Culturally diverse women need a properly designed system to reach to STEMM leadership roles

A very recent report from Deakin University and Diversity Council Australia confirms that the number of women of diverse background in Australia’s top jobs is “extremely low”. This finding is nothing new (I discussed this in my previous article) but it at least indicates the increasing attention being paid to the matter of professional women of diverse background. I would like to highlight the issue of women of diverse background in STEMM once more, though this time with a focus on employers and organizations.

In my previous article, I raised the issues for culturally diverse women in STEMM and focused on how they can lead the change they want to see. However, in this article, I would like to shift the focus and discuss some possible actions employers should take to assist women of diverse background in STEMM achieving their full potential and full participation.

A heterogeneous workforce: the new imperative

The importance of diversity within the workforce is not hidden anymore and the value of heterogeneous teams has been well recognized. It is now becoming more obvious to employers that a diverse team is more creative and innovative – and way more compared to a ‘humongous’ team. Greater diversity of staff (from different backgrounds and cultures), forces groups to anticipate different view points, to expect lower communication and, therefore, prepare better and expect that reaching consensus takes greater effort. Diversity offers different perspectives originated from different life experiences, critical thinking, better decision-making, increasing the likelihood of new ideas and innovation opportunities coming to the table. Therefore, attracting a diverse workforce is a high value proposition to optimizing financial and operational performance and driving innovation and invention to fuel the continued growth of the global knowledge economy.

Diversity Ethnicity World Global Community Concept
Diversity Ethnicity World Global Community Concept

Ineffective diversity programs

Based on the above-mentioned value proposition, more and more companies are implementing  programs to promote diversity within their work environment, such as recruitment strategies (to hire culturally diverse talents), unconscious bias training, providing support system for culturally diverse people, etc. But despite these efforts, male Anglo-Australians still dominate the highest ranks of leadership and the impact of diversity programs within leadership ranks is still negligible, particularly so in the science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) sectors. Based on a report published by the Diversity Council Australia, many culturally diverse people from STEMM fields struggle to maintain an upward trajectory towards leadership roles and among them, not surprisingly, culturally diverse women face a greater disadvantage. The consequence of this imbalance is a large fraction of untapped talent; leading to a waste of potential economic growth. This is all in addition to the emotional strain and sense of powerlessness for culturally diverse women, supporting an unacceptably high drop-out rate of exceptional talent in the STEMM sectors.

Such a lack of diversity in leadership indicates either: the employment of poor diversity related programs or improper implementation of them. Diversity programs should be driven by research as well as data analysis. This requires a proper measurement system to evaluate the effectiveness of diversity programs and initiatives. In other words, to make it a success, employers need to measure what works and what doesn’t, based on the data collected from their measurement. Organisations and employers need to stay alert with respect to what they need to change and keep evaluating whether their applied changes work or not. Diversity benefits all, therefore, diversity programs should not be implemented to only tick the box, but instead be expected to deliver impact and to demonstrate this clearly with reliable and robust data.

Behavioural design

Aside from effective diversity programs, research has shown that by implementing proper behavioural designs it is possible to get even more things fixed with respect to diversity. Regarding this behavioural design, below are my suggestions based on my own perspective as a culturally diverse woman.

In a productive diverse team, everyone has to feel they belong, with equal opportunities. To me, the current STEMM work environment behavioural designs generally benefits more extroverted white men, placing minorities under immense pressure to either change to someone they are not or to step back. A few, relatively simple design changes, targeting stereotypes, can make a significant difference with respect to generating a greater sense of belonging and equal opportunities, which I discuss in the following:

  1. Out of sight should not result in out of mind. Not all people are interested in small talk, so many of them prefer their quiet corner to work and concentrate and there is nothing wrong with that. This is not about disrespect or emotional disconnection, but it is just their physical need for downtime. Being quiet in so many cultures (mainly in the East) is a value that people have grown up with and it won’t be easy for them to switch from an introvert version of themselves to an extrovert version wherever and whenever they want. So give them the space they need without making them feel excluded or isolated. For example, make work from home the norm or provide quiet office areas available in the workplace so that those who need to take a break from open offices can use them.
  2. Not all smart people think well ‘on their feet’. Many smart people, whether by nature or nurture, need time to process information. They need to investigate subjects comprehensively and in depth before being able to talk about them (another cultural value in the East). They prefer and have learned to be good listeners, to be able to obtain the required information for their detailed analysis and there is nothing wrong with that. In many cultures it’s the norm and very respectful to dedicate time to considering new ideas or opportunities. Give people the flexibility they need, with time to give appropriate consideration supporting their inclusion.
  3. Not all smart people are actively and equally contributing to meetings. This can be because they are not being taken seriously, maybe don’t feel included or empowered, or because they need time to process information. They may also feel very anxious speaking publicly. Similarly, these traits could be all driven by cultural differences and there is nothing wrong with that, too. Brainstorming with your team via online platforms is an option, where it is possible and appropriate. By using virtual platforms such as email, you can make sure that: first, you are giving time to those who need it; second, that everyone has equal opportunity to contribute their ideas without worrying about behaviours that unfortunately silence many culturally diverse women. If virtual brainstorming is not an option and you have to hold a physical meeting, then consider giving notice of the subject well in advance, provide equal opportunity for everyone to contribute and to foster a culture in which team members support each other and help one another to get heard. As an example of such is “amplification” as a strategy initiated by female staffers in Obama’s administration. When a woman made a contribution by making an insight, other women would help to recognize the contribution by amplifying it via repeating. Holding everyone accountable (especially those who tend to lead the conversation the most) for making space for culturally diverse women is also a very beneficial practice. With a diverse workforce the role of meeting chairperson is more important than ever, to make sure every voice is heard equally and collaboration and communication behaviours do not disadvantage culturally diverse women.
  4. Not all smart people are white extrovert men. Smart people have a variety of skin colours, personalities, appearances, ethnics, religions, ages and genders. Managers and leaders must make a conscious effort to reach out and bring culturally diverse women up onto the ladder and into their professional circles. This can be achieved by helping culturally diverse women to be heard, introducing them to your network, advocating for them, championing their ideas and finding them appropriate mentors.

In an ideal, diverse work environment – particularly in the innovation industries – everyone’s full potential is tapped to reach the maximum efficacy. But very few organisations live up to this ideal; to a large extent because many fail to implement proper strategies and designs to address bias and culturally diverse behaviours. With innovation at the forefront of economic reform and an increasing number of culturally diverse women in STEMM moving through middle management toward the cusp of leadership, the time to address this issue is right now if Australia is to reach its full innovation potential.

About the author:

Shokoufeh M

Dr Shokoufeh Malekjani is a metallurgical engineer and founder of Diverse Village. It was through her journey in a white male-dominated environment where she discovered the faulty infrastructure unable to fit in people who are different from the prevailing culture, and that discovery has formed the foundation for Diverse Village with a core mission to promote diversity. Diverse Village is a space for digital savvy and professional diverse women to celebrate their authenticity and explore empowerment. Being an engineer and scientist, Shokoufeh is an Affiliate with Women in STEMM Australia and she has a deeply rooted passion to work with and for women in engineering in particular, and in STEMM in general. Her goal is to empower, educate and inspire.

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