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.

Leadership in action

SCC Multicultural Champions- Graduation 2015

SCC Multicultural Champions- Graduation 2015

What does it mean to be a leader? Is it something you’re born with or a skill that you develop? Are there differences in how a leader is conceptualised across different cultures and different workplaces? It’s an opportune time to be focusing on women and leadership in the workplace: the Federal Government has just released a plan for achieving gender equality in the public service and by the end of the year, the Victorian government will have developed a Gender Equality Strategy.

Australia also recently made a G20 commitment to boost women’s workforce participation by twenty-five per cent. The report acknowledges that individual skills and experience will always play a role in leadership, however it also notes how structural and systemic barriers play a large part in how and where women work. While leadership can be seen as a set of skills that can be developed, emphasis must be placed on creating flexible working arrangements for the large percentage of women who are balancing work with caring and parenting responsibilities.  With the right or rather, tailored, support, women will not only feel more valued in the workplace but will be more likely to take on leadership positions within organisations.

In order to achieve gender equality for all, we need to also examine how workplace policies and practices might apply to immigrant and refugee women specifically, particularly in sectors where immigrant and refugee women make up a large percentage of the workforce, such as aged care services.

These are just some of the issues being addressed as part of the PACE Leadership Program being run in collaboration with Southern Cross Care Victoria (SCCV). Based on MCWH’s  existing PACE model (Participant, Advocate, Communicate, Engage), the program is specifically tailored for immigrant and refugee women working in aged care and will build women’s capacity to seek out and participate in leadership opportunities both at work and in their personal life.

By taking an intersectional approach, the PACE program acknowledges that there are unique obstacles for immigrant and refugee women, which often include settlement issues relating to employment, recognition of overseas qualifications, English language proficiency and caring responsibilities. The majority of workers (74%) interviewed as a precursor to developing the program described one or more systemic issues which led them to pursue a job in the aged care sector primarily because they felt they had limited opportunities elsewhere.

The PACE Program is one important component in improving women’s confidence to not only advocate for themselves in the workplace, but also to see their role in the workplace as important and valued. It’s equally important that workplaces are giving women opportunities to develop their skills and take the lead. By focusing on building immigrant and refugee women’s capacity through programs like PACE, workplaces can be better placed to support immigrant and refugee women become future leaders.

For further information about the PACE Leadership Program, please contact Monique Hameed, National Training Officer, email Monique@mcwh.com.au or call 03 9418 0915

Submission to the Victorian Gender Equality Strategy

MCWH is proud to share our submission to the Victorian Gender Equality Strategy, which was endorsed by eleven regional and state-wide women’s organisations including: Women’s Health In the North; Women’s Health in the Southeast; Women’s Health East; Women’s Health West; Women’s Health and Wellbeing Barwon South West; Women’s Health Grampians; Women’s Health Goulburn North East; Gippsland Women’s Health; Women’s Health Victoria; Women with Disabilities Victoria; and Positive Women Victoria.

We are also very pleased to endorse submissions made to the Strategy by these organisations.
Because MCWH is a national, community based organisation committed to the achievement of health and wellbeing for and by immigrant and refugee women, our submission focuses on the needs of immigrant and refugee women.

Click here to read the full submission, including our recommendations.