Women from diverse cultures pay less, are stuck in middle management longer, and are more likely to be harassed


When Sarah Liu began her career in corporate Australia, her superiors gave her so-called unwelcome advice.

“In fact, different recruiters and different leaders told me that I was way too ambitious for my own good,” she recalls.

“That for a culturally diverse young Australian woman like me, I had to manage my own expectations of how far I could go.”

At every turn, working in branding and marketing, Ms. Liu faced the lack of youthful and culturally diverse female representation.

“And what that meant to me was also that there was a clear lack of role models.”

Ms. Liu’s early career experience led her to start her own company, The Dream Collective, which is one of a growing number of diversity consulting firms working with companies around the world.

In Australia, women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds spend up to eight years longer in middle management positions than women of Anglo-European descent, according to a study by MindTribes.

The research also found that one in three women of color and one in two First Nations women had experienced exclusion or negative treatment at work, compared to one in five women from non-cultural backgrounds.

Women from diverse cultural backgrounds are also paid less. The ethnic gender pay gap is double the national average gender pay gap, hovering between 33 and 36% versus 14%.

Div Pillay is the CEO of MindTribes and runs the social enterprise Culturally Diverse Women. (ABC News: Billy Draper )

Div Pillay, CEO of diversity research and consultancy firm MindTribes, says cultural diversity is difficult for Australian businesses to address, even in companies that are working to address gender diversity.

“We hear the ‘complex argument’ that it’s [cultural diversity] is a pretty complex issue to solve or deal with, whether companies work on gender equality first – they can’t seem to work at the intersections of gender, race and culture.”

When Ms Pillay moved from South Africa to Australia 19 years ago, she immediately encountered one of the most common issues faced by people of diverse cultures in the workplace.

“My full name is Divanisha, which was automatically shortened,” she says.

Ms Pillay also had to prove her ability to speak English when talking to recruiters on the phone.

A recruiter even asked him to prove his identity because they felt his English was too perfect.

As a human resources professional at the time of her move, Ms Pillay had helped companies navigate their talent strategies from apartheid to democracy, but was told to gain more Australian experience and her experience international has been reduced and devalued.

She was forced to accept roles below her level of experience and her career trajectory flattened before starting her own company.

“It’s still the story of women from diverse cultures,” she says.

“And it’s so weird because, you know, we’re part of the Asia-Pacific region, if anything, we should value that international background.”

Narelle Anderson
Narelle Anderson is the CEO of Envirobank Recyling.(ABC News: John Gunn )

Envirobank Recycling CEO Narelle Anderson is a Jagera woman with Bunjalung ties and is the granddaughter of the late Senator Neville Bonner, who was the first Indigenous person to hold a seat in federal parliament.

Ms. Anderson is a 26-year veteran of the waste management industry and says one of the biggest challenges she faces is breaking stereotypes about Indigenous-owned businesses.

“As an Indigenous woman, it’s certainly been difficult at times. And, as a woman more generally, it’s been difficult at times,” she says.

Ms. Anderson says stereotyping is a common bias that persists even when it comes to governments that have specific procurement policies for working with Indigenous businesses.

“And that’s something that Indigenous businesses are trying collectively, working to change the government’s view of our ability as a business.”

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Why women from diverse cultures are held back in the workplace

As well as being home to the world’s oldest living culture, around a third of Australia’s people were born elsewhere.

Ms. Pillay says there is a strong business case for diversity.

“You really have to value what this diversity brings in terms of innovation, creativity, opening up markets, attracting customers”

For example, the multicultural market has a purchasing power of around $75 billion a year, according to a study by the Diversity Council of Australia and Sydney Business School.

Ms Anderson says that to understand Aboriginal Australians, companies need to do more than have a reconciliation action plan.

“Take the action plan out of the drawer and act.

“And to do that, companies need to engage more fully with Indigenous businesses to better understand the culture and what makes that business work.”

Sarah Liu 2
Sarah Liu was told she was too ambitious for a young culturally diverse Australian woman. (ABC News: John Gunn)

Ms Liu says Australia lags behind other nations when it comes to diversity.

“We continue to see a corporate culture that is predominantly pale, outdated and masculine, unfortunately.”

Two years ago, she says she attended a business forum where all of the panelists discussing global trade and international trade were white.

“Which I personally found very ironic,” she says.

Ms Liu says companies that don’t prioritize diversity will be left behind.

“Corporate Australia really needs to wake up,” she says.

“As the world becomes increasingly globalized, unless you have culturally diverse talent and leaders in your business, you will not be culturally relevant.

“Diversity is reality.”

Ms Pillay says tackling the lack of diversity in Australian business can lead to sometimes difficult but important conversations.

“It’s good to value multiculturalism. But we also need to address the uncomfortable conversation that racism is really pervasive in the workplace and we have a duty to address psychological safety,” she says.

“Too focused on celebrating cultural diversity without addressing inequality, discrimination and exclusion due to culture and race means we will never see the benefits of this diversity.”


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