Immigrating to Australia has long been hailed in developing countries as an important milestone for advancement of one’s career and life. Talented, hard-working, highly educated, and resilient minds are poached from emerging economies for the enrichment and expansion of developed economies.
However, many migrants come to Australia and face obstructive discrimination. This can overtly be seen with the marginalisation of immigrants in the recruitment process or by the struggles of those with temporary visas. However, there are countless invisible violences that migrants experience that subconsciously leave us incapacitated. In this article, I’ll share the experiences of two individuals I spoke to in an effort to understand the experiences of professional women of colour in the corporate Australian workplace.
A culture of isolation and ignorance
Starting a new job, Thandiwe was excited to delve into a new organisation/country and experience growth as a driven professional. However, she was frightfully jolted out of this ambition upon realising that most of her colleagues already had strong preconceived biases towards her. Based on the colour of her skin and her country of origin, it was automatically assumed that she was less educated and less capable than her colleagues.
The irony of this belief was that she quickly found that she was more globally exposed and accomplished than many of her peers. With her strong work output, she quickly won over her senior colleagues, which unfortunately led to isolation and passive aggressive behaviour from her peers.
Thandiwe was concerned to see these regressive beliefs in younger Australians, who she’d expected to have a more modern outlook. She attributes these experiences to the education system in Australia, which has led to ignorance about non-English countries and an inflated grandiosity, almost arrogance, in relation to other countries. Part of this problem might also be that Australia is geographically isolated from so much of the world making it hard for Australians to travel very often and to different places.
A celebration of mediocrity
Priya was surprised at the lenient working standards in Australia compared to her experiences in other countries. Reports were kept minimal; elaborate training was doled out for simple operational changes; people did not work past 5pm or weekends; and doing the basics of your job was often celebrated.
However, she kept her surprise at bay and got on with her job. But problems arose when she wanted to think bigger and suggest improvements to the way things were done at work.
She would often hear phrases such as, “this is not how we do things around here” or ‘this is not the Australian way,” even to minor suggestions. Priya had anticipated an environment that allowed discussion and open mindedness. However, corporate Australia seemed to be highly conservative and stuck in the past, which extinguished her enthusiasm.
This conservatism can also be seen in the predominantly white, male leadership demographics in Australia which often lead to women of colour falling short due to conscious or unconscious biases. Priya noticed that it triggered discomfort amongst her colleagues that she spoke/dressed differently or thought differently, and believed that the “tall poppy syndrome,” where those who are different are suppressed, played a part as well. She also detected a disturbingly paternalistic attitude as if her identity, experiences, and education before coming to Australia were invisible or inferior.
Advice for Women of Colour in Oz (and Those Looking to Move Here)
Many immigrants and women of colour I have talked to have undergone counselling for the workplace oppression they have faced in Australia, as well as the set-backs in their careers.
For those looking to migrate, understand the emotional toll that being an immigrant or person of colour in Australia can have. For those that struggle, seek out reasons to stay and benefits you might be gaining. Do not isolate yourself and find a support group where you can get emotional validation and encouragement when society seems to be against you.
I would encourage other women of colour who experience discrimination to speak up, even if anonymously, so that the façade of ‘the Australian dream’ can be presented more realistically and the prejudices we face can be addressed. As painful as the cultural issues are now, there is work being done to improve our multicultural society through government initiatives, NGOs such as Allies in Colour, growing international awareness etc.
We remain hopeful that things will improve for the next wave of Australian migrants and that the issues so many of us face in work environments today don’t follow us into the future.
MEET THE AUTHOR
Shilpi Jain is an Indian/South African chartered engineer. Shilpi was born in India, grew up in Botswana, and studied civil engineering in South Africa. She’s worked in South Africa and other African countries on a variety of strategic and social impact projects.
Shilpi has volunteered extensively and held leadership positions in numerous industry and community organisations. She won Young Engineer of the Year (South African Institution of Civil Engineering) in 2022 and was selected as one of South Africa’s Top 50 women in STEM (InspiringFifty) for 2021 among awards she’s received in recognition of her contributions.
In her free time, Shilpi is a developing artist/creative and writer.
Shilpi moved to Australia just before the pandemic to be closer to family. She currently works as an engineer in Melbourne.