Believe in yourself and your strengths: Mahjabeen Zaman's message to CALD women leaders 


Embracing individuality while taking proactive steps will help culturally diverse women succeed in board roles. That’s the message from Mahjabeen Zaman, outgoing Chair of WOB’s Cultural Diversity Committee.


After two years in the role, Mahjabeen is stepping down as Chair, handing over the baton to fellow Cultural Diversity Committe member Sara Pantaleo. 

Here Women on Boards’ COO and Cultural Diversity Committee Vice Chair, Nicole Donegan, talks to Mahjabeen about her time as Chair, the barriers facing culturally diverse women in leadership and the need to establish inclusive boardrooms that enable directors of all backgrounds to thrive.

What inspired you to take the role of Chair of WOB's Cultural Diversity Committee?

The decision to take on the role of a board chair for the Culturally Diverse Committee stemmed from a desire to promote inclusivity and representation, address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and contribute to creating a more inclusive Australian boardroom culture. Additionally, I was keen to leverage my skills and lived experiences to drive positive change and bridge cultural gaps within boards. 

Tell us about the key initiatives you focussed on during your two years as Chair?

Over the past two years, our committee has achieved goals linked to the 4Cs: Collect, Connect, Celebrate, and Cooperate. This effort has inspired CALD women's interest in board roles, leading to a rise in CALD members at WOB. We've highlighted successful CALD women as role models and launched the Counting Culture survey to gauge sentiment on director roles for CALD women. These accomplishments by the committee mark progress in diversity and empowerment.

I'm proud of the diverse and dedicated committee of women from various ethnic backgrounds across Australia and different sectors. The varied perspectives around the table have undeniably fueled our committee's success.

What do you think are the biggest barriers for culturally diverse women as leaders and directors?

Culturally diverse women aiming for leadership and director roles confront numerous barriers. These include biases and stereotypes, intensified by their dual status as both women and culturally diverse individuals. Limited representation and access to networks deprive them of role models and mentoring. Cultural norms, language barriers, and microaggressions hinder confidence and communication. Further, balancing traditional family roles with leadership commitments becomes complex, and intersectionality can compound challenges.

What advice can you give women who are facing these challenges?

To navigate obstacles in leadership pursuits, culturally diverse women should believe in themselves and their strengths. Seeking mentors and allies, building diverse networks, and advocating for their accomplishments can go a long way. I also believe continuous learning enhances skills and confidence. 

It is also important to call out and address biases (gently) as you experience them because you may be educating and building cultural awareness in others. Each journey is unique, so embracing individuality while taking proactive steps will help culturally diverse women succeed in board roles.

What advice can you give organisations to ensure they are inclusive?

To ensure inclusivity for culturally diverse women, organisations should adopt key practices. One of the best ways is to cultivate  diverse leadership to provide relatable role models. 

It is also important to establish inclusive policies, bias training, and mentorship programs. In the increasing multicultural environment we work in, educating employees about different cultures is key and also encourages safe reporting of discrimination. 

Another important step is to gather feedback from diverse women and foster a respectful culture that values contributions regardless of background. By embracing some of these strategies, organisations can create an environment where culturally diverse women thrive and lead effectively.

We are glad to hear that you will remain an active member of the CDC.  What areas do you plan to focus on?

Advocating for cultural diversity necessitates a multi-pronged approach. I would focus on prioritising representation in boards that mirrors cultural diversity and offers role models, after all, “you can’t be what you can’t see”. I will also be keen to enhance cultural competency through education and training to raise awareness of biases (both gender and cultural). Also we are eager to facilitate mentorship, and drive the measurement of diversity progress especially on boards in companies listed on the ASX. 

I will also work with the committee in organising events that celebrate diversity. There is no success without a wider team so collaboration with external partners is imperative for shared insights. I’m passionate about contributing in this space and excited to work with the incoming Chair, Sara Pantaleo, and the committee collectively to champion cultural diversity and establish inclusive boardrooms that enable directors of all backgrounds to thrive.

Find out more about WOB's Cultural Diversity Committee HERE

Access our Cultural Diversity Resources HERE
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