New data confirms scant leadership diversity in Australian workplaces

Mauritian-born Mayuri Nathoo Source: SBS

New data reveals women from migrant backgrounds in Australia are disadvantaged when it comes to progressing to positions of leadership in the workplace. The report, commissioned by the Diversity Council Australia, details how the combination of gender and cultural background presents barriers.  The findings have led to calls for organisations to re-evaluate how they determine a good leader. Abbie O'Brien reports.  

Mauritian-born Mayuri Nathoo is a Project Manager at the Sydney office of global engineering and infrastructure advisory company, Aurecon.

She says the organisation views her cultural background and ability to speak three languages - French, Hindi and English - as assets.

But she says in the past, those values have put her at a professional disadvantage.

"When someone, for example, comes across me for the first time, because of my Indian appearance, they immediately stereotype so they assume that I can't speak English very well or I can't be assertive or they assume I can't lead a team. So getting across those stereotypes is a major barrier and needs to be addressed."

Ms Nathoo's experience is reflected in a new report by Diversity Council Australia.

It surveyed over 230 women from culturally diverse backgrounds who are leaders or aspiring leaders in Australian organisations.

The results suggest that their journey to the top is much harder than others.

Diversity Council Australia CEO Lisa Annese says this is because of the systemic stereotypes in workplaces.

"The stereotypes and assumptions that are made around culturally diverse women are very, very strong and culturally diverse women have this double-bind where behaving outside what's expected of them is not in their best interest."

The report revealed 88 per cent of culturally diverse women planned to advance to a senior role in their organisation.

But just one in ten 'strongly agreed' that their leadership traits were recognised or that their opinions were valued and respected.

Dr Dimitria Groutsis, from the University of Sydney's Business School, co-authored the report.

She says the skills and aspirations of women from multicultural backgrounds are often ignored.

"These women are highly ambitious, capable and resilient women, they have extraordinary capabilities but they seem to be undervalued, underleveraged."

Over a quarter of the women surveyed agreed cultural barriers in the workplace have affected the way they work.

That includes reducing their ambitions, compelling them to work fewer hours, not work as hard and, in some cases, consider quitting.

Ms Groutsis says they're discouraged by the traditional leadership model that favours Anglo-Celtic men and overlooks those who aren't.

"We continue to have a Western leadership model and this is something we need to turn on its head....valuing the same competencies and skills rather than saying well, what other skills and competencies are out there that could contribute and that we could capitalise on."

The study also reveals that only 15 per cent of participants strongly agreed their organisation took advantage of workforce diversity.

Ms Annese says workplaces need to realise that promoting cultural diversity is an opportunity, not a risk.

"They need to address bias within their organisation, both conscious and unconscious bias. We need to challenge what a leader looks like in Australia. There are lots of ways of being a leader and simply applying the standard prototype that's determined by the dominant group isn't going to cut it any more - you will always be drawing from a narrow pool of talent."

It's a call echoed by Mayuri Nathoo, who says Australian workplaces need to reassess how those in positions of power are depicted and determined.

"It's about re-evaluating what do we mean when we talk about a leader, and who do we want to see at the head of our companies in the near future, it really has to reflect the landscape of the current community and the reality is the current community in Australia is multicultural and multi-talented."


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