• “It might seem forced, it might seem unfair, but worse is having workforces that continue to isolate talented individuals because of their cultural background." (Cultura RF/Getty Images)
A new report says Muslim and Asian women suffer discrimination and a lack of opportunity in the workplace. Amal Awad reflects on her real-life experience of racism at work and considers the report’s solutions.
By
Amal Awad

13 Sep 2017 - 11:50 AM  UPDATED 13 Sep 2017 - 11:55 AM

“Should we ask her if we can use her headscarf for a tablecloth?”

“You seem to have a problem with authority. I don’t know, Amal, is it something to do with the men in your upbringing?”

“Get f***ed! Oh that’s right, you can’t!”

Those were just three of my experiences in the workplace as an Arab-Muslim woman, the first one while wearing a headscarf, the other two long after I took it off.

The awkward jokes – or criticism – blended into everyday conversation. No matter the work environment, there is the likelihood that the people on the end of a joke should receive it as harmless, and criticism as fair.

Though these experiences bothered me, I kept myself in check, bit my tongue and sucked it up. Perhaps I’d drunk the kool aid and had even, somehow, adopted the popular thinking that I was lucky to be there. It was certainly insinuated enough times – the benevolent manager bestowing time and opportunity on the headscarf-wearer or the woman with the difficult-to-pronounce-name. I was never in a position to explain that if you need to tell someone that you’re not biased against them, you are probably harbouring bias against them. 

No matter the work environment, there is the likelihood that the people on the end of a joke should receive it as harmless, and criticism as fair.

There is difficult terrain to navigate as a woman in the workplace, and it is compounded when you come bundled with a cultural and/or religious heritage that makes it difficult for you to blend in. There are questions about what you can or can’t do; of how you look; whether you have restrictions (even if you say you don’t, or the ones you do have don’t affect your ability to do the work).

Claims of Islamophobic behaviour are rife, reported with a freshness that comes with another season of Pauline Hanson in parliament. But these instances of abuse are nothing new, only more common, and its victims more vocal. To my mind, some of the most insidious forms of racism and bigotry occur in spaces where you should feel safe, by people who are your managers, sometimes leaders. And it’s anything but easy to talk about these experiences with someone at your workplace.

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So last week, when the Diversity Council Australia (DCA) released a paper that focused on culturally diverse female talent in the workplace, I wasn’t surprised to discover how poorly represented women of culturally diverse backgrounds are in the workplace, and how difficult work can be for many of them.

Entitled ‘Cracking the Glass-Cultural Ceiling’, the paper revealed ‘amplified’ bias against culturally-diverse women in the workplace, reporting that “only one in five culturally diverse women felt their workplace was free of cultural diversity or gender-based biases and stereotypes”.

“The combination of gender and cultural biases has a compounding or ‘amplifying’ effect on culturally diverse women’s lack of career progress and opportunities." 

The report further noted that women experiencing these cultural biases and stereotypes “were significantly more likely to contemplate resigning and had significantly less career satisfaction”.

“The combination of gender and cultural biases has a compounding or ‘amplifying’ effect on culturally diverse women’s lack of career progress and opportunities,” the report notes. 

This coverage of the report highlighted, in particular, the jabs applied to Asian and Muslim women.

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Combined with the discriminatory remarks directed at cultural or religious heritage is your position as a woman – a gender imbalance you have to negotiate in addition to the cultural one. This is something a close friend discovered when she entered the workforce.

I asked this friend, who wears hijab, about what she experienced when she was working, as it happened, in a male-dominated field. Her response was swift:

“Shouldn't you be in the kitchen?”

“Does your dad know you work with men?” (Said as though her father was some ignoramus who didn't know what constituted the construction industry.)

“I was asked if I would bomb the office if I didn't get the job in the interview. I replied, just his car. I got the job.”

But in the same way calling someone a ‘wog’ was considered good-natured ribbing in days of old, we’re supposed to take these personal insults on the chin.

“I was asked if I would bomb the office if I didn't get the job in the interview. I replied, just his car. I got the job.”

The report affirms this: “Bias was evident in racist and sexist comments and jokes, ‘well-meaning’ advice (e.g. go overseas for better career opportunities), and an implicit preference for men and women from Anglo-Celtic cultural backgrounds.”

The DCA report further confirms that many culturally diverse women struggle to succeed in the workplace due to discrimination, and this has an impact on their career progression. It’s perhaps why we see so few women from culturally diverse backgrounds occupying positions of leadership.

Long before a generation got swept up in identity politics, the imbalances at play in my work-life, and those of many others, were clear. I never saw myself being promoted – more than once, despite strong reports from managers, I was bypassed for or by an Anglo co-worker. I have no way of knowing for sure that this was genuine discrimination, but in both instances, it had been made clear what my trajectory should be, only for it to be disrupted.

But in the same way calling someone a ‘wog’ was considered good-natured ribbing in days of old, we’re supposed to take these personal insults on the chin.

The paper has a subtitle: ‘Future proofing your business in the 21st century.’ The DCA, with support from the University of Sydney Business School, Google, Aurecon, the Commonwealth Bank and Deloitte, recognises that the success of a workplace can be enhanced by having a diverse workforce, and it posits “six keys to unlocking talents and contributions of culturally diverse women”, among them flexibility and disrupting bias. It’s worth reading the synopsis in full.

To my mind, it raises an important question: what role can quotas play, if any?

Up against the implementation of quotas is the accusation of special treatment – bias against those with privilege (if that’s possible), and the potential side effect of rewarding someone based on a tick-box rather than merit.

But quota systems exist to address imbalances and create opportunities that should exist but quite simply don’t due to systemic and structural racism and bias. It might seem forced, it might seem unfair, but worse is having workforces that continue to isolate talented individuals because of their cultural background.

If the key to a more harmonious and diverse workforce is more effortless diversity, engineering the make-up of that workforce, in the same way representation of women in general has seen an uptick on boards and in corporations, may be an important, albeit temporary solution.

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