Breaking barriers: empowering CALD women in corporate spaces

Guest contributor: Vimala Thangaveloo

The article discusses the definitions and misconceptions surrounding the term CALD (Culturally and Linguistically Diverse), particularly focusing on the experiences of traditionally underrepresented women, such as brown and black women. It emphasises the importance of investing in women, challenging stereotypes, addressing organisational barriers, and navigating cultural dynamics in corporate settings. The overarching theme revolves around empowering CALD women to overcome systemic challenges and thrive in leadership roles.

CALD – definitions and misconceptions

Despite the fact that some people have used the term CALD to include all people – after all, everyone is culturally and linguistically diverse from each other – I use it in my work to describe people who are traditionally underrepresented. 

As a woman of colour my own lived experiences have made me aware of the lack of diversity in spaces where business decisions are made. Although I work with a wide clientele, most of my work is geared towards brown and black women and I use the term CALD because it is a known term in Australia.  It captures the intent of the origin of the term which is traditionally underrepresented women.

Investing in women

During International Women’s Day, a lot of themes centred around investing in women. What does that mean in terms of positive outcomes and change? 

I’ve seen a lot of media about this theme and a good example of how things need to change involves paying women to speak. Asking women to present at seminars and workshops for free sets a precedent that is twofold. 

Firstly, we need to value the time it takes to prepare and share potentially painful stories. Invest in us for showing up and putting our blood sweat and tears into their presentation. 

And secondly, it shows we’re investing in ourselves and valuing what we have to offer. 

There’s a narrative that says there’s just not enough skilled and knowledgeable women out there to go round, which I challenge. How is that an excuse when you have a nation that is 50% women? We’re sitting on an untapped resource that’s not being used adequately for leadership positions. While this impacts all women, CALD women face this plus additional barriers to participation in senior leadership roles and forums. 

As a corporate attorney for over 25 years, I’ve seen a lot of women raising their hands in meetings. Women of all cultures – whether you’re black, brown, or white – typically raise our hands before contributing to the meeting. What we were taught at school – be a lady, don’t put yourself forward, behave – carries through in the boardrooms. By contrast, men just come out and just say what they want without asking for permission. 

The role of organisations

While I work with women to help maintain their growth and not let people’s voices shut them down, there are other forces at play. 

Coaching can help women build their confidence to achieve their goals, however the main obstacle that some women face is not within themselves, but in their organisations. 

When they speak their truth, they’re told by senior leaders to calm down. They’re ‘too much’ or even aggressive. So, on the one hand, women need to step up, but on the other, if they do, it’s uncomfortable for others. 

These types of mixed messages can erode our confident voices and impact our behaviour and interactions. In the long run, if not addressed through quality two-way conversations about expectations, it can ruin relationships and lead to distress. 

In that instance I’d suggest getting a sponsor to speak to the senior leader and if that doesn’t work, assessing whether or not that organisation is the right place to be.

The role of culture

We’re starting to see an increased realisation that we are multicultural Australia. There’s an important piece for companies to really dig into to dismantle systemic tropes about what is acceptable in the workplace. 

Too often I’ve heard stereotypes about different people’s behaviour that’s based on race – the angry black woman, the aggressive brown woman – when they’re being emphatic or passionate. How do you stay calm in the face of such unfair accusations? How do you respond to these types of biases?

It’s not the job of women or anyone in an organisation to make their supervisors feel comfortable. But it is important to set ways of working and clear expectations to avoid any miscommunication. Outside of that, discussions of the person’s manner – too soft, too hard, too self-reliant, too needy – shouldn’t come into it.

If they do then it’s a systemic issue and when that happens I advise my client to look outside the organisation. Many women leave because they’re in a space where they feel unsafe. Others stay through a misplaced sense of loyalty. 

That’s when it’s important to realise this is a business relationship. You don’t need to be soft or vulnerable or needy. You need to navigate for yourself and have a clear view of where your career is going in that environment. 

It’s your career. There are alternatives available to you. 

Vimala Thangaveloo is a multi-certified coach and empowers culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) women experiencing mid-career challenges to confidently own their voices, so they grow their careers on their own terms.


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