We need more than women in leadership, we need cultural diversity

 In Diversity, Leadership

We asked a number of leading women who are speaking at the upcoming She Leads conference what they’d like younger women to know about navigating the career in front of them. Below, DAWN CEO and founder Dai Le shares her advice. 

How do we define leadership? What does it look like? What does it take to lead?  And for a woman like myself, that is, of non-Anglo Saxon background, (a double whammy as it has been described) what opportunities are there for us to lead? And should the opportunity presents itself, what barriers will there be that could stop us succeeding?

My foray into the political arena in 2008 educated me a lot about ‘leadership’, especially in politics. The characteristics I would normally associate with those in leadership positions  — such as “treating others how you would like to be treated” “take risks”, be responsible for one’s own actions, be open to ideas with those you work with, be humble, have integrity, be mindful, be strong, and lead with the greater good of society in mind – are not all that common in the political arena.

Why are such leadership traits lacking in politics? I believe that this is probably due to the lack of diversity – gender and cultural – in the key leadership positions of our political system.

Leadership is male dominated across all aspects of life. And it is dominated by Anglo Saxon men. I am not saying that that is wrong or right.  It’s just plain fact. It’s how our society is structured. How can we then transform these institutionalised structures?  What conversations do we need to have to begin the shift?

We have made huge tractions with the gender conversation. We have created roles such as that taken up by Elizabeth Broderick as Sex Discrimination Commissioner, to bring the issue of gender and equality into the public sphere and create a national discourse.  We have had corporates setting up programs such as ‘male champions’ for those men in powerful and influential positions to call out for more women appointments on boards and so forth. We have had a few high profile female CEO such as Gail Kelly, Ann Sherry and Wendy McCarthy who have used their positions to drive the conversation and inspire other similar organisations to take up the baton on women in leadership.

Meanwhile, the AICD’s new CEO, John Brodgen, recently announced that it has set a target for 30% of Board seats to be filled by women by the end of 2018. That’s asking for the current figure of 18.2% to almost double in less than five years’ time. This is a positive move that should be celebrated.

I have no doubt that the women’s movement has paved the way for gender equality.  There are many women who I have the privilege to know who have worked tirelessly to ensure that women overall can vote, have better lives and have choices especially in the pursuit of their careers.

However, for women like me from a culturally diverse linguistic background, there’s still so much to overcome in proving  our leadership capabilities in a male Anglo-Australian or a western dominated leadership style society.

Not only do we face the ‘glass ceiling’ but we also face what has been recently described by the Diversity Council of Australia as the “bamboo ceiling”.  This “bamboo ceiling” is not just looking how the current system has limitations in promoting people of cultural diverse backgrounds (let alone women) to leadership positions, but it is also how cultural DNAs prevent such individuals from climbing the corporate ladder.

So, what are the answers for people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds who want to be the next CEO of Westpac? Or to be appointed to the boards of the top ASX listed companies? Do we have a chance? How do we create that space or opportunity?

For me, calling out that there’s a lack of diverse leadership in leadership teams across our mainstream institutions would be the first step.

Then start the conversation with leadership teams across all sectors beginning with the acknowledgment of our unconscious bias.

Australia is a country of considerable ethnic diversity. The 2011 census revealed that almost a quarter (24.6%) of Australia’s population was born overseas and 43.1% of people have at least one overseas-born parent.

It is also up to us, those from CALD backgrounds, to be responsible in skilling ourselves up and then putting ourselves forward for leadership positions when an opportunity arises. For many, the very thought of being in such a top role is scary and even perceived to be impossible. Culturally diverse women may even shy away from such A-level roles that are often full of testosterone, bravado and ego.

Many women (and men) from CALD choose to by-pass the corporate ladder climbing and take an entrepreneurial step forward by setting up and running their own companies. However, for those who want to be part of the wider mainstream society, this means we have to be capable to operate within the major institutions.

Building leadership capability within the culturally diverse segment is DAWN’s mission; we are about growing culturally diverse leadership. Right now there are growing voices within the culturally diverse community, and in particular the Asian Australian community, questioning the lack of representation at the various levels of influence.

It is up to us to call this out. At the same we must be ready. We must be willing to take up leadership roles, roles of influence in mainstream society. And most importantly we must build our capability to lead.

Dai Le is speaking at the upcoming She Leads Conference 2015 in Canberra, supported by Women’s Agenda. Tickets are selling fast but still available here.

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