Mariam Elliott is the Managing Director of Middle East Connect & Cultural Advisors, translation and interpreting service providers and cross cultural trainers/advisors for business and tourism, specialising in the Arab Gulf and the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region.
Mariam has been a Member of The Australian Arab Chamber of Commerce and Industry (AACCI) since 2007 and Vice-Chair since 2018. She is also a Member of the Australian Institute of Interpreters & Translators (AUSIT) since 2012 and in 2022 led the production of AUSIT’s National Conference, based on her deep understanding of the industry.
As a member of Femeconomy since 2018, Mariam approached us wanting to focus her interview on her experiences as a Businesswoman of Colour, to share her challenges and provide insight on what we can all do to create equal opportunities for Businesswomen of Colour.
What barriers/ challenges have you faced as a Businesswoman of Colour? Were you able to overcome this challenge, and if so, how?
As an interpreter, I was surrounded by migrants, refugees and asylum seekers (non-English speaking) who appreciated my assistance. I was also surrounded by officials who were Anglo-Australians in need of services.
The biggest barrier I had as an employee was to do with cultural differences. As a businesswoman of colour, there were instances of discrimination in the workplace that were not necessarily direct. For example, through subtle body language and actions, which could sometimes be more hurtful than words, and difficult to respond to because it is indirect.
Although I am grateful for women from all walks of life supporting me in business, I have found that when asking for information to help my business, it is those from non-culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds that have usually been unable to help me. The response has either been “I am not sure about that” or sorry “I can’t assist you with that”.
I have been working in Australia for the past 30-plus years, and I have joined many women’s networks. Apart from a handful of an amazing and supportive few, I have rarely felt supported by Anglo-Australian businesswomen. I hope this is changing as the Australian business world learns more about the challenges that women of colour in business face.
I’ve learned that if we can open our minds, and learn to respect each other’s cultural differences, we can then either accept our different ways or agree to disagree and move forward.
I would like to add one last story, which I found appalling, in 2012 I was approached by the CEO of a well know organisation and she asked if I wanted to take up 10 hours paid job with this organisation of course I was over the moon because I needed those extra ten hours, she offered me $30 per hour when I knew very well the Caucasian male who was leaving the same position was earning $80 per and was less qualified than I was for the position offered.
I have found that businessmen, are more confident within themselves, and they don’t need to prove anything to anyone. I would love to see more businesswomen including businesswomen of colour taking that approach.
I’ve never quite got over these experiences of discrimination in the workplace because it continues to happen, but I have learned to cope with it by either ignoring these types of interactions or approaching them with more confidence in who I am.
What do you believe others can do to create equal opportunities for Businesswomen of Colour?
Do not approach businesswomen of colour with caution. Although we may be different on the outside, or come from different cultural backgrounds, we are all human and by listening to one another’s experiences and respecting them, we can create more equality in the workplace.
Treat everyone the same, don’t be afraid to approach BWoC if they make a mistake, and let them know if they do well. Be considerate of different approaches to business and understand these differences as strengths and opportunities for growth. Be aware if you are treating BWC differently and change your behaviour. Don’t overcompensate by tip-toeing around BWoC, treat them with respect like you would treat any other employee from your culture.
I hope businesswomen in Australia can open their employment doors to Women of Colour. This attitude will only help your business, your relationships at work and your clients. Being open-minded and accepting different ways of cultural thinking will expand your business opportunities
It is well known that the Far East and the Middle East have been and still are some of the best traders in history, there is a lot to be learned by sharing our knowledge. We should try and live in peace and we can start with some soul-searching and understanding of our diversity.
What would you most like people to know about your experience as a Businesswoman of Colour?
It is very painful to feel disrespected and discounted in the workplace based on cultural background, skin colour and/or an accent that we were born with and are proud of.
How do we accept and respect our differences?
We can accept it by training ourselves mentally and emotionally that we are all the same species with different perspectives.
We can accept it because the world is getting smaller and more diverse, and together we must share this world and be supportive of each other.
We can accept it because there is no better feeling than being kind, and this works both ways.
Respect comes from our mindset. The meaning of MINDSET set by the Oxford dictionary is:- “The established set of attitudes held by someone”.
Respect is a learnt attitude; we are not born with it. Culture is also a learnt attitude we are not born with it either.
The best way to respect our differences is to understand that we have different cultures, this also works both ways.
Be mindful that it is not just a listening exercise, tell them about your culture as well – share experiences and find commonalities and celebrate the differences. You can also find a handy resource here. Unconscious Bias Training provides Cultural Sensitivity and Awareness Training, Unconscious Bias webinars and questionnaires which help you understand if you have cultural bias.
We can respect our differences by educating ourselves about other cultures, seeking to understand their customs and traditions, and recognizing the value that diversity brings to our lives and workplaces.
We should be willing to listen and learn from each other, and not judge or stereotype based on appearances or backgrounds.
It is important to treat others with empathy, kindness, and compassion, and to appreciate the unique perspectives and experiences that different individuals bring to the table. Ultimately, respecting our differences means creating a world where everyone feels valued and included, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, or any other characteristic.
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