Boss Lady

The cultural glass ceiling


The Diversity Council of Australia released its first study on the ‘cultural glass ceiling’ last year — a report that was long overdue.

The conversation of diversity in Australia has mainly been about the number of women at board level and in directorships. There are diversity programs in companies focused on ensuring they gain gender balance. In addition, the male ‘champions of change’ movement is about powerful men stepping up beside women to achieve a sustainable increase in the representation of females in leadership.

These are all great initiatives, however, I believe that we need to change our language around this issue: diversity is not all about gender balance.

Diversity is about people who come in different packages – ethnicity, ability and sexuality. Until now, we have never measured the cultural diversity of our organisations. It is almost as if we use the word diversity to represent just one element of the term – gender balance.

Over the last 18 months, I have spoken to over 10,000 men, women, leaders, and managers. I have challenged them on their ideas of diversity and asked the question whether the colours of their organisation in fact reflect the communities they work in. And as I look around the room and see a sea of white faces looking back at me, I know that there is a lack of cultural diversity in many organisations.

So, what are leaders doing about this issue? The Australian landscape of people will only become more diverse and our workplaces need to keep up with the pace.

As a woman of Indian background, I have experienced the double jeopardy that comes in the corporate world.

Firstly, I have had to break the cultural glass ceiling within my own community. I married a white man, never went to university, sent my kids to childcare, went back to full time work, and then got divorced. Pretty normal if I was a white woman. However, as an Indian woman I have been made to feel guilty on all these choices and labelled a “bad” wife and mother.

Secondly, I have had to smash through the corporate glass ceilings and work much harder to prove my worth and capability – not just as a woman, but as somebody of colour.

As the Diversity Council study indicates women of cultural backgrounds are equally as ambitious. We did not leave our country of birth, move away from family or friends to a foreign land not to be.

We are extremely capable, often bi-lingual and incredibly resilient. We make great negotiators, understand cultural nuances when doing business and we embrace change. Yes, we may speak with an accent and possibly wear different clothes, but isn’t that what diversity is all about?

Sadly, from time to time, the issue has been that sisterhood has not been as warm and inviting as it perhaps should have been. My partner was recently asked, “Your girlfriend is Indian… does she smell?” I know you are shocked that such a question is still asked today.

As a woman of colour in a male dominated industry, I stand out. However, I have had the courage to use my differences to my advantage and build my brand. As leaders, we need to ensure our existing teams are curious about different cultures and the commonalities that exist. Our hiring decisions must not have the lenses of unconscious bias and we can achieve this by simply removing the gender and cultural background questions.

Many applicants today are first generation Australians with ethnic names that speak with a broad Australian accent. However, they still have the advantage of growing up in a dual cultural environment… How fabulous is that for the businesses that eventually hire them?

My tips for those looking to get noticed and bridge the gap within their own organisations?

  1. Ensure you become the best blend of yourself and the Australian culture; you don’t need to choose one over the other
  2. Share the uniqueness of your festivals and family
  3. Bring food to work that you know your colleagues will like
  4. Dress for success
  5. Invest in your brand and use your differences to your advantage
  6. If you have connections that will be an asset to your business then use them, especially if they are off shore
  7. Find a sponsor or someone in your organisation who understands your career aspirations and helps open doors
  8. Have honest conversation with your leaders on what holds you back and your ambitions
  9. Call out bias behaviour
  10. Join networks that will recognise your talent

As leaders, how do we start this journey of making sure our businesses reflect our communities? I believe we need to train our employees on cultural inclusion and the impact of bias and racism – not just within the business, but the community.

Examples include:

  • Change forms that ask for gender and cultural backgrounds and genuinely interview candidates based on skill sets and experience
  • Ensure culturally diverse women do not become invisible in your organisation

Not just a woman of colour, but as a minority leader, this is not an issue I can leave at the door. I challenge my co-leaders to step up and keep the conversation going, to commit to the changes, not just for the financial benefits of your organisation, but more so for the connection with clients and people who choose to work within your organisations.

I hope the Diversity Council’s study will be the first of many; something that will encourage leaders to start seeing the colours of our communities reflected in business.

About Sadhana Smiles

Sadhana Smiles is CEO Harcourts Victoria, Winner of Leader/Manager of the Year at the 2017 Australian Leadership Excellence Awards, Founder of Links Fiji, 2013 Victorian Telstra Businesswoman of the Year, 2016 AFR 100 Women of Influence, author, public speaker and mother of two.

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