The Diversity Council of Australia has released its first study on the “cultural glass ceiling”, a report which is long overdue.

The conversation of diversity in Australia has mainly been about the number of women at board level and in directorships. There are diversity programs in companies focused on ensuring they gain gender balance. In addition, the male “champions of change” movement is all about powerful men stepping up beside women to achieve a sustainable increase in the representation of females in leadership.

These are all great initiatives, but I believe that we need to change our language around this issue: diversity is not all about gender balance.

Diversity is explained as “the inclusion of individuals representing more than one national origin, color, religion, socioeconomic stratum, sexual
orientation”.

So, diversity is about people who come in different packages – ethnicity, ability and sexuality. Until now we have never measured the cultural diversity of our organisations. It is almost as if we use the word diversity to only represent one element of the term – gender balance.

However, we finally have our first report which must start the conversation amongst leaders in Australia on the issue of the cultural glass ceiling.

Over the last 18 months I have spoken to over 10,000 men, women, leaders, and managers. I have challenged them on their ideas of diversity and asked the question whether the colours of their organisation in fact reflect the communities they work in. And as I look around the room and see a sea of white faces looking back at me, I know that there is a lack of cultural diversity in many organisations.

So, what are leaders doing about this issue? The Australian landscape of people will only become more diverse and our workplaces need to keep up with the pace.

According to the research, if ASX directors were 100 people then the following statistics would apply:

  • 2 would be culturally diverse women
  • 6 would be Anglo Celtic women
  • 28 would be culturally diverse men
  • 64 would be Anglo Celtic men

As a woman of Indian background, I have experienced the double jeopardy which comes in the corporate world.

Firstly, I have had to break the cultural glass ceiling within my own community. I married a white man, never went to university, sent my kids to child care, went back to full time work, and then got divorced. Pretty normal if I was a white woman. However, as an Indian woman I have been made to feel guilty on all these choices and labelled a “bad” wife and mother.

Secondly, I have had to smash through the same glass ceilings and work much harder to prove my worth and capability – not just as a woman but as somebody of colour.

Women of cultural backgrounds are very ambitious. We would not leave our country of birth, away from family or friends, to move to a foreign land and restart our lives if we weren’t.

We are extremely capable, often bi-lingual and incredibly resilient. We make great negotiators, understand cultural nuances when doing business and we embrace change.

Frankly, it’s a valuable combination for any employer. Yes, we may speak with an accent and may wear different clothes, but isn’t that what diversity is about?

My partner was recently asked “isn’t your girlfriend is Indian…. does she smell?” I was surprised that this level of bias existed at a senior level.

A potential Indian candidate recently told me they he has been told to change his name to Gary as it would open more doors.

I am often asked why I didn’t revert to my maiden name post my divorce. Well most Australians cannot pronounce my first name and my surname “Smiles” builds assumptions on my background, creates curiosity and doors open. However, if I was Sadhana Jeraj, I would face levels of conscious and unconscious bias like many other migrants.

Far too many times smart, intelligent, ethnic women are not respected, valued nor are their opinions listened to. I often say to people that I have had to learn to think like a “white” woman. I have often had to discard my experiences from Fiji to only use those I’ve learned in Australia.

As a woman of colour in a male dominated industry I stand out. However, I have had the courage to use my differences to my advantage and build my brand.

As leaders, we need to ensure that our existing teams are curious about different cultures and the commonalities that exist.

Our hiring decisions must not have the lenses of unconscious bias and we can achieve this by simply removing gender and cultural background questions.

Many applicants today are first generation Australians with ethnic names who speak with a broad Aussie accent. They also still have the advantage of growing up in a dual cultural environment. How fabulous is that for the businesses that eventually hire them?

Leaders also need to understand the challenges women of diverse cultural backgrounds may face at home. Despite their ambitions and career aspirations they may be facing the challenges of returning home to husbands, mothers and in-laws who are not supportive of their desire to work.

Leaders need to assess how culturally diverse their organisations are and then put in place targets to reduce the gaps. I am proud to lead a brand in Victoria that is diverse in the representation of women in leadership but also within ethnic representations. We connect with our communities, which creates tolerance and
understanding with our clients and each other.

Far too often I am approached by women at conferences thanking me for pointing out the lack of diversity in the room and workplaces. They often speak to me about what they need to do to get noticed and bridge the gap.

Well here are a few tips:

  1. Ensure that you become the best blend of yourself and the Australian culture. You don’t need to choose one over the other.
  2. Share the uniqueness of your festivals and family
  3. Bring native food to work that you know your colleagues will like
  4. Dress for success
  5. Invest in your brand, use your differences to your advantage
  6. If you have connections that will be an asset to your business then use them, especially if they are offshore
  7. Find a sponsor or someone in your organisation who understands your career aspirations and helps open doors
  8. Have honest conversation with your leaders on what holds you back and your ambitions
  9. Call out biased behaviour
  10. Join networks that will recognise your talent

Interestingly, this list is really no different for those women who are not from culturally diverse backgrounds.

As leaders, how do we start this journey of making sure our businesses reflect our communities? I believe we need to train our employees on cultural inclusion and the impact of bias and racism – not just within the business but in the community.

Examples include:

  • Change forms that ask for gender and cultural backgrounds and genuinely interview candidates based on skill sets and experience
  • Ensure that culturally diverse women do not become invisible in your organisation

As a minority leader – not just as a woman but a woman of colour – this is not an issue I can leave at the door. I challenge my co-leaders to step up and keep the conversation going. To commit to the changes not just for the financial benefits of your organisation but more so for the connection with your clients and people who choose to work in your organisations.

I hope this study will be the first of many. Something that will be picked up by the mainstream media and business leaders and we will start to see the colours of our community reflected in our companies.


Sadhana Smiles is Chief Executive Officer of one of the state’s fastest growing real estate brands, Harcourts Victoria. One of only two female CEO’s in her sector, commonly referred to as the “boy’s club”, Sadhana has created a brand that has placed her amongst her peers as a thought leader, industry commentator, corporate activist and a contemporary feminist.


To say I felt like the black sheep is a massive understatement.  I thought I was going to work for an English chap I had worked briefly with in the UK years before.  He was the boss, I knew him, he would be my sponsor – it would be fine I thought.  A great learning experience.  A phone call a few weeks before I arrived in Abu Dhabi (UAE) in the Middle East changed all that.  My English chap sponsor was no longer the CEO.  Yikes!  A new CEO would be appointed.  Now all my work colleagues would be strangers and I’d be in a country a long way from home.

My house was leased.  My worldly possessions packed.  I’d resigned from my job in Sydney.  I felt like there was no turning back – I was in too deep.

Upon arrival I was dazzled with the temporary all-expenses paid accommodation in Emirates Palace Hotel (the fanciest hotel I had ever seen).  The company representative who was supposed to greet me at the airport didn’t arrive.   No dramas – I found the driver and got to the hotel.  Little did I know that was an early warning sign of a very different way to work than I’d ever experienced.

The new boss was travelling on my first day.  I was shown to my desk.  Very clean.  No computer. No phone. No stationery.  Nothing but a desk.  And no idea where I was or what I was supposed to be doing.  And very quickly I realised no-one to ask.  It was three days before anyone came to see how I was going.  Three days without lunch too – I had no idea how to procure that.

The new boss was also English.  Pleasant chap.  We agreed the company was without a strategy and I was to get stuck into fixing that.  A direction and strategy is what I am good at.  Or so I thought.

Computer arrived.  Phone arrived.  Realised the assigned PA who spoke very little English was not going to work and hired in her place, the amazing Julia – an Aussie who had been successfully living the expat life in the Middle East for years.  Instantly I was breathing easier – she was a fountain of knowledge starting with where I could get some lunch!

Tip#1 – Align yourself with someone who understands the various cultures that exist

My first tip to outperform in a multi-cultural environment is to align yourself with someone who understands the local culture, the cultures of your peers from other countries and your own culture.  Julia was my saviour.  She taught me all the etiquette I needed to know – handshakes, introductions, appropriate dress and meeting etiquette.  And she was a friendly face – such a welcoming sight particularly when I was so  far out of my comfort zone.  Injecting the fun back into the workplace which was key in keeping me motivated and engaged.

Off I went – full steam into understanding where the company was at.  And seeking  contributions from peers as to where we wanted to be.  Organising ‘think tank’ workshops.  Sub-committees.  Engaging UK consultants.  Asking ‘why’ at every given opportunity.  Challenging decisions in the weekly Executive Management Team meetings.

My energy and efforts were not being received well by my peers.  What was I doing wrong?

Tip #2 – Take time to understand the lie of the land

I was applying my hugely successful strategic planning tools from Australia to a new environment in the UAE.  My colleagues had never seen them before.  And didn’t like them.  It was too much change too quickly.

My second tip is to take time to understand the local work practices.  Observe behaviours in meetings – who is aligned with who?  Who are the decision makers, what are the decision-making processes?  What drives these decision makers?  Who is behind the numbers? Finding old information gives clues as to how they work.  Save the challenging questions until you have settled in.

So I sent the ‘Western style’ consultants back to the UK.  I spent more time with the Emiratis and I read everything I could get my hands on to understand how business was done.   I took bottles of water to team meetings and drank water every time I wanted to ask the bl**dy obvious question and I developed a layer of patience I never thought possible.…..my time to ask the tough questions would come.

I was beginning to understand how and where business was done.  Unfortunately for me business was usually late at night in the majlis – a place where women are forbidden.  That’s okay I said to myself – I will just make sure I am aware of the business decisions once they are made.  I looked for the positive way forward.

Tip#3 – Identify your allies and your enemies early

I also started developing closer relationships with the few British and Australian peers on the Executive Team.  We shared ideas, frustrations and concerns.  They had been there longer than me and were a great source of information to me.  I put my trust in them and was open with them.  They would sponsor me – to the extent that an expat could sponsor another expat in the UAE.

We talked about individuals – in particular our peers.  I soon learnt that my suspicions were confirmed – no matter what I did I was never going to make it in the eyes of at least one peer.  And possibly a few others.  I appreciated knowing it was a cultural thing and not me – having a women at the Executive table was something some of my peers were not yet ready to accept.

Tip number three is to know your allies and your enemies.  And as they say – keep your allies close and your enemies even closer.  Knowing it was not me personally that made me an enemy made it easier for me to do this.  But it was hard.  Routinely hard.  Like the day my colleague said ‘do we have to listen to her?’ which was met with stony silence rather than any voice from around the table in my support.   I had never been so poorly treated so openly before – not in more than 15 years in the industries with the lowest female participation rates.  I needed ongoing support to adapt to this.

Tip#4 – Use your mentors

I relied on my mentors.  Former bosses and peers around the world who I knew I could call.  It had been years in fact since my last call but they were there to lend support.  Having some external opinions – from people I respected who were disconnected from the business – was invaluable.  They helped me separate the emotion from the logic of my situation.  They helped me ‘let go’ of the small stuff.  They listened.  And they put the spring back in my step – they gave my self-confidence the boost I needed.   Every time.

I connected more with my mentors during my two year stay in Abu Dhabi  than in the rest of my career added together.  No surprise that using your mentors is my fourth tip to outperform in a multi-cultural environment.

As the months passed I developed a strategic blueprint that had buy in from my peers and my board.  It took what seemed like an eternity and it was tough going but I got there.  My adversaries tried their best to undermine me at every opportunity and derail the process.  Despite trying every trick I knew it was glaringly obvious I was not going to be the one to change their mindset about gender diversity.  I was flogging a ‘dead horse’.

Tip#5 – Have courage to act when ‘enough is enough’

The most courageous career decision I ever made was deciding ‘enough was enough’ in Abu Dhabi.  My adversaries behaviours were hurtful, demotivating and contributing to the evaporation of my self-confidence in the workplace.  I decided the best move forward was to find a new environment – one where I was respected and valued.  The answer was not to keep ‘banging my head against a brick wall’.

In making this decision there was not a moment when I felt I had failed.  Rather I felt liberated for having the courage to walk away from a dysfunctional and unhealthy work environment. And I have never looked back – my career has gone from strength to strength as has my self-confidence in the workplace.

Whilst Abu Dhabi was not a long-term option for me, the lessons from my Abu Dhabi journey are endless and I share them often through my www.steelheels.com.au online mentoring platform. Despite it being a difficult time for me personally, I remain open minded and welcoming of the diversity multi cultural work environments offer, even when I am the ‘odd one out’.

Regardless of whether you are part of a multi-cultural team in your home country or whether you are abroad I suggest these five tips to help you outperform.

Sharon Warburton by Shaun PattersonSharon Warburton is the founder of Steel Heels, the 2015 NAB Women’s Agenda Mentor of the Year and 2014 WA Telstra Business Woman of the Year.  And most importantly, she is Mum to 5-year-old Chloe.