Develop, support, promote disability leaders

We need more tea ladies

We need more tea ladies.

A brown cup of tea in a glass cup, sitting on a woven mat, next to it is a bright yellow flower.

by Christina Ryan, DLI CEO

Imagine if the solution to achieving gender equality was to simply pump more women* into the workplace at the bottom. Knowing that if enough women were introduced into a workplace at the entry level, over time they would drift upwards to become board members and executive management.

Several decades ago gender equality specialists realised that nothing would change until women were appointed directly to leadership positions – the classic adage “you can’t be what you can’t see” was born.

Understanding was reached that to change the culture, makeup, and gender diversity of organisations, a whole of organisation shift was required. That more gender diversity throughout all layers of an organisation would be needed and that this meant appointing women directly into leadership positions, not waiting for decades in the hope that they would ultimately drift upwards from their positions as tea ladies or receptionists.

It was a tough battle. Concerns were raised that suitably qualified women didn’t exist and could not be found, yet it became clear that this was prejudice talking rather than reality. Suitably qualified competent women did exist and appointments were made, in increasing numbers.

There remains a gender imbalance in leadership in most fields. Men remain the dominant presence in most board rooms and executive suites; however, it is also well understood that this must change, and the change is underway.

Nobody suggests anymore that the gender imbalance in leadership will be addressed by pumping more women into the lower ranks of organisations and waiting for an outcome. Laws have been changed, regulatory bodies have been established to monitor their implementation (like the Workplace Gender Equality Agency), and recalcitrant organisations are now publicly named and shamed (for example ASX200 organisations with no women on their boards). Lobby and research groups have emerged with good resourcing and the ear of governments.

Getting to equality is understood to require systemic change, long term commitment, and proactive appointments. When women are not appointed, questions are asked.

Curiously, this rich decades long understanding of how to achieve gender equality is not being translated into the pursuit of equality, or equitable outcomes, in disability where entry level employment is still seen as the key solution to effecting change. Disability leadership is not factored into diversity programs, nor is it legislated or monitored in any way. There are no agencies tasked with pursuing disability leadership outcomes, nor is there any research to understand the experience of disability leaders or the pathways to leadership they have taken. The National Disability Strategy mentions disability leadership once, in passing, on page 33 – it is not an area of focus and has no measurable outcomes attached to it.

It is assumed that by building a greater concentration of disability at the entry level, that over time disabled workers will drift upwards into positions of leadership and decision making. Over several decades this approach hasn’, yet it remains the primary method used to achieve disability equality.

The Disability Leadership Institute hears stories from members about being stuck in entry level positions for decades. Something that rarely happens to any other target diversity group. No organisations have disability leadership programs working to address systemic barriers, nor is there any obligation in policy or law that requires organisations change their approach (including to track disability, monitor or report it), so they don’t.

When disability leadership is discussed, it is referred to as a very long term goal requiring a greater presence of disability at the entry level that will ultimately translate into leadership. This forgets that decades have already been lost using this approach unsuccessfully, with no evidence that continuing to use it will suddenly produce results. It also forgets that this approach has long been abandoned in other diversity areas as useless.

When equality is pursued in all other diversity areas, including gender, cultural diversity, First Nations, and LGBTQIA+ the answers always include building a greater presence in leadership – making sure that “you can be what you can see.” While it is early days in some areas more than others, somehow finding suitable leadership candidates to appoint is seen as possible, gets resourced and is increasingly achieved.

Why then does this not apply in disability?


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Christina Ryan is the CEO of the Disability Leadership Institute, which provides professional development and support for disability leaders. She identifies as a disabled person.


*The term women is used throughout this article in a binary sense as most of the gender equality work over many decades has been undertaken with a binary lens in place, and most laws and programs still use the term women in a binary sense. We look forward to a time when all women and feminine identifying folk are automatically understood to be included in the term “women” and are embraced at all leadership levels.