Back in 1989, scholar and civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term ‘intersectionality’, describing the need to move away from the ‘tendency to treat race and gender as mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis.’
This focus on understanding multiple and intersecting forms of disadvantage – and taking action to address them – has been elevated in corporate Australia with the recent publication of two new studies.
Chief Executive Women’s Unlocking Leadership: Conversations on Gender and Race in Corporate Australia, published last month, found racism is still a taboo word despite it being pervasive. Based on interviews with 27 leaders, common experiences of racism included people not feeling listened to, and having less career opportunities, because of their accent and names.
Another study by the Diversity Council of Australia earlier this year found culturally and racially marginalised (CARM) women ‘continue to be scarce across senior leadership positions in Australia and internationally’ despite being ‘ambitious, capable, and resilient, and well positioned to contribute to their own and their organisation’s success’.
In a survey of more than 370 CARM women, 65 per cent of respondents agreed that CARM women employees face fewer opportunities for career advancement than other female employees, and 85 per cent felt they had to work twice as hard to receive the same treatment or evaluation.
These findings echo the international study by US research and consulting firm Catalyst, which surveyed 2,734 women from marginalised racial and ethnic groups in Australia, Canada, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The results showed 51 per cent of those surveyed have experienced racism in their current workplace.
The study found transgender women and queer women are more likely than cisgender heterosexual women to experience racism at work, and that women of darker skin tones are also more likely to experience discrimination. As Inclusion expert Ruchika Tulshyan wrote recently in Harvard Business Review: ‘Colourism, or skin tone bias, is an insidious form of bias that impacts women with darker skin tones across ethnicities and races — and it’s an issue that isn’t on many leaders’ radars.’
So how can organisations and business leaders create safe workplaces for CARM women which recognise intersectionality and, in turn, work to dismantle processes that perpetuate exclusion? Building on the recommendations in these reports, we highlight three key practices.
Capture data and set targets
Recording data on the differing experiences of culturally and racially marginalised women, First Nations women, women with a disability, people of marginalised genders and sexualities in employee surveys is an important starting point. This helps identify more nuanced actions to address disadvantage. This has been one of the benefits of Victoria’s new Gender Equality Act that has required public sector entities to take an intersectional lens in capturing data and developing gender equality action plans since 2020.
This data collection can form the basis for setting organisational targets. The Chief Executive Women report advises Boards and executives to set cultural and racial diversity targets, regularly track and communicate progress, and take accountability for outcomes.
‘The Chief Executive Women report advises Boards and executives to set cultural and racial diversity targets, regularly track and communicate progress, and take accountability for outcomes.’
Provide opportunities for conversation, education and sponsorship to support cultural and racial diversity
Diversity Partners’ Senior Consultant Dr. Vijaya Joshi is passionate about the valuable role that culturally and linguistically diverse communities contribute to Australian society. ‘Coaching and awareness building helps leaders and employees to identify microaggressions or subtle acts of exclusion,’ Joshi says. She likens this deeper insight to putting on a new pair of glasses, helping to notice negative biases that may have previously been overlooked. After recently facilitating focus groups with culturally and racially diverse employees with a client in the financial services industry, Dr Joshi found the co-existence of both overt and subtle racism alongside more progressive initiatives in diversity and inclusion. She recommends organisations discuss and agree anti-racism statements, followed with education to address racism within diversity, equity and inclusion strategies.
Similarly, Tarang Chawla, Diversity Partners’ Senior Consultant and Commissioner at the Victorian Multicultural Commission, suggests intersectional education should be seen as an opportunity for businesses, empowering leaders to learn about ways to reduce overlapping gender and racial biases. ‘It’s crucial that businesses adapt to look beyond one particular identity metric and start looking at holistic ways of increasing diversity and inclusion in the workplace,’ Chawla says.
‘One of the best ways to learn is through facilitated workshops and interactions that allow individuals from all levels of an organisation to adapt and incorporate holistic ways of increasing diversity and inclusion in the workplace.’
Diversity Partners’ Senior Consultant and Commissioner, Victorian Multicultural Commission.
This education can include inclusive behaviours when leading, and participating in, team meetings, as well as addressing unconscious cultural and gender biases in recruitment and career development. This broad education is a way to avoid, as CEW cautions ‘placing the burden of cultural responsibility on culturally and racially diverse people.’
Thoughtful consideration to ensure names are pronounced correctly is another practical action. Some Australian companies are adopting new technologies to assist with correct name pronunciation – you can learn more about these initiatives in our recent blog.
The CEW report also advocates for leaders to actively sponsor culturally and racially diverse women to support career mobility.
Review policies and events
Other recommendations from CEW include reviewing organisational policies (particularly in relation to recruitment and career progression) with a cultural diversity lens, carefully considering social and networking events ensure inclusion, and ‘creating opportunities for cultural exchanges and celebrations of religious and significant cultural days.’
These recommendations go some way to ‘re-centring discrimination discourse at the intersection’ as Kimberlé Crenshaw advocated in 1989, empowering those who face multiple forms of discrimination so that we can say, ‘when they enter, we all enter.’
If you’d like to learn more about Diversity Partners’ Inclusive Leadership education programs covering cultural and racial diversity, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our website.