Speak Magazine interviewed Dr. Marianne D Sison about her experience being a migrant academic in the education sector. Marianne is currently an Honorary University Fellow of RMIT University. She is a prominent worldwide communication leader and researcher with extensive higher education experience. Her professional philosophy emphasizes communication’s social transformation power.
1. Could you share with our readers the key milestones and experiences that led you to your current position as an educator and researcher in the field of communications at RMIT University?
I call myself as ‘accidental academic’ because my academic career started from a desire to balance work with family commitments in DIY Australia. My mother was a university academic (in Chemistry) in the Philippines and was a working mother throughout my growing up years.
My bachelor’s and master’s degree were in communication (from the University of the Philippines and the University of Florida respectively) and as such, I worked in public relations and corporate communication in Manila and Los Angeles and also taught part-time at the University of the Philippines.
Like most academics in Australia, regardless of ethnic background, I started as a sessional tutor after unsuccessful applications due to my lack of ‘local experience’. After sessional work for a year, I successfully got a full-time tenured lecturer position at RMIT.
As I envisioned a long career in academia, I enrolled in a PhD part-time (as I was a FT academic and raising a young family) and eventually completed after 7 years. Being an educator and researcher in public relations and communication enabled me to engage with the industry, establish my networks and help shape the internationalisation of the undergraduate and postgraduate curricula.
2. In a predominantly white-dominated field, what were some of the challenges you faced early in your career, and how did you overcome them?
If I’m not mistaken, I may have been the first academic in the Department who was not of Anglo-Celtic background. Since communication teaching and practice required high levels of English language proficiency, I always had to prove myself in that space especially as we needed to edit students’ written work. One of the challenges of course is that I, like most Filipinos, were trained to use American, not British/Australian, English. Fortunately for me, I studied journalism 101 and broadcast production so I was able to adapt my print production and editing skills to the newly emerging digital platforms.
The challenge of a new migrant like me was that my colleagues did not know me, nor my background. Nor were they familiar with the quality of my educational and industry backgrounds. Except for the American professor who recognised my American credentials.
I overcame these challenges just by performing my best, applying my knowledge, and demonstrating my willingness to learn.
3. As a woman of color in academia, have you encountered instances of bias or discrimination, and if so, how have you navigated and addressed these challenges?
Yes, I have encountered bias or discrimination in academia but mostly in very covert ways, which are now referred to as ‘microaggressions’. Many of my colleagues did not know much about the Philippines other than what they read in the media so their comments to me would reference particular stereotypes. I would take these opportunities to extend their limited knowledge and offer more information or my opinion on political matters as appropriate. Many were respectful, actually too careful, to even inquire about Philippine culture and my experience.
The few times I experienced overt discrimination, I would like to think they were not race-based but more bullying a ‘junior’ staff member. On the other hand, they may have thought they could bully me because as an Asian, I am unlikely to answer back nor make a big fuss about it. In the early 1990s, calling out or reporting mechanisms around racial discrimination were not as developed as they are now. I did report incidents that occurred in the last 7-10 years as I was also in a more senior role and had the confidence to do so. Fortunately, reporting to my immediate supervisor resulted in a personal apology with the offending colleague.
I responded to these acts by acknowledging that ‘ignorance’ underpinned their discrimination. So, it was my duty as an educator and researcher to use these experiences as ‘learning and teaching moments’. This way, I can expand their knowledge and understanding of the ‘other’ and advocate for a multiple perspective approach in communication practice.
4. Could you share some strategies or approaches that you found effective in advocating for workplace equality and inclusivity, both within your department and the university as a whole?
One of the strategies I found effective was to step up for a senior role when an opportunity arises. By demonstrating my capabilities, skills and values, I enabled my colleagues to learn about me as an educator and researcher in a professional manner who had global and international perspectives. I ensured my teaching and research included inter-, cross-, and multi-cultural aspects, which coincided with the ‘globalisation’ focus. I argued that ‘globalisation’ should not become another form of ‘colonialisation’ and promoted the need for multiple and partnered perspectives between east and west, north and south.
Stepping up into a position of leadership enables one to have a voice and a platform to educate the leaders. It also gives one an insight into the power structure and explore opportunities for advocacy.
5. Can you speak to the importance of mentorship and support networks in your journey to a higher position in academia? How did these relationships impact your career development?
I truly believed in the importance of mentorship and support in one’s career whether in academia or not. While I had Anglo-Celtic supervisors (Department Heads and Deans) who recognised my achievements and supported me, I only had one woman of colour who provided support and mentorship. There were very few professors who were women of colour and they were mostly in another department. There was none in our department. Being an accidental academic and scholar, I only learned about the scholarship pathway rather late in my career. My leadership roles were primarily achieved through administrative and not research scholarship pathways.
6. Gender and racial disparities are still prevalent in academia. What do you believe are some of the systemic issues that contribute to these disparities, and what steps can universities take to address them?
I recall reading a study that revealed female Asian academics needed to perform 10 times harder than non-Asian counterparts. I believe that systemic issues emerge from the absence or lack of people of colour in leadership positions in universities. To my knowledge, most of university executive leaders in Australia are of Anglo-Celtic background. I think Australian universities should appoint a woman of colour as a Vice Chancellor! American universities already do. Maybe that will kickstart the systemic change!
7. In your role, have you been involved in any diversity and inclusion initiatives at RMIT or in the broader academic community? What positive changes have you witnessed as a result of these efforts?
Part of my strategy was to undertake research and publish scholarly articles on cultural diversity, cross-cultural communication and share my lived experiences in my teaching and engagement with industry. As such, I was able to work with industry colleagues on a research project on cultural diversity (and the lack thereof) in the Australian communication industry.
I have spoken at academic and industry seminars and conferences on the need to embrace cultural curiosity and advocate for inclusive communication. The current environment experienced a boom in diversity, equity and inclusion in the last 5-7 years which is fantastic. However, more education and training are needed to embed new cultural and inclusive knowledge practices in workplaces especially around recruitment and employee relations.
8. As a leader in your field, how do you work to empower and inspire the next generation of women of color entering academia and aspiring to occupy higher positions like yours?
Perform to the best of your ability and choose your battles. The systems still need changing so we will need to navigate through them, find allies that will help with the cause. And we need to learn the art of compromise, diplomacy and respect. I have learned that we cannot influence from a position of adversity or confrontation. So we need to be creative and try different approaches to win people over. We need to learn multiple perspectives and that acknowledge that everyone may be coming from a different position and lived experience. Developing personal relationships and being interested in their individual circumstances generate trust, and with trust and honesty, we find ways to work together.
Treat everyone with respect, the same way we want to be treated ourselves. It’s all about human relations regardless of age, race, creed, etc.
9. Can you highlight any specific achievements or projects where you’ve felt particularly proud of the progress made towards workplace equality or increasing diversity and representation in your department?
The University’s mandatory requirement for staff to participate in a Reconciliation Action Plan allowed us to learn about the history and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. This initiative underpinned the department’s awakening to Indigenous Australia, and cultural diversity. Previously, notions of diversity were focused on gender; then they slightly included international students and staff, largely because we had a Deputy Dean for International and Development for the first time (me!). During this time, I was part of the International Committee for the University and internationalisation was big on the University agenda. In our university, this included partnerships in Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Barcelona. Under my watch, I was able to forge MOUs with various universities in Asia (Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia), North America (US, Canada) and Europe.
But I think my biggest contribution was enabling my academic and professional colleagues to learn and think about internationalisation as a learning opportunity –for themselves as individuals and for their students. By funding opportunities to lead study tours allowed colleagues to experience internationalisation, I was able to bring people with me. This international engagement enabled them to appreciate international education for its transformational, not just transactional, value.
10. Finally, what advice would you give to other women of color who aspire to rise through the ranks in academia? Are there any words of wisdom you’d like to share with them?
My identity is complex and goes beyond the colour of my skin or where I was born. While I acknowledge my cultural background as a Filipino-Australian, my identity as a ‘sojourner’ has shaped my professional and personal development. To run the long race, one must stick close to one’s personal values. To claim our place in the board room and be heard and listened to, we need to step up, put ourselves in a position of learning, work hard and demonstrate our capabilities. Be interested in other people’s perspectives especially those different to yours and practise empathy. Then we can use our leadership roles to be a model for younger colleagues, act as mentors and help others along the way. This way, we can generate inspiration and pride for those who will come after us.
MEET THE AUTHOR
Marianne D Sison, PhD, FPRIA
Marianne collaborates with organisations through research, training, and professional development. Her research covers inter- and multicultural communication, diversity and inclusion, CSR communication, ethical practise, sustainable development, and Asia-Pacific. Recent consultancy initiatives have promoted cultural inclusion and diversity in Australian communication.
Marianne has received the International Association of Business Communicators – Philippines (IABC Philippines) CEO Excel 2020 and the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) 2019 Educator of the Year awards for her great work. Her devotion and skill have shaped the industry.