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.