Career Woman

4 ways to improve your leadership skills as a culturally diverse woman

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You’re ambitious, talented, resilient — and keen to make it to the top. However, as a culturally diverse woman, you may feel that there’s often been something holding you back, you just can’t put your finger on it.

Well, you may be on to something, as recent statistics from the University of Sydney show that of the 230 culturally diverse women they surveyed, 88% planned to advance to a very senior role, yet only 10% strongly agreed their leadership traits were recognised, or that their opinions were valued or respected.

These statistics give us an opportunity to focus on cracking the glass cultural ceiling.  I believe there are ways that you, as an individual, can harness your own power and challenge the status quo, affecting positive change in the process.

Here are four key ways you can challenge the system – and in turn become a stronger leader by openly empowering and championing conversations on the various facets of diversity. 

1. Embrace the characteristics that make you ‘Other’ 

Be proud of the things that make you different.

Traditionally, being ‘different’ in the workplace has often been shrouded in silence, perhaps even shame – with diversity being a tricky subject to broach.

For the most part of my professional life, I worked hard to not focus on the racial aspect of myself. Working in Australia and being of Zambian heritage, I normally stick out in every corporate environment I’ve been in and am often the only person of African heritage in the organisation. In the past, I tried really hard not to stick out.

However, with time, I realised that trying to be invisible at all costs was dulling the natural light I shone. When I started to embrace my multiple identities as an African Australian, I was able to call out that I am different – and not to be apologetic about it.

It’s important that you don’t simply blend in. By whole-heartedly embracing what makes you ‘Other’ and realising that being different doesn’t make you ‘bad’, you can own who you are and empower yourself by accepting your place in the corporate world. You can increase your confidence and inspire other people of similar backgrounds to take the same journey.

2. Be comfortable with sharing the uncomfortable

Share your experiences with others. Many of us feel uncomfortable talking about diversity in the first place, be it race, gender or culture-based – and the experience of what it feels like to be different from others at work. We feel the burden of being the one to educate others. We may even be worried others will think we’re playing the ‘race card’.

But in reality, it’s important to open up and share your experiences, your discomfort and your fears. Only then can we have conversations that are inclusive and begin to address these worries.

Diverse workspaces will come when we are comfortable sharing the uncomfortable. And as a leader, you can encourage this by making people feel safe to share their stories.

At our global software consultancy ThoughtWorks, our open culture allows people to come forward and express their varied experience. Through our social justice pillar, we strive to create a positive social change. This all starts with conversation and collaboration.

To inspire a renewed approach, we must be conscious of those around us, in order to overcome the frustration, fear and apathy towards the ‘Other’.

3. Ally with your company as an individual 

Understand your power as an individual to influence your corporation and inspire progress.

Traditionally, diversity has often been seen as the responsibility mainly of corporations to foster within their organisations – whether through inclusion programmes, hiring strategies or other formalised structures.

However, I believe diversity also operates on the level of individuals and is a result of how humans relate to and interact with each other on an everyday basis, against the backdrop of our perceived similarities and differences.

You can therefore move towards encouraging more progressive attitudes within your company by realising your power as an individual.

Get acquainted with the diversity goals of your organisation and how they reflect its mission. Be willing to speak out about issues around diversity. Take part in or start an affinity group for employees from culturally diverse backgrounds. Volunteer to chair committees that organise events focusing on diversity.

Above all – take action, don’t just wait for the organisation’s diversity programmes to bear fruit. 

4. Mentor younger colleagues of diverse backgrounds

Finally, pass it on. It’s true that mentoring others provides opportunities for the mentor to learn too. While the role comes with its challenges, it is often an extremely rewarding experience and a great way to develop leadership skills by becoming a role model to a colleague.

Showing a mentee the ropes, in particular those from other minority backgrounds, shows them that there are others like them who are openly different and have successfully climbed the ladder. That there are many non-white, female or ‘other’ types of faces in leadership that resemble theirs – sending out a message of hope and identification. 

It demonstrates to them that the industry is theirs as well – and that future generations can be encouraged to face it with confidence.

In conclusion, to improve your leadership skills as a culturally diverse female, it starts with breaking the silence. With bringing an end to the taboo nature of the topic of diversity. By being open about your experiences of being different at work – and ultimately, by embracing your ‘Otherness’, you can harness your power as an individual to bring about change in the world – and drive diversity by taking action.

About Mayase Jere

Mayase Jere is a Senior Consultant for Thoughtworks, a global technology consultancy. She specialises in Agile software delivery, Agile team development/coaching and product thinking. She leads distributed teams across Australia, UK, China, and India. Her passion is in making education accessible to every child and increasing the participation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Through her platform “The Art of Otherness” she amplifies conversations on diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

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