Navigating the Intersection of Culture, Gender and Age

Navigating the Intersection of Culture, Gender and Age

Div Pillay is CEO and Co-Founder of MindTribes. A company that offers Cross Cultural Training and Performance Coaching for off-shored contact centres, global shared services, diverse onshore workforces and expatriates and in-patriates. Div shares with us her experience of being a young, South African, Indian woman in business. Her experiences were the impetus for starting MindTribes, and also drive her passionate advocacy for gender equality, cultural diversity and giving back to lift up others.

I am now more confident than ever navigating my intersectionality

Intersectionality is the inequality I experience as a result of the combination of my culture, gender and age. I was not always so confident. The business I now lead as CEO and Co-Founder, was born out of a pivotal inequality moment – a clash of my diversity.  My story and some key learnings may be helpful if you are like me, or encounter people who might experience intersectionality.

I remember this pivotal moment well, when I felt the discrimination of being a South African, Indian, female living in Australia

It was in 2013. I received feedback from a corporate client who said that I was the ‘wrong fit’ to run a leadership development session on Resilience. The audience was largely white male senior leaders. The client felt they would not connect with me. After some awkward questioning it came down to my ‘background, being female and looking young’. There was a chuckle at the end and a back handed compliment, “I know you must be over 35 given your experience, but the audience won’t really know that. How do Indian women manage to look so good?”

I was then informed that my proposal was pitch perfect, right pricing, right content and delivery methods. My internal dialogue: “Well, it is just me then”.  It got worse. I was then offered a runner up prize as if it was the best thing since sliced bread. I was asked if I worked with another Australian ‘partner’. Or whether I was prepared to ‘white label’ the workshop directly to another internal client facilitator.

What not to do: Retreat

2013 me was vulnerable and I said I would consider standing aside and letting someone else run the show. I didn’t in the end. In the light of a new day I realised how ridiculous this was. However, I declined the offer based on reduced profit. Explaining quite eloquently that providing another facilitator would not be commercially viable for my business.

I regretted it the moment I uttered it. Why did I hide? Why was I afraid to expose the inequality? I convinced myself it was the most professional thing to do. Friends who also faced intersectionality agreed this was the right move. Some of their sentiments were: “You don’t want to burn your bridges and networks, you have just started out.” “Right move! You can’t call it. It is tantamount to calling them racist, and that would really be offensive.”

Lesson partially learnt: What I did do

I was not brave enough then to confront the client. However, it led to a deep introspection with my Co-Founder and husband, who is a South African Indian man. We went back to redefining what my value proposition to the market really was, since the business brand then was synonymous with my personal brand. We needed it to be based on my true identity, a culturally diverse female with 15 years of mobilising people cross-border to deliver results. Somewhat ironic that a rejected proposal on Resilience, gave me the perfect opportunity to bounce back! MindTribes, a cross cultural performance company was born.

What can we do?

  • Do not retreat. If you face inequality due to a clash of your diversity labels, please do not retreat – well not all of the time. Consider whether it is safe, and not career limiting to express what is going on. Choosing who to express it to is critical also.
  • Educate yourself. If you have never considered that intersectionality exists, I hope this article has raised your awareness. Consider people around you and their multiple diversities and be mindful of their perspectives. We are not asking for a handout or special treatment, but your understanding and inclusion based on who we are. NOT how we fit in with a preconceived idea or stereotype.
  • Act, break the rules and change your mindset.  To harness the benefits that diversity provides to create high performing teams, creativity and innovation we must break the established rules and change our mindsets to allow for inclusion.

So, in retrospect, an Indian, young looking female entrepreneur might have been exactly what a white senior male leadership team needed, to push outside their comfort zones.

Div is the CEO and Co-Founder of MindTribes, a Telstra Business Award Finalist (2016) company focusing on cross cultural performance in the APAC region. MindTribes was born out of Div’s continuous struggle and strength drawn from her gender and cultural diversity. MindTribes is 50% female owned, utilizes only female suppliers, and gives 10% of its revenue to the “Because I am a Girl” Program with Plan International

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Posted by Jade Collins - Femeconomy Founder

Mother, wife, daughter, determined dreamer. Lover of books. Background in Human Resources leadership in global organisations.