I was recently appointed as a Board of Director of an organization that I have been working with since its inception. My initial response, a common among women – ‘Are you sure? Can I do this? Am I too young for this?’ As women, we often question our ability and hold back when opportunities come to us. I am an extrovert, ambitious and always curious to learn more but I often internalise the fear of my authority being questioned, my voice not being heard. When I moved to Sydney, I became the Women’s Officer at the Sydney University Postgraduate Students Association. This meant I was representing all postgraduate women at the University of Sydney. As I spoke to more women, I realised my fears were not limited to myself. The key to addressing this issue was the focus on leadership and how we viewed it. I observed these fears were more pronounced if you happened to be a women of colour, women of faith or any other structurally disadvantaged background. It existed not just in general public spaces but also within women spaces.
If women spaces don’t allow for every voice to be heard, we are failing to address issues of diversity as a whole. If we can’t address it within these spaces, we can’t address it in the outside world.
A common question that inspired me to write this article was – ‘The events and teams you organise have representation from different groups of women, how do you manage to do that?’ I hope to share some of the learnings from my work in India and Sydney central to making spaces diverse and a key to enabling women leadership.
1. Actively finding and working with groups from different backgrounds
No matter where we are, there always exist groups where women from the same identity bond or work together. These maybe social groups, organised or unorganised, personal or professional but they do exist. A strategy to increase diversity in your team and your work is to research and find these groups. One may hesitate to reach out fearing a negative response but as the saying goes ‘the answer is always no until you ask’. We must realise that people are interested in working together and open to new experiences so reaching out to new groups is a healthy exercise to grow your network.
2. Reflecting on who holds leadership positions
If we are to grow and scale our work, it is useful to reflect on how we define leadership. From my experience in the community organising framework, my biggest learning was to look at leadership as a practice of identifying and recruiting more leaders. As leaders, we assume we must lead the path and be able to speak on behalf of our teams. However, women coming from different backgrounds bring along skills and experiences different to ours and are also more adept to sharing solutions tied to their journeys. Leadership begins with trust and the commitment to invest in other’s leadership journey. In our work, we must be mindful of who holds leadership positions and if they are not diverse, we are at the risk of not being able to scale.
3. Listening as a leadership practice
Diversity does not just mean having women of different backgrounds in your team or work. We are truly diverse when different women have the floor to speak and put forward their opinions. As leaders we think we are spokespersons of the community but we fail to understand that stepping back and allowing the community to speak for themselves will encourage more voices in the room. Listening as a practise and opening opportunities for other team members to be speaking for the team, issues and the work will reflect if you are truly inclusive.
4. Go where your community is
To increase engagement and break the initial barriers of building a diverse community, don’t call people where you are. Instead go where people are. When there is lack of familiarity and absence of relationships, people are less likely to go out of their comfort zone into a space that is unfamiliar. Meet people where they are comfortable meeting, organise your first events where that community often meets. It allows for building trust and sends a message that you are willing to learn more and respect others. It is a proven recruitment tactic!
5. Make diversity an indicator for success
This last point has been the most helpful to me. I have been in teams where we principally agreed to have diverse team but often failed at achieving it. Making diversity as a norm is much more impactful when we make it a part of our success evaluation system. Creating indicators that measure diversity at every level of engagement will ensure I am diversifying my tactics at all levels of my work. This has shifted the lens in which I approach everything.
One of the most moving and powerful experiences for me have been watching women who I identify with take stands and share their stories. It has given me power to do the same for myself. We need to create space for diverse voices because that inspires more voices and we begin to see a cultural shift. Tying diversity to the larger leadership challenge is key to bringing a sustainable cultural shift.