The first step is understanding how racism plays out in the workplace
Conversations about the pay gap for women and gender equality in the workplace are familiar to all Australians. Equally well documented is the toll that the pandemic has had (and is still having) on women’s careers around the country. However, this rhetoric has always been centred around white women. Terms such as intersectionality and “pet to threat” are still new and unfamiliar to most Australians. The lived experiences of women of colour are largely an unknown quantity, invisible to those who are not female and part of a racial minority group.
Women of Colour Australia (WoCA) champions women of colour through education programs, community support initiatives, and advocacy. WoCA’s vision is of girls and women of colour reaching their full potential through equitable opportunities. The key phrase here is equitable opportunities, which implies understanding the complex challenges and barriers, implicit and explicit, that prevent women of colour from excelling in their careers – something largely undocumented in Australia.
In 2020, WoCA conducted its inaugural Women of Colour in the Workplace national survey in partnership with Murdoch University researcher, Dr Catherine Archer 1. Applying an intersectional lens to gender equality in the workplace provided insight into how gender overlaps with other identities to impact the way oppression and discrimination are experienced.
The survey sought to explore the professional and workplace experiences of women of colour in Australia. A total of 543 women of colour completed the survey. 70 percent of respondents worked full-time and were aged between 25 and 34 years. Seven percent identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, with the remainder spanning heritage from more than 60 different nations. The women reported being employed in more than 250 different roles.
The main purpose of the survey was to explore and understand the role of different issues within the workplace and the effects they have on the experiences of women of colour in a work environment. It focused on identity; the positive and negative experiences of women of colour within the workplace; recognising and addressing barriers to professional advancement; how organisations like WoCA can best advise, support, and train women; and understanding the role of diverse identities in issues faced by women in the workplace.
The survey highlighted women are more likely to work part-time in white collar professional roles. It was illustrated that challenges of racism, tokenism and sexism were prevalent in the workplace, resulting in discriminatory behaviour from colleagues. This included microaggressions, gaslighting and blind spots, especially along generational lines, creating a space where many women did not feel safe, recognised or valued.
It also highlighted that many women of colour have had to work harder and be more direct to get where they are, and their job progressions have been slower than that of their Anglo peers. The lack of women of colour leaders in the workplace has also contributed to issues of isolation and lack of mentorship and sponsorship. Half of the women surveyed felt there were cultural barriers in the workplace that held them back from achieving their goals, particularly in terms of unconscious bias and the perception of white superiority. In the instances where a workplace had diversity and inclusion policies, the survey revealed that they were often not enacted, were only briefly covered in training, or only protected certain groups of people.
WoCA has developed a three-year strategic plan to directly address some of the challenges and barriers that surfaced in the survey. The strategic plan was created by WoCA board members made up of nine diverse women of colour. The leadership of the organisation is culturally rich, racially and ethnically diverse with an intersectional approach to solving systemic issues facing Australia’s women of colour. To address and implement their strategic objectives, WoCA has established seven volunteer committees: volunteer management; research & advocacy; learning & development; mentoring; events; communications & engagement; and fundraising & grants.
The Women of Colour in the Workplace national survey will be undertaken by WoCA annually to measure changes in this space.
More information is available at https://womenofcolour.org.au/.