“Choose to Challenge” is the theme of International Women’s Day this year, and it is a theme I have struggled with.
I was born in the ‘60s in an environment that can only be described as culturally regressive and oppressive. I spent my entire youth challenging society and cultural norms, facing discrimination and sexism. I had to deal with misogynism and the realities of what women’s place was in society – education ending at high school, arranged marriages, and living with the all-powerful in-laws.
I also had to face the inequality within my own family between my brother and myself. Yes, as the son, he was and still is the golden child. He can never do no wrong.
There was a silver lining. My father believed in education and sent me to Australia, where I choose to stay via marriage to a white man – once again choosing to challenge and defy my family and society.
The next challenge was facing corporate Australia as a woman of colour. There were no culturally diverse role models in the ‘90s and what you can’t see you cannot aspire to be.
I remember the times when there were only a few women in Government and the C-Suite, and no one ever talked about diversity and inclusion, or targets and quotas.
In the early ‘90s, if I was spoken to or touched inappropriately there was never any recourse or support available.
I remember walking down the streets of Melbourne with my partner at the time and people would stare at us: a white man with a brown woman.
In the early part of my career I always assumed that women like me would never reach the heights of leadership as there were very few women of any colour in leadership roles.
I choose step up and I chose to challenge. I became the best at what I do, so it was hard not to select me. I used all my grit, determination, and bravery to ask for what I wanted.
Soon I found myself being a “first and only”. There is a certain burden and responsibility of being a “first”. I knew that whatever I did or said would be amplified. I knew that however people perceived me, they would perceive every other woman of colour to be the same.
In time I learnt to set boundaries and call out inappropriate behaviour, but I quickly realised that speaking out caused backlash. I was branded ‘too sensitive’ or told I ‘perceived things the wrong way’.
Over the past 12 years in Corporate Australia the dial has moved forward, there is no denying that. However, the pace of the movement is too slow. Many women my age who are steely from all their experiences, have become the role models they didn’t see. We have been joined by our daughters and our sons. Our voices are stronger, we are now a force to be reckoned with.
Despite this, I am tired of challenging. I want to see deliberate changes, made by leaders who know that diverse workplaces are the future of work. Leaders who understand that their businesses must reflect the communities they work and live in. Many culturally diverse women who work in organizations are often the first or only woman of colour.
Leaders, none of this change is hard. In fact, it is also the right thing to do. So yes, let’s challenge. But, instead of little return, we choose to challenge for a return far greater than what we have received to date. We choose to challenge for more.