many qualities that a great leader should have. However an overly prescriptive and overly individualised approach to leadership can hide the contexts – the circumstances – in which leadership roles are sought after, gained or, in the case of many immigrant women, never attained.

As we’ve pointed out before, many immigrant women have unique obstacles to negotiate (recognition of overseas qualifications for a start), which invariably limit their capacity to participate fully, if at all, in formal leadership opportunities. Immigrant and refugee women are subject to a ‘triple jeopardy’ of inequality due to their gender, ethnicity and immigrant status and it is this combination of factors that needs to be recognised as the starting point for promoting women’s leadership. To quote our Race Discrimination Commissioner, ‘breaking the glass ceiling and cracking the bamboo ceiling should not be regarded as mutually exclusive’. In other words, gender, cultural and racial diversity should be non-negotiable elements of inclusive and diverse leadership.

We need to stop viewing leadership as a highly individual project, only requiring individual effort or serving highly individualised ends. If immigrant women are under-represented or rather, locked out of the leadership ranks because of racism and discrimination, then we need to direct our collective leadership efforts towards changing the conditions of immigrant women’s lives. Collective leadership will involve supporting and celebrating individual women on their own leadership paths. However more than that, collective leadership will raise the circumstances of all immigrant women, and push through whatever manner of ceiling is set – glass, bamboo or patriarchal. We might even bring the house down.

Elder Abuse: it’s not just about age

Photo of an older woman smiling

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Ageing, as in the grey and wrinkly variety, is rarely spoken about in the youth-obsessed cultures of countries like Australia. The invisibility of older people in the public consciousness is a concern and when older people are treated unfairly and denied opportunities in everyday life then it’s also a clear case of ageism. Just as racism isn’t entirely about race, ageism isn’t simply about chronology, but a form of prejudice that stereotypes difference and erases individual experience.

While luck and good genes certainly play a role, reaching and living though old age also relies on your capacity to maintain a reasonable level of health and wellbeing. Along with physical and cognitive changes, older people must also deal with changing economic, social and cultural circumstances. Retirement, loss of loved ones and social connections, loneliness, migration and increased dependency are just some of the factors that, along with age, can increase an older person’s vulnerability. Yet Australia’s ageing population is often categorised as a homogenous form of ‘diversity’ rather than a population that is in itself diverse.

Elder abuse, as a specific form of violence that affects elderly women, is a good case in point. Elder abuse is generally defined as any harmful act directed at an older person and that occurs within a relationship where there is an expectation of trust. Like all definitions, however, this is only the starting point for understanding what the interconnected issues and solutions might be. Older women, as with the rest of the Australian population, are a diverse group. Understanding the diversity that exists between, across and within certain groups of older women is critical for preventing and responding to elder abuse.

For older immigrant and refugee women, vulnerability is not only tied to all the other vulnerabilities typically tied to older age, but also to their experiences as non-English speakers, as newly-arrived migrants, and/or as carers to their Australian grandchildren. Immigrant women’s reliance on family members for translation and financial transactions, for example, has implications for potential abuse. In addition, intergenerational responsibilities and power dynamics between older women and other family members play out differently across different immigrant groups. All these factors require careful consideration.

If we’re now at a point in time that understands gender needs must be the focus of violence  prevention efforts, then it will serve us well to remember that it is an intersectional, gendered approach that will help us not only identify, but expose the persistent and underlying issues driving violence against women.

The lesser value assigned to older people—particularly older women—might signify our fears about going grey and wrinkly, yet it’s the relative invisibility of older immigrant and refugee women that is perhaps more telling of the deeper thinking required to advance gender equality for all women.

For older immigrant and refugee women, prevention of elder abuse needs to expose and respond to ageism, racism, and other discriminatory practices, all at the same time.

MCWH and the University of Melbourne’s joint submission to the Australian Law Reform Commission can be accessed here.