Negotiating belonging the workplace: a steep cliff for migrant women to climb

We have known for some time that migrant and refugee women face the glass ceiling when they strive to advance in the workplace, but by looking up at the ceiling are we distracted from another more imminent peril: the risk of being pushed off the 'glass cliff?’

The ‘glass cliff’ is when women are appointed to precarious leadership positions or executive roles in times of crisis. While the glass cliff may at first be disguised as an opportunity, it can have serious consequences both professionally and (inter)personally.

Research by the Global Institute for Women's Leadership at the Australian National University suggests that women are given leadership roles when organisations reach a challenging time, entailing reputational risk or a share price drop. For example, we saw an increase in women in leadership positions across the health industry during the global COVID-19 pandemic. These leadership positions are often accompanied by increased public scrutiny and are not well supported or resourced.  Women in leadership have shorter tenures and are more likely to be pushed out of their roles as they face higher scrutiny when they reach these positions.

Considering the volatile conditions, women are more at risk of being held responsible and blamed for any failures or the downfall of these organisations. This ultimately results in sexist and racist assumptions about migrant women's ability to govern and hold leadership positions.

In Australia, despite making up more than 28% of the Australian population, migrant and refugee women only make up 5.7% of all board directors, 7.5% of directors in the Federal government, 2.5% of ASX directors and 1% of ASX CEOs.  Beyond the statistics, the one-off high-profile stories of migrant women breaking through the glass ceiling do not always paint the full picture. Recent research shows that migrant and refugee women tend to be underestimated, are offered fewer career opportunities, are subjected to a higher bar, and are often isolated in the workplace.

Frequent microaggressions, coupled with gender and racial discrimination continue to act as barriers for migrant and refugee women at all levels and across all industries. We often need to strategically negotiate belonging within an organisation which expects us to conform, assimilate and perform to a perfection standard that does not apply to other employees.

As we succeed professionally and progress along our various career paths, it is essential to name and acknowledge the structural and systemic challenges that attempt to keep us teetering too close to the glass cliff. To find our solid footing we need to ensure equitable pathways to leadership for migrant and refugee women, and not just during crisis. We need organisations to offer more transparency about leadership roles, provide adequate resources and support, and fair evaluations of our performance using a contextualised approach because intersectionality matters.

Of course, workplaces also need to strive to reduce discrimination whilst fostering equitable opportunities that support migrant and refugee women at all stages of their career progression.  Community-based programs like MCWH's PACE Leadership Program are one way to address structural barriers to leadership pathways by centring migrant and refugee women’s voices. By doing so, we can pave the way for meaningful inclusion, gender equality, and ensure that leadership roles are accessible and empowering by giving migrant and refugee women the more equitable tools of solid walking boots and safety guide ropes to not only recognise the cliff, but to safely navigate past it and ascend it.

First published in edition #127 of The WRAP on 29 November 2023.