Changing Perspectives: How to break down barriers and empower culturally diverse women leaders

Yasha Chandra
By Yasha Chandra | 16 January 2024
Yasha Chandra.

The MFA DE&I Council would like to see an industry where everyone can thrive, feel heard, supported, and safe to do their best work. Let’s meet the Changers who are sharing their own lived experiences to inspire us all to change for the better.

The lack of women in leadership positions is a well-known problem. In media agencies, we’re doing much better than other industries, with the MFA Industry Census showing that 46% of management roles are held by women.

But this doesn’t address the cultural diversity problem as highlighted by the relative absence of women leaders from culturally diverse backgrounds. This not only stifles potential, it also hinders innovation, which is the lifeblood of any industry.

So, what can we do to get more women from culturally diverse backgrounds into leadership positions? We can start by considering the barriers that lead to their underrepresentation.

The Cultural Barrier

Women from women culturally diverse backgrounds often find themselves navigating a delicate balance between the values they grew up with and those of their current environment. This internal conflict can lead to immense pressure, impacting both their professional and personal lives.

In my own experience, I was attributing the state of my house and freshly cooked meals directly to my level of success on top of overdelivering at work. Overcoming this barrier requires a process of unlearning and self-compassion, acknowledging that success is not solely determined by the state of one’s home.

The Language Barrier

Language proficiency, particularly in English, can be a formidable barrier for women from culturally diverse backgrounds. The pressure to articulate thoughts with precision and fluency can lead to feelings of inadequacy.

This challenge is exacerbated for those with accents, adding an unnecessary layer of self-doubt. Fostering environments where diverse linguistic abilities are valued and appreciated can help eliminate this barrier.

The Network Barrier

Building a strong professional network is crucial for career growth, yet culturally diverse women may find it challenging to establish meaningful connection, especially if they did not grow up in the host country.

This has certainly been a challenge for me. There aren’t too many women of colour in leadership roles and those who have been there for long are stretched beyond capacity. To add to the complexity, a new entrant to the country will have a very different set of challenges than those who’ve been around for a while.

The Work Barrier

Diverse cultural backgrounds can influence one’s approach to work. Understanding the nuances between collectivist and individualistic societies is essential in creating an inclusive work environment. Leaders must be cognisant of these differences to provide the right guidance and support for their team members, ensuring a harmonious and productive work dynamic.

The key thing to understand here is that organisations can’t fill the gap for culturally diverse women leaders if they haven’t invested time in identifying them at mid-junior level and then nurtured them into those roles.

Here are a few recommendations on how we can address some of these challenges. It’s a long and winding road to fix the under representation, but each step counts.

  • Bias training: Mandatory bias training is essential. By fostering awareness at all levels, we can pave the way for more inclusive and equitable workplace.
  • Hiring & Promotion: Regular reviews of hiring and promotion processes are crucial to identify and rectify any inadvertent biases. Viewing candidates through a lens of equity, rather than merely equality, will help uncover hidden potential.
  • Measurement & Goals: Establishing industry benchmarks for diversity metrics provides a clear path for improvement. Transparency holds organisations accountable but also informs prospective clients and employees.
  • Coaching & Mentorship: Encouraging participation in mentorship programs and providing coaching for mid-senior women leaders can be transformative step.

The underrepresentation of women from culturally diverse backgrounds in leadership roles is a complex issue with multifaceted barriers. However, by implementing targeted strategies and fostering an inclusive environment, we can dismantle these obstacles and pave the way for a future where every talented individual can thrive and lead.

Yasha Chandra is Client Partner at iProspect



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