Looking at leadership differently

In the wake of renewed calls for gender quotas in Australian parliament, and awkward questions about whether the Liberal party has a “problem” with women, who among us wasn’t inspired to see 9-year old Harper Nielsen’s unambiguous leadership in raising awareness about Aboriginal sovereignty and protesting the institutionalised racism expressed in Australia’s national anthem.

It’s strange that women’s leadership continues to be talked about as if it is a question: as if it were still up for discussion. In reality, we can see and name hundreds of real life examples of women’s leadership every day that prove it is not up for debate. Mums, grandmothers, aunties, sisters, colleagues, students, advocates, teachers, carers, bankers, bakers, workers, professors, accountants, scientists, sportswomen, artists, musicians, makers, politicians: the list is endless.

Just last week at MCWH we had the pleasure of hosting 30 women leaders from Indonesia as part of the Australia Awards through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Deakin University. (This week, we will be hosting another 20 leaders from Papua New Guinea). Meeting with our Asia-Pacific sisters affirms for us that the power of women’s leadership is global and collective.

On the domestic front, MCWH’s Equality@Work project with Mercy Health (formerly Southern Cross Care Victoria) is working to increase recognition of migrant women’s leadership in aged care services and it’s clear that the path to leadership for migrant women is complicated not only by gender inequality but also by racial discrimination and other forms of discrimination against women on the basis of their sexuality, ability, visa status, class and age.

Without structured career pathways, opportunities to increase English language proficiency, regular work hours, pay parity, ‘unconscious bias‘ and outright discrimination, women have told us that it can be difficult to take the lead in the workplace.

But as former deputy leader of the Liberal party and ex-foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop, recently stated, “no nation can reach its potential unless it embraces the talents and abilities and skills and ideas of the 50 per cent of the population that is female.

Equally, to quote our former Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphomassane, “breaking the glass ceiling and cracking the bamboo ceiling should not be regarded as mutually exclusive”. In other words, standing up for gender equality also means standing up against other forms of discrimination whenever you can, whether it’s the diverse representation of women in politics or the song lyrics you’re singing. If migrant women are locked out of the leadership ranks because of racism and discrimination, then we need to direct our collective leadership efforts towards changing the conditions of immigrant women’s lives.

Collective leadership means supporting and celebrating individual women on their own leadership paths. But it also means improving structural and institutional inequalities for all women, and pushing through whatever type of ceiling we face, be it glass, imperialist, bamboo or patriarchal. Together, we could even bring the house down.