New Research Reveals 66% Of Women Of Colour In Australia Have Felt The Need To ‘Act White’ To Get Ahead At Work
From the pay gap to sexism and gender stereotypes, women face a plethora of challenges that often hold them back in the workplace. But for women of colour, the barriers to career progression are even greater.
New research released today by the Diversity Council of Australia (DCA) examines the roadblocks faced by culturally and racially marginalised (CARM) women in leadership positions.
In interviewing more than 370 CARM women, the 'Culturally and racially marginalised women in leadership: A framework for (intersectional) action' report identified that biased leader prototypes and inaccessible social capital were factors that contributed to these women being overlooked for promotions, misunderstood, or feeling forced to behave a certain way in order to climb the corporate ladder.
The research found that leadership models used to assess talent in many Australian businesses were "biased towards more masculine Western or 'Anglo' leadership styles".
One of the survey's participants explained that her cultural values which favour introversion, humility and respect for seniority were at odds with the western leadership style at the organisation she worked for, which prioritised extroversion and self-promotion.
Many respondents spoke of "proximity to whiteness" being a key enabler in their leadership journey.
"I come from a culture that you don’t brag about yourself – you are humble, humility is part of how you do things," she said, in an excerpt from the research report. "Whether it’s introverted or extroverted, these are different attributes each one of us has, but they should not limit how we are recognised."
The research found that many respondents spoke of "proximity to whiteness" being a key enabler in their leadership journey. While 83% of surveyed CARM women reported experiencing pressure to act, look, and sound like existing leaders (who are most likely to be white men), 69% reported having to "act white" to fit in, and 66% to get ahead in their career.
This concept of people adapting their behaviour — whether that's by changing their appearance, expression or speech — in order to ensure the comfort of white people while minimising the chance of being discriminated against, is called code-switching.
In a statement provided to Refinery29 Australia, Diversity Council of Australia CEO Lisa Annese said that the figures indicated how important it is for businesses to acknowledge the detrimental impact that biased leader prototypes have on women of colour.
"Two-thirds of our respondents, culturally and racially marginalised women, report they feel they need to act white to get ahead at work," said Annese. "Code-switching in this way is unacceptable – it is harmful to the women and to our organisations."
One of DCA's key recommendations is for organisations to redefine what leadership looks like within their business, asking hiring managers to ask themselves, "Do I unconsciously see CARM women as hard workers rather than strategic leaders?"
What are the barriers preventing #CARMWomen from accessing #leadership? What are the organisational keys & actions that unlock the talents & contributions that enable CARM women to access leadership roles? Farhana Laffernis, DCA Research Manager outlining 4 key barriers. #IWD2023 pic.twitter.com/AhYfuPuroP— DiversityCouncilAust (@DivCouncilAus) March 7, 2023
While mentoring, leadership coaching and networking are buzzwords in the Human Resources world, not everyone has the same access to these opportunities. Many CARM women, especially those from migrant backgrounds, feel that the lack of access to influential networks and social capital is a significant leadership barrier.
Over three-quarters (77%) of CARM women surveyed agreed that decisions about hiring and promotions are made through informal networks. Over half (58%) agreed that the combination of their race and gender limited their access to such networks.
"As a person who’s grown up outside of Australia, someone who doesn’t follow cricket, someone who hasn’t gone to a private school locally, someone who doesn’t have those cultural references that people who are white and privileged do have, it’s very hard even for me to make connections with them," said one participant.
When it comes to how many women of colour are in leadership roles in Australia, we know the numbers have been dire for a very long time. Last year women's organisation, Women of Boards released its 'Truth Be Told: Cultural Diversity on Australian Boards report', which contained a desktop audit of the boards of 232 organisations across five sectors. The research showed that 46% of women are board members, of which only 5.7% are non-Anglo Celtic.
When you consider that over half of Australia's population was either born overseas or are first-generation Australians with at least one parent born overseas, it's more important than ever for organisations to make changes. As Annese says, "Check how they are embracing and including all women and how we can be better — for the benefit of all."