Leadership initiatives need to do more for Women of Colour

By Eleanor McKelvey - National Director of Online Engagement (Blog)

As the average woman ascends the leadership ranks, she will find herself encumbered by the need to compromise - compromise is what makes a woman’s ascent to power palatable in the face of the patriarchy. You might have heard of the “glass cliff” - a term used to describe the phenomenon whereby female candidates are rarely appointed to top jobs, unless organisations are performing badly or going through uncertainty. As such, if women want to access leadership, they must accept the compromise of more challenging or precarious jobs.

Similarly, studies have shown that in order to have successful careers, women cannot wield their power uncompromised. When women in leadership positions display power, they are much more likely to be perceived as “uppity” and “entitled” than men. Compared to male leaders, female leaders who demonstrate agency are more likely to be rejected or sabotaged for the sole justification of being “too powerful”. On the other hand, if women decide to become less authoritative, it means they may lose out on job opportunities and risk being seen as less competent.

There are yet more examples - as it stands research into the “power politics” of women in the workplace is fairly rich. However, although extensive, this research is far from complete. Studies into leadership almost always collectivise “women”, and as a result, disregard the experiences of more marginalised groups of women, such as women of colour.

Of the few academic papers and business reports that are devoted to this subject, most are based on anecdotes and interviews. On the other hand, papers that exclusively focus on the relationship between gender and power tend to be backed up by large-scale data, experiments, and/or in-depth analyses.

This is a problem because Australia lacks women of colour in leadership: in 2015, only 2% of ASX directors were culturally diverse women.

Drawing inference from the existing research on gender, it seems reasonable to suggest that since female leaders of colour challenge both gender and race power hierarchies, they would be even more likely to receive backlash for being assertive. In addition, research published in March 2018 by De Moura et al. showed that the tendency to hire women as leaders under times of uncertainty was driven mainly by the desire for novelty. Since women of colour are a minority amongst a minority in leadership, it is worthwhile considering that this might put them at even greater risk of the “glass cliff” effect. However, articles like De Moura et al. (2018) do not even comment on the potential impact of race on their findings, let alone investigate it.

In addition, it is important that we conduct specific research into the challenges faced by women of colour. This is because women of colour do not simply experience amplified versions of the struggles faced by privileged white women: the principle of intersectionality teaches us that the interaction of each dimension of a person’s identity can create a unique subset of challenges for an individual.

For example, for Muslim women; race, religion and gender can compound to create specific challenges in the work environment. A study examining South Asian Muslim women’s experiences of leadership in the UK showed that those who wore a hijab at work faced “more challenges” than those who didn’t. This included reprimands about uniform and other forms of discrimination. Furthermore, according to the research, since many Muslim women choose not to engage in discussions or events involving alcohol, they are often excluded from networking events.

A series of interviews conducted with indigenous women from Australia, Canada and New Zealand (who worked as educational leaders) revealed that many of the women felt stuck in a sort of crossfire between workplace and cultural/community-based responsibilities. Some of the women described how the responsibility of looking out for indigenous children fell disproportionately to them. One of the interviewees (Barbara) described of a previous job, “I was fighting between bureaucracy and trying to do something for my own mob… I had no room to be innovative.” This mirrored the experiences of many other indigenous women who felt compelled to look after the needs of their indigenous community whilst also adapting to the expectations/restrictions placed on them by a non-indigenous management. All of these factors compounded to make these women’s jobs as educational leaders especially challenging.

Women of colour also face gendered racist stereotypes which complicate and exacerbate the negative responses to their wielding of power. An article written for Forbes Women describes the effect of the stereotype of the “angry black woman”:

Interviewee Michelle Y. Talbert (former corporate attorney and podcast host) talked of a “double hurdle of not being too aggressive and proving, sometimes repeatedly, that we are intelligent enough to warrant an audience for our ideas”.

The Harvard Business Review recently published a series of interviews conducted with 59 black female executives in the US. The Review describes black women “scrutinizing their appearance, style, and character, and carefully constructing professional images to help them “blend in” and disconfirm negative stereotypes”. Self-adjustment is yet another form of compromise, and one which especially targets women of colour.

This is a far from comprehensive review of the challenges faced by women of colour in leadership; yet it is already clear that ethnicity, religion and indigenous status all uniquely contribute to the difficulties faced by women who lead. Whilst many organisations already have resources or codes of practice designed to increase gender diversity (and/or occasionally racial diversity) at top management levels; the lack of ethnically diverse Australian women in leadership is rarely acknowledged. As a case in point, the Gender Balance on Australian Government Boards Report 2017-18 made no reference to ethnicity/indigenous status.

It is not good enough to just listen to the experiences of female leaders of colour; it is now time to address the complicated ties between ethnicity and gender in the context of leadership. This not only means measuring the impact of gendered racial discrimination, but also confronting the failures of current initiatives (aimed at addressing the leadership gender imbalance) at also helping women of colour excel as leaders.