Aish Ravi describes it as “a death by 1,000 cuts”.
That all-too-familiar feeling of being the only one in the room: the only woman, or the only woman of colour.
It’s something the former community football coach has experienced a lot.
“Entering certain environments, even though I’m welcome to the table, I definitely feel outnumbered,” she tells ABC Sport.
“You remove yourself from that environment without really any opportunity to be supported to go further, because these environments aren’t inclusive in the first place.
“So we need people of diverse backgrounds, at the table being successful, being made visible and just staying in the system.”
Ravi’s experiences prompted her and Julia Hay to establish the, which provides support and networking opportunities.
She is also studying a PhD on the progression of women football coaches at all levels, and says women from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds face added challenges when trying to break into leadership roles.
“We need to ensure that they’re visible, that they can get there, they do exist, and they can be supported in that environment.”
Breaking through the ‘double-glazed glass ceiling’
Women are outnumbered in leadership roles in sport — whether they’re coaches, sports science and medical staff, senior executives, board directors or chief executives — and there are even fewer CALD women.
While no specific data exists in sport,, compared to 21 per cent of the general population.
Lawyer Molina Asthana came to Australia from India in 2004 and established Multicultural Women in Sport. She’s also the chair of Gymnastics Victoria and the President of the Law Institute of Victoria, but it hasn’t been an easy path.
“You can literally count the number of leaders of diverse backgrounds on your hands,” she says.
“I call it the double-glazed glass ceiling that women of colour face.
“Women of diverse backgrounds are less likely to have mentors or sponsors.
“And, even if you are in leadership positions, your authority is often challenged because of your race, which has been my experience.
“I also feel that it’s become a bit fashionable to do D&I (diversity & inclusion). So everyone’s doing it, whether or not they understand it.
“There’s a lot of tokenism that happens, as well. Usually, you see one person being appointed to a leadership position, or one person representing the whole diverse tapestry of multicultural people.
“And that doesn’t really bring about real change, because you’re often marginalised in those positions.
“If you’re the only one, you’re the sole voice that is constantly challenging systems. It’s a hard burden to bear.”
Assmaah Helal is the head of operational growth at Creating Chances, a social enterprise that runs sport development programs for young people from multicultural and low socio-economic backgrounds.
“When you say we want to establish a multicultural strategy, we want to establish an inclusion strategy in our sport to increase the participation in these communities, they’re often established by people who are not from those communities,” she says.
“There’s a lack of empathy, lack of understanding, although well-intentioned, sometimes they’re far removed from reality.
“It’s time to rethink that. It’s time to include more voices and remunerate that appropriately.
“If you want to employ women from CALD backgrounds — as leaders, administrators — they need to see a pathway of progression.”
Ms Ravi says racism is another factor that can prevent women of colour from getting involved in sport, something she’s experienced as a player.
“Often, when you call out racism, the reaction is that: ‘We’re not racist’,” she says.
“And it occurs in an insidious nature, where the person that has experienced racism has to do all the work to show that it’s happened, report it and then go through all of that gaslighting and effort around experiencing racism, which is quite exhausting.
“We need to understand if people are already marginalised with our community. We’ve got to find more of a catered pathway to target them and [to] support them.”
Disrupting the status quo
All three women are working in their own capacity to create change.
Ms Helal is the co-founder of Muslim Women in Sport, an organisation that “amplifies the voices of Muslim women in sport and inspires Muslim women globally”.
She also created the Arezo program, which provided mentoring, education and networking for emerging female Afghan leaders in sport across Australia.
And she’s constantly being asked how to foster diversity in the workplace.
“You need to be a good leader. You need to be able to create an environment that is promoting belonging, regardless of your background,” she says.
“And there’s a need to be innovative, as a leader, if you want to be inclusive.
“It’s very difficult to maintain the status quo and try [to] achieve significant outcomes in your community.”
Ms Asthana says it’s crucial to acknowledge different leadership styles, too.
“A lot of [CALD women] are considered meek and mild, so you’ve got to promote that kind of leadership as well. Not everyone has to be a loud leader,” she says.
“And you’ve got to promote and set targets for leadership roles for women from culturally diverse backgrounds outside of just community roles, or inclusion and social cohesion roles.
“We are always bracketed into those roles, because we are from a diverse background.”
Quotas are another option used in certain sports, including the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which states teams must interview “minority candidates” for certain roles, including head coach and senior level positions.
“A lot of people don’t agree with quotas, and they’re certainly not a long-term strategy,” Ms Ravi says.
“Initially, when there’s an extreme lack of women coaches, it certainly helps to give women that opportunity to be in that system and [to] succeed.
“But quotas alone aren’t going to solve the problem.
“If you are one of the only women in these environments, surrounded by people [who] are not like you, or [who] don’t understand your experiences, it’s not a friendly environment to be in and, sometimes, the chances for you to succeed are very low.”
Ms Asthana agrees, and says more women on boards are also needed.
“Right now, we all protecting our own spaces. We are worried that, if we let another woman in, then they might let go of us.”
Solving the participation puzzle
Often the problem at the top starts at the grassroots.
Girls from diverse backgrounds are less likely to play sport, due to factors such as cost, access to transport, and cultural considerations, including uniforms and families prioritising boys’ participation.
Ms Helal is part of the Australian Sports Commission’s recently announced National Sport Participation Strategy project steering group.
She says there are many systemic barriers that need to be addressed.
“It’s important to recognise that girls and women from culturally diverse communities are not looked at from this homogenous lens,” she said.
“Each family will be unique. Each child will be unique and we need to be aware of the specific influence that culture has on their decisions.
“When you give people or communities resources that they need to succeed, we’ll see so much more success in the outcomes of taking part in sport, not just in participation, but in coaching and leadership.”
Ms Asthana has assisted with initiatives, including creating women-only spaces for players and officials, creating flexible uniform policies to allow modest clothing, and even adjusting timetables and locations of events.
She says, sometimes, it’s a simple change that can make the biggest difference.
“Mum and Bubs programs are really good, because a lot of cultures are patriarchal, and it is the women’s primary responsibility to look after the child,” she says.
“So, if you have programs where they can either bring their kids along, or when they can participate while the kids are participating, that encourages more women to participate.”
However, she doesn’t see progress being made fast enough.
“Until we start actually seeing visibility for people like us, it’s going to be really hard to change things, because we won’t feel welcome in those spaces anyway,” Ms Asthana says.
“I’ll walk in into a room, a sporting event, and I’ll be one of the few people of colour or, sometimes, the one and only woman.
“So it’s very difficult to see change when our function rooms, our boardrooms, our overall leadership positions are not reflective of what we see on the streets.”
It’s an ongoing journey, however, it’s one these women are willing to keep tackling.
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