Black female leader making history against the power gap

Women leaders around the world face enormous challenges to break through gender barriers. Journalists Robyn Doolittle and Chen Wang contend that the recent investigation into “salary and employment data revealed something far more troubling” than wage differences in the Canadian workforce.

They assert that “women are missing from the positions of influence that shape virtually every aspect of daily life. It’s more than a wage gap. It’s a power gap”.

They further state that, although the wage gap continues to remain problematic and the under-representation of women at the helm of organisations is an additional concern, it is the absence of women at the ranks of vice-presidents, directors, managers and supervisors that have become more noticeable.

In the glocal (local and global) workplace and, in particular, in international higher education, that power gap becomes more pronounced when one adds in race as an additional barrier to success.

As a result, women leaders of colour will have to carefully circumnavigate the crevices between their aspirational goals and their skin colour.

In Australian higher education, Dr Kogi Naidoo, who took up her position in July 2021 as president of The Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA), is making history as its first black president after 30 years.

A different perspective

Dr Kogi Naidoo’s rise to her position as president of HERDSA marks a significant shift in bringing other worldviews to executive leadership in an Australian higher education ‘society for people committed to the advancement of higher and tertiary education’.

Over a 30-year period, the Australian higher education society has embraced the dominant white worldview, as is the case in other Western democratic nations and some colonised nations of the world. That dominant worldview has framed the departure and arrival point of scholarly activity.

With this long overdue achievement, the door is open for a diverse range of voices, worldviews, ways of knowing and doing and indigenous perspectives to permeate the Australian and international landscape.

Doolittle and Wang claim that there are seven reasons which obstruct women from advancing at the same rate as men.

They note that a collaborative study between Princeton and Lawrence universities highlighted reasons why people are less interested in hiring and promoting working mothers.

Another study (by New York and Columbia Universities) found that “successful women were less liked” while other research found that successful women “can face a backlash – even though confidence is valued in leaders” if they appear to be openly proud of their accomplishments”.

Within the Australian workplace, this phenomenon is known as TPS or ‘tall poppy syndrome’. Kate Taylor contends that “tall poppy syndrome describes aspects of a culture where people of high status are resented, attacked, cut down or criticised because their achievements make them stand out from their peers …”.

Taylor’s sentiments are echoed by many within and outside Australia, and Australia has become notorious for this unflattering national characteristic.

Further, Taylor declares: “It frustrates me as an Australian that this culture exists here; when I have lived in the UK or travelled to the US, success and achievement through hard work are praised and people admire you rather than bring you down.”

According to Rumeet Billan and Todd Humber, a Canadian survey of 1,500 professionals concluded that “successful women are being undermined at your workplace, and it’s taking a massive toll on productivity, self-esteem, turnover, succession planning and, yes, the bottom line”.

Billan and Humber again ‘credit’ Australia with the origins of the term ‘tall poppy syndrome’.

Barriers to success

Among the seven reasons which block the progress and advancement of women in the glocal workplace are:

• Societal expectations of leadership and femininity [men who demonstrate self-assurance, assertiveness and ambition are perceived to have leadership skills, but this is not the case if women demonstrate these behaviours].
• Women are judged more harshly [the workplace is more forgiving to men when they fail, but black women are judged more harshly when they fail, compared with white women and black men].
• Women are damned if they do, damned if they don’t [women have less success when negotiating salary or seeking a pay rise].
• Everything becomes harder when other measures of diversity are layered on [women of colour, those with disabilities, and LGBTQ women face additional biases].
• The current system hurts men, too [men who appear supportive and caring and opt to stay at home due to childcare responsibilities are viewed as less competent and unsuitable for management roles].

Dr Naidoo had to leap over various hurdles to her well-deserved achievement.

Dr Fay Patel has more than 30 years’ experience as an academic, researcher and international higher education consultant in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United States, South Africa, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Hong Kong.