Brenda Gaddi on Building a Community for Women of Colour

In today’s conversation, we’re delighted to welcome Brenda Gaddi, Founder and CEO of Women of Colour Australia (WoCA). Brenda’s journey to founding WoCA began from a deeply personal place.

After the sudden loss of her mother in 2020, Brenda sought to honour her mother’s strength and resilience in the face of racism and discrimination. This led to the creation of WoCA, a community dedicated to supporting and empowering Women of Colour in leadership roles.

In our conversation, Brenda shares the unique challenges Women of Colour face in the workplace and how WoCA addresses these issues head-on. She discusses the impactful WoC Executive Leadership Program, which has seen an impressive success rate in promoting its participants. Brenda also highlights the importance of culturally responsive workshops, personalised coaching, and the power of representation through their amazing facilitators. 

Brenda, can you share what inspired you to start Women of Colour Australia (WoCA) and what drove your passion for empowering Women of Colour in leadership roles?

Starting Women of Colour Australia is what pulled me out of a deep depression after suddenly losing my mother in March 2020. My mum Electa moved to Australia from the Philippines in the early 80’s off the back of the White Australia policy.

She lived through the racially divisive “Australia’s in danger of being swamped by Asians” 90s rhetoric. A malignant rhetoric that has calcified into our national psyche of which the harmful effects are still being weaponised today.

Although she was a very proud woman, she faced more racism and discrimination than she cared to admit. She faced countless challenges while trying to navigate her way through the white spaces. At only 4 feet 9 inches tall, my mother always stood up for herself. She always told me “You have the right to exist in this world”.  

The thought of founding WoCA came from my most broken self when I was looking for an avenue to channel my grief and sadness and honour my late mother. I wanted her spirit to live on, “to exist in this world” and WoCA is the organisation I wished my mum had access to when she moved to Australia – a supportive community of women who are racialised and minoritised.

What are some of the unique challenges that Women of Colour face in the workplace, and how does your organisation help address these challenges head-on?

In 2020, Women of Colour Australia partnered with Murdoch University to research how Women of Colour are experiencing their workplace. The Women of Colour in the Workplace inaugural survey reported that there is a clear disconnect between Australian organisations’ good intent and elaborate Diversity & Inclusion programmes, and the real lived experiences of minoritised and racialised groups in the workplace.

The survey of more than 500 Women of Colour in Australia revealed that 60% of Women of Colour in Australia have experienced discrimination in the workplace related to their identity as a Woman of Colour, despite almost the same number (59%) of respondents saying their workplace has a D&I policy in place. And 18% of respondents were unsure whether their workplaces even had a D&I policy, which in itself is very telling. It means that despite the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion, clearly existing D&I programs are not working.

What was also very interesting is that the survey proved that discrimination and racism in the workplace towards Women of Colour are not impacted by industry, positions or salary. Many of the respondents were white-collar workers, with 70% working full-time and close to 30% earning between $100,000 – $149,990. 

When gender and race intersect, it creates specific, unique challenges for Women of Colour. These are too often overlooked with broad platitudes that seek to advance women’s representation without questioning which women are most likely to benefit, and which ones are being held back.

Women of Colour face additional challenges and barriers in the workplace that stem from a history wrought with racial exclusion and segregation. They remain woefully under-represented across industries, especially in senior roles. 

The WoC Executive Leadership Program has had such an impressive impact, with 67% of last year’s participants getting promoted within six months! What do you think are the key factors behind this incredible success?

The WoC ELP is a career development program like no other. The program has been contextualised to ensure it offers a culturally and psychologically safe program, through tailored workshops and modules. 

Women of Colour who participate in our program feel culturally and psychologically safe to bring their full, authentic self to the program, without feeling the need to code switch. We provide a supportive environment for Women of Colour to develop the skills and confidence they need to succeed. 

WoC ELP redefines leadership in Australia as it provides Women of Colour in leadership positions the tools and skills to design corporate change strategies so they feel empowered to execute change where they feel it’s necessary within their organisations.

Through WoC ELP, Women of Colour are empowered to unlock their ability to step into their power as changemakers and transformational leaders. This is what they walk away with when they go back to their workplaces after completing our program. And the results speak for themselves. 

You have some amazing facilitators like Tasneem Chopra OAM and Winitha Bonney OAM. How do their experiences and expertise shape the program and enrich the learning experience for participants?

We are very lucky and grateful to have so many amazing women who have agreed to join WoCa on this journey and be part of WoC ELP. The program would not have been as successful without their input, their dedication and their passion.

When the idea to develop an executive leadership program was conceptualised, it was clear that we wanted to build on all the fantastic work that so many women have already been doing in this area for years. Women like Tasneem Chopra OAM, Winitha Bonney OAM and Abiola Ajetomobi are true trailblazers who pathed the way for WoCA.

What they bring to the program outside of a wealth of knowledge and expertise, is empathy and their own lived experiences. The way they are able to connect with participants, make them feel completely at ease during the course of the program and to be their own authentic self and to inspire them.

We must not forget the power of representation. It is so important to participants to see Women of Colour who are walking the walk, day in and day out, so they can go out in the world and do the same, unapologetically. 

Gender bias, racism, and other barriers are significant obstacles for Women of Colour. Can you share some specific strategies or tools that your programs provide to help participants navigate these challenges?

At WoCA, we understand that gender bias, racism, and other barriers significantly impact the professional journey of Women of Colour. The WoC ELP is specifically designed to address these challenges and empower participants to navigate them with confidence and resilience.

Here are some strategies and tools that our program provides:

  • Culturally responsive workshops: Our expert-led sessions delve into topics such as cultural identities, communication, allyship, and navigating adaptive challenges. These discussions help participants understand the nuances of their experiences and develop strategies to overcome biases and barriers.
  • Personalised coaching: One-on-one coaching sessions provide a safe and supportive space for participants to discuss their unique challenges and receive tailored guidance to address them. Our executive coach works closely with participants to identify strategies that cater to their specific needs and aspirations.
  • Case studies and guest speakers: We showcase success stories of Women of Colour leaders who have overcome similar obstacles, providing inspiration and practical advice to our participants. This helps them learn from real-life experiences and apply those lessons to their professional journey.
  • Networking opportunities: Connecting with fellow Women of Colour leaders allows participants to share experiences, insights, and resources. This supportive community serves as a valuable network that helps participants navigate challenges and build meaningful connections in their professional lives.
  • Enhanced visibility: By participating in our program, Women of Colour leaders gain recognition and visibility within their respective industries, which can help open doors to new opportunities and foster a more inclusive work environment.

Through these strategies and tools, the WoC ELP empowers participants to navigate barriers and biases with confidence and determination, fostering a new generation of diverse and inclusive leaders.

Finally, looking back on your journey with WoCA, what are you most proud of? And what keeps you motivated to continue this important work?

As both the Founder and Executive Director of Women of Colour Australia (WoCA), I have the privilege of witnessing the growth and impact of our organisation firsthand. When I reflect on our journey, there are several aspects that fill me with immense pride:

Our values-driven community: The strong sense of solidarity and sisterhood we’ve cultivated within our WoCA community is truly heartwarming. Our commitment to creating an inclusive space grounded in our shared values has fostered meaningful connections and empowered countless Women of Colour in their personal and professional journeys.

The dedication of our volunteers: The tireless efforts and unwavering support of our volunteers is a constant source of inspiration. They generously donate their time, talent, and energy to help us achieve our purpose, and their passion fuels our ongoing efforts to create a more inclusive and equitable world.

The next generation of WoC leaders: As a mother of two daughters, I am deeply motivated by the desire to pave the way for the next generation of Women of Colour leaders. By fostering an environment that supports and uplifts WoC, we’re working towards a future where my daughters and others like them can experience a more inclusive and empowering professional journey.

What keeps me motivated to continue this important work is the knowledge that, through our collective efforts, we are making a real difference in the lives of Women of Colour. Witnessing the transformative impact of our programs on participants, and seeing them go on to achieve great things, inspires me to push forward and continue breaking down barriers. The love, dedication, and resilience of our community serve as a constant reminder of the strength and potential that lies within each of us. 

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