The Glass Cultural Ceiling: Challenges of Culturally Diverse Women in the Workplace

Although organisations are increasingly investing in building culturally diverse and gender balanced leadership profiles, culturally diverse women are notably under-represented in leadership ranks.

In Australia and overseas, culturally diverse women experience a ‘double jeopardy’ when accessing leadership roles due to their gender and cultural background. This double jeopardy results in a ‘glass-cultural ceiling’ in which invisible organisational barriers lock out culturally diverse women from accessing leadership positions in their workplaces.

AFR BOSS magazine recently interviewed Malaysian born Sew Lee, a successful banker and part of the leadership team in one of the top global banks based in Sydney, where she had expressed how she had battled unconscious bias for decades since arriving in Australia as a migrant. “I was there for seven years and wondered why I was never promoted when, in each year, I was the best, yet younger employees, mostly male and Caucasian, surpassed me quickly”, she said.

Explicit bias, racist and sexist comments and offensive "jokes" are rife in corporate Australia, according to a report from Diversity Council Australia and the University of Sydney Business School, Cracking the Glass-Cultural Ceiling: Future Proofing Your Business in the 21st Century, published in 2017, which asked 230 culturally diverse female leaders (defined broadly in the report as someone with a non-Anglo Saxon background) about their experiences in the workplace.

The report also found only 12% of culturally diverse women surveyed strongly agreed they had the same opportunities in their workplace as anyone else with commensurate ability and experience.

"They see you as three strikes and you're out – a woman, a woman with children, and a woman with an accent," a respondent said.

While 88% of culturally diverse female talent surveyed planned to advance to a very senior role, only 1 in 10 strongly agreed that their leadership traits were recognised or that their opinions were valued and respected.  The number of culturally diverse women in ASX100 and ASX200 companies is minuscule. Only 2% of ASX directors are culturally diverse women.

Many of us that are migrants from culturally diverse background here in Australia and around the world, including myself, are not alone in this experience.  Having worked in senior leadership positions in Fortune 500 organisations globally, I’ve had more than my share of biases not just as a woman but as a culturally diverse woman.  

These experiences has fuelled my passion for pushing the needle for gender equality and diversity has propelled me to launch HerWit, where we focus on helping women entrepreneurs and senior female corporate executives including cultural diverse women, amplify themselves into thought leaders and role models.

The Australian "multicultural market" has an estimated purchasing power of more than $75 billion a year, while globally, by 2020, says The Economist, the private wealth held by women is expected to rise to $72 trillion. These are not minuscule numbers to be ignored and it is definitely in the interest of any organization, small or large to begin taking serious steps in recognising the importance of women, especially culturally diverse women.

Leaders should be encouraged to speak to ethnic women they have in their business and get to know them. They have probably been overlooked for leadership at some point. Do look beyond gender and ethnicity, as there might actually be a gem in their midst.