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.

The WRAP # 28: Party Spoilers, 2014 Highlights and 60 seconds with Hale Yildiz


Can it be that we are at the end of another year?

It feels like we have come a long way in such a short space of time. Thanks to everyone who has supported us this year, we feel like we’ve made so many new friends and allies and we just couldn’t do the work we do without you! Special thanks to those of you who came to see us at our AGM celebration. It was great to hear diverse voices talking about the impact our work has had on women and organisations, and it was a wonderful way to end the year. If you missed it, why not check out the video presentation we screened on the day!
To celebrate the end of 2014, we’re counting six of the best gifts the year gave us, celebrating the party spoilers and spending a fascinating 60 seconds with the newest member of the MCWH family,  Hale Yildiz.

For those of you who get a break in the coming weeks, have a happy, healthy break and we hope to see you safe and well in 2015.

Celebrating the Party Spoilers

Untitled (Sergey Sus/flickr)

Sergey Sus untitled

Whether it’s the end-of-year work parties, the start-of-summer BBQs or family get-togethers, for many of us December is a time of intense socialising. That’s why December is also a particularly dangerous month for becoming ‘the party spoiler’.

We have all been there: standing around at a party, overhearing someone telling a sexist joke or a racist joke or a sexist and racist joke, and thinking, I really need to say something but then I’m going to be labelled “the party spoiler” or “the troublemaker” or “the one who can’t take a joke”.

Each of us will have a different level of comfort about speaking up. Some of us wouldn’t hesitate. But it is not always an easy thing to take the plunge and “spoil the party”, particularly if the “offender” is someone you want or need to get along well with: your uncle, your neighbours or your partner’s new boss. Power relationships still exist at parties and many of us can be intimidated to disagree with work colleagues in positions of power, or with relatives who may be our elders. As immigrant and refugee women, choosing to speak out in these situations can make us feel like we’re creating more distance between ourselves and the person whose opinions we find offensive. And it’s a party, after all, we should just let it go, shouldn’t we?

There is no right or wrong way to handle these situations and everyone is different. But at this time of festivity and joy, we’d like to celebrate all the party spoilers out there. Thank you for speaking out, thank you for taking the lead in reducing racism and sexism in our world, and thank you for taking risks on our behalf.

We wish you well this December. Because it’s your party too, and you don’t need an unchallenged sexist or racist joke or opinion spoiling it for you. And if you look around there will probably be someone else at the party, standing not very far away, maybe even next to you, whose great time was getting spoiled too. And to them, you just saved the party.

The black, white and invisible

Picture this: a woman is at a clothing boutique and asks the shop assistant for some help.  She can’t decide which colour shirt to buy and holds up the shirts to her face while the shop assistant brightly remarks, ‘Any of those colours would suit you, you’re so pretty for an African!’  Is this remark a compliment, insult, or racial vilification?  Here’s a clue: unless you have an aptitude for interpreting legislation, the current Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act can be a little mind boggling, which leaves you with the first two options. Actually, it’s a trick question, because we should have added the option ‘microaggression’ (the correct answer). But it did get you thinking, didn’t it?

The term ‘microaggression’ was used by Columbia professor Derald Sue to refer to ‘brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of colour.’ You can find other examples of microaggressions here or here.

People often say and do things that hurt others. Sometimes those behaviours are deliberate and sometimes they’re not. The example scenario is not straightforward because the shop assistant may not be aware that she has said something offensive and as a result, is unlikely to understand the impact it may have. However, it is intent–as opposed to impact–that plays a central role in microaggessions. A common reaction when people are called out on their actions or words is, ‘Oh, I didn’t mean it like that!’ People tend to feel guilty and defensive after they realise they have offended someone and rely on their intent to somehow justify the comment: ‘I meant it as a compliment’, ‘I’m not racist, my best friend’s African’, or ‘Wow, you’re so sensitive.’

It’s understandable why this is a common reaction. If these comments do indeed perpetuate negative or racist attitudes, then no one wants to be labelled a racist. But microaggression is less about you and more about the impact of your words on others. Impact outweighs intent, always. That’s the black and white of it. This doesn’t mean that if you’re called out on microaggression, you’re racist. But it might be a red flag that you need to step back and reflect upon the effect of your words because such everyday communications are not as ‘normal’ or harmless as you might think. This is what needs to be made visible: there is no such thing as being racially neutral because whiteness is the norm and our default way of thinking (at least in Australia). In our society, whiteness is invisible: white people are not ‘ethnic’ or non-Asian or non-black. In contrast, people of every other race are made conspicuous by their difference, by their being non-white.

Most people most of the time don’t intend to offend others. But people don’t also get to choose what other people should or shouldn’t find racist, especially when it’s coming from a privileged position.  The invisible nature of microaggressions is really what is at stake here. We need to make visible the racial power hierarchy that underpins it so that our ‘normal’, everyday interactions can be conducted on equal footing regardless of where you come from.