Will Independent women standing in 2022 listen and act for diverse voices?

Will the Independent women standing in 2022 listen and act for diverse voices?

I read article after article about women running as independent candidates in the next election. By my last count, there are ten: Jo Dyer, Claire Boardman, Professor Monique Ryan, Zoe Daniel, Allegra Spender, Penny Ackery, Georgia Steele, Kylea Tink, Sophie Scamps and Dr Vania Holt.  I hear their call for action; their frustration with the broken party system, the lack of action on climate change, corruption and women’s rights.

These are all things I’m passionate about too, but I find it difficult to reconcile that these women are capable of championing “all women’s rights”. From my understanding, none of these candidates are women of colour, Aboriginal women, women living with a disability, women from a lower socio-economic class, women experiencing financial pressure or facing harm owing to their sexual orientation.

These women are accomplished, absolutely, but also very privileged. I wonder how intersectional gender equality will be understood and championed by them to truly create change for the most vulnerable women amongst us?

I listen to ABC News Radio’s Chris Mitchell interview historian, Professor Clare Mitchell who draws a parallel between four women in 1903 who were the first Australian white women to stand for parliament and the Independent women running for election in 2022. The historian cheers these women on, calling them, ‘brave’, ‘cleaning up the mess men have made’.

What the interview fails to acknowledge, is that in 1903 this world first of white women being able to vote and stand for parliament happened here, in Australia, on stolen lands, ONLY for white women.

As a woman of colour, I am tired of relying on white women in powerful and privileged positions to make the change I need to feel equal.  I am 45 years old and I have had this ‘white reliance’ in my home country of South Africa to get ahead and in my new home of Australia for the last 19 years. It is exhausting.

I try to reel in my critique, because at least these Independent women of 2022 are making a stand by running. I question myself: Could I do the same?

I talk with one of the prominent independent women standing and I walk away with the answer: I can’t really run in this race and represent other migrant women and minority groups, because there is too much at stake for me and my family, financially.

My husband and I are migrant entrepreneurs – we checked out of corporate jobs after 10+ years of experiencing bias and barriers to our race and ethnicity which caused downward career mobility and the ethnic pay gap. We saw no financial future in staying in these positions, with slow trajectories into senior leadership so we decided to build our own business over almost 10 years, two of them being covid years.

With new variants emerging, covid numbers rising and little safety net for businesses, we are bracing ourselves for a rocky 2022 and 2023.  

If I had to step out of our business to run a campaign and represent women like me, I would stunt the business’s growth. We would not be able to afford our home, we would jeopardise our children’s education fees, and our ability to visit ageing and ill parents in our home country – this is what is at stake for us as migrants.

I wonder how much of this is at stake for the Independent women running?

As I note Climate 200’s support of Independents, a cynical voice in my head wonders who would back a brown woman like me? I could not get any venture capital or philanthropic money to support our start up business. This is a challenging space for women founders in general, but even more so for women of colour founders. The Wade Institute revealed that for venture capital early-stage funding of companies in Australia, around 29.4 per cent have at least one female founder, compared to 70.6 per cent of male-only founders.

So, my only choices are to wait for another migrant woman better positioned than I to step up, or to influence these mainly white Independent women candidates and the media to be our champions and to hear and act on our voices.  

The former option of another woman of colour stepping up feels like I will be waiting a long time, judging from the treatment of women of colour within parties. Tu Le’s experience both past and current, comes to mind and almost warns off women of colour from stepping into the race. Even in the electorate of Fowler which is 19 percent Vietnamese, Kristina Keneally remains unwilling to step aside to give Tu Le the opportunity to lead.  I’ll have to rely on the latter option, to influence white women to lean into what gender equity means for other women.

So here is what I want Independent women running in 2022 to hear, understand and act on for women of colour in the workplace – this comes from our MindTribes research across 2020 and 2021 with samples sizes of up to 1000 respondents and is in line with the Respect at Work Report:

  1. Women of colour experience low psychological and cultural safety. The most confronting finding is that 1 in 3 women of colour don’t feel safe at work.
  2. 81 percent of women of colour and 86 percent of First Nation’s women reported experiencing some form of exclusion or negative behaviour at work (gaslighting, being talked over, having credit taken for their work, persistent jokes based on gender, race, age or both). 
  3. Low (e.g. 1 in 10 in an executive team) to non-existent representation of women of colour in the C-suite, GM roles, Executive Director roles. 
  4. Gross underemployment relevant to skills, qualifications, expertise, languages spoken, global experience. 45 percent of women of colour believed that their expertise mattered less to leaders and this curtailed them from sharing their views.
  5. A Gender ethnic pay gap of 33-36 percent.

At this crucial time, heading into our third year of living with covid, we do need fresh thinking coming from independent minds and real change. I applaud these Independent women of 2022 for taking up the challenge, but I urge them not to just tokenistically pick up issues of women of colour to help them appeal to a larger demographic but to fight just as hard and genuinely for these and other women who are often forgotten.  

Independent women of 2022 – we are relying on you to create a more equal future, as our choices are curtailed by inequitable pasts and presents.

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