Intersectionality In Leadership: Women From Diverse Backgrounds Still Face Barriers In Australia

Alice Duthie
on 28 September 2023

Australian leaders from diverse backgrounds have been expressing concerns about the underrepresentation of women from First Nations and Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) backgrounds in leadership roles. Systemic change is needed to act on a wide range of factors contributing to disadvantage.

A recent Monash University study published in BMJ Leader collected interview data from five high-profile women. The study was interested in exploring intersectionality in leadership. Instead of focusing solely on gender or ethnicity, the research explored how various factors, including gender, ethnicity, class, ability, and sexuality, intersect to contribute to social inequities, discrimination, oppression, and marginalisation.

The study’s participants include notable figures such as Senator Penny Wong, Yoorrook Justice Commissioner Sue-Anne Hunter, Mariam Veiszadeh of Media Diversity Australia, Her Honour Judge Nola Karapanagiotidis, and Duré Dara OAM. They discussed issues related to privilege, nuanced approaches to First Nations and CALD leadership, and systemic barriers.

Insights from the interviews

Senator Wong said, “I think society still privileges, values, identifies particular traits as leadership, which are associated with how men have led, and a particular type of man”.

“I think the more important thing for us to think about is …within the broader society, how do we engage with men and women who may have a view that equality is a good idea, but don’t necessarily see or understand the ways in which behaviours can ratify existing structural inequality? 

“And to talk through, not in a kind of accusatory way, but rather asking how is that? What can they do?”

Adjunct Professor Hunter said a narrative around women of colour succeeding needed to be created and forged.

“You need diversity around the table,” she said. “And it’s not just the white men or women, who get to make the rules…because that doesn’t work anymore. It’s time to stop that.”

startup women female founder leaders intersectionality
Via Pexels

The importance of intersectionality

Lead author Professor Helen Skouteris explained that Australia is one of the most culturally, ethnically, and linguistically diverse countries in the world, yet leadership roles are not representing this diverse.

Skouteris said, “We cannot continue to focus solely on gender inequity; the lack of cultural diversity in women in leadership is equally as serious and must be addressed urgently.”

Senior author Associate Professor Darshini Ayton has said while diversity of thought is vital to drive innovation, women from diverse backgrounds are still facing many barriers to workplace equity. She explained that “the initial overall reaction of the women interviewed is that ‘there is not much worth preserving’, demonstrating a sense of resignation and despair”.

While there are limited women in senior leadership positions, the study’s main takeaway was that there are considerably fewer women from diverse backgrounds to act as role models.

Recommendations from the study

The authors offered the following recommendations:

  • Intersectionality matters: The intersection between gender and race is missing in the structural work being undertaken to promote women in leadership.
  • Understanding the problem and generating solutions: Women with lived experience must have a voice and the opportunity and support to lead discussions and decision-making.
  • Reversing existing paradigms: Equity and inclusion of women from diverse racial backgrounds in leadership requires system-level change.  
  • Layers of intersectionality: Other layers beyond gender and race shape the experience of First Nations and CALD women, who may face further disadvantages due to sexual identity, gender identity, disability and/or migrant or refugee status. Further work is needed to understand how these are felt and experienced, and the change needed to reverse inequality and inequity.

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