Ad agencies are staffed by people from a wide variety of backgrounds. International talent has long been the norm, with U.S. agencies attracting employees from all over the world.
But immigrant women, in particular, face specific and unique challenges in the workplace, and their backgrounds often lead to high levels of discrimination. For immigrants who don’t present as White those challenges are even more pronounced, Ruchika Tulshyan writes in her new book “Inclusion on Purpose.” Agency leadership must acknowledge these challenges and institute frameworks to help address them, Tulshyan writes. An excerpt follows:
Immigrant women face outsized challenges to inclusion, and leaders must familiarize themselves with these challenges in order to address them.
One German study finds that “women with a Turkish migration background are less likely to be invited for an interview, and the level of discrimination increases substantially if the applicant wears a headscarf. The results suggest that immigrant women who wear a headscarf suffer discrimination based on multiple stigmas related to ethnicity and religion.”
Against rising Islamophobia globally, professional Muslim women confront mounting challenges, whether they’re immigrant women or a religious minority in their native countries. Black Muslim women in the United States whom I interviewed for this book also reported having significantly negative workplace experiences, compounded by race, gender, and religion. The migration journeys, policies within a given nation toward immigrants, and exclusionary attitudes of the locals toward immigrants in general all impact how immigrant women of color will be treated by employers. Again, taking an intersectional approach to inclusion is key. Some immigrants will arrive to the shores of another country with a multitude of intersecting identities that privilege them, such as socioeconomic, language, and even skin color privilege. Their experience will be distinctly different from those who immigrate with less-privileged identities.
Immigrants with socioeconomic or white privilege (sometimes called “expatriates”) may be able to advance easily in Western workplaces, or push back against bias without worry of losing their immigration status or position in society. Their experience of “success” should not be mistaken for the experience of all immigrants to that country. For example, as a Singaporean immigrant to the United States with economic and education privilege, my right to apply for permanent citizenship was expedited. My experience is not the norm. Many immigrant women of color are stuck in decades-long immigration processes, beholden to a job for fear of being deported. The privileges granted to me—such as the ability to leave exclusionary workplaces or choose to work for an employer not because I rely on them to sponsor my visa—is the exception, not the norm for most immigrant women of color.
So take a nuanced approach to the challenges that immigrant women may face related to inclusion and corporate advancement opportunities. Being an immigrant can be a significant disadvantage for women of color who immigrate from less economically developed countries, and may find impediments to being hired or retained. Other immigrant women (usually white immigrant women) from Western countries that have been glorified for their sophistication, like France, may have a positive experience.
In my interviews, Black women whose ancestors were formerly enslaved would clearly make the distinction that newer African immigrants to the United States still had more opportunities to progress in the workplace compared with them. This is because Black immigrant women outside the United States grow up without the specter of the generational barriers to housing, education, and jobs that haunts the vast majority of Black Americans who have descended from enslaved ancestors.
All the Black immigrant women whom I interviewed reported experiencing racism once they arrived in the US workforce. But the Black women whose ancestral lineage was so inextricably bound up with having enslaved ancestors reported having to navigate centuries of oppression, such as racist policies that denied them secure housing, neighborhoods with good schools, and access to quality health care. All this impacted their ability to amass intergenerational wealth, which in turn blocked their ability to enter and progress within the workforce. This reality also prompts some African immigrants to distinguish themselves from Black Americans—a familiar phenomenon to me when I consider how Indian immigrants to Singapore distance themselves from the marginalized Singaporean Indian community so as to enjoy greater economic and career privileges.
The inclusive leader will not simply look to the economic progress of certain communities—particularly those that have chosen to immigrate, and enter with educational and other privileges—and use the same brush to paint the experience of all immigrant women of color in the workplace.
Identifying this distinction—particularly the experience of Black American descendants of formerly enslaved people compared with all other women of color in the United States—is a necessary examination for the inclusive leader. Many newer immigrants come to the United States fully understanding that the rules of progress in society and especially the workforce are inextricably linked to upholding the US racial hierarchy. Indeed, many immigrants’ careers and futures depend on upholding white-centric systems of power as well as anti-Blackness.
That’s not true just in the United States. Immigrants the world over quickly understand that to progress, they must play nice with the dominant group, while eschewing solidarity with the underestimated and oppressed.
While new immigrants everywhere can struggle with assimilation in a new culture and feeling included in the workplace, the socioeconomic and other privileges that they enter a new country with can uniquely impact the availability of career opportunities in their new countries. The inclusive leader will not simply look to the economic progress of certain communities—particularly those that have chosen to immigrate, and enter with educational and other privileges—and use the same brush to paint the experience of all immigrant women of color in the workplace.
Questions to reflect on include:
- What are the general social, education, and economic privileges or barriers experienced by this group? • What are the contemporary and historical barriers faced by this community, such as colonialism, slavery, civil war, and religious persecution?
- Where are the gaps in my own understanding about communities different than my own?
- How can I bridge these gaps?
- What is fact and what are my own assumptions about immigrants from a different culture?
No community is a monolith and sweeping generalizations do more harm than good. Instead, the inclusive leader will seek out more context, contemporary and historical, center voices from the community, and approach inclusion efforts intentionally and with nuance.
Excerpted from Inclusion on Purpose: by Ruchika Tulshyan. Reprinted with permission from the MIT Press. Copyright 2022.
Ruchika Tulshyan is the author of Inclusion on Purpose: An Intersectional Approach to Creating a Culture of Belonging at Work (MIT Press). She’s also the founder of Candour, an inclusion strategy practice. A former international business journalist, Ruchika is a regular contributor to The New York Times and Harvard Business Review.