PEOPLE: Dai Le’s experience as a woman in the boardroom and political sphere

90% of women and girls believe female politicians are treated unfairly, and recent analysis of Prime Ministers has found a global trend in gendered media coverage of women whereby female leaders are more likely to be reported about regarding their fashion than their leadership.

It’s no wonder the next generation of women aspiring to become politicians are being “really put off”.

However, Dai Le, Councillor for Fairfield City Council, who stepped into politics more than a decade ago, believes women should feel empowered and supported to make a difference.  

In this interview, Dai shares her experiences on what it takes to be appointed to a board as well as succeed in politics, and how having the right people in leadership positions can lead to constructive and long-term change.

  • Having been appointed to several boards throughout your career, what are your observations and learnings on what it takes to become a board member?

Networking is very important – it’s who you know, not what you know. I’ve heard that said over and over, and the longer I’m in the industry, the more I believe it to be true.

But the situation isn’t simple. To get on boards, you need to be from the C-suite, and research shows that women are less likely to be making it to this level in comparison to men. So if boards are serious about diversity and inclusiveness, they need to re-assess their criteria for board members.

The system today comes down to network, which school you went to, where you grew up, and whose circle you belong in.

  • How can we break that cycle?

Focus on equipping the diverse talent we have with the idea of leadership, and the idea that they can step up and step in. It takes a long time, because women of Asian background do not step up and step in naturally – they associate this with requiring too many personal sacrifices. The mindset has to be shifted.

Secondly, there are systemic barriers. If you’re a women wanting to be in a leadership role in a business, that business needs to be set up to enable that. Organisations today have been built by and for men, so that needs to change.

We need to assess how we can do things differently, and run tests to see what initiatives work and then proactively address any challenges these initiatives create.

If there are people in your team who seem not to ‘fit in’, who have a talent but could come across somehow different in their thinking, business leaders need to think about how to include these people and their ideas without ostracising them. A lot of businesses talk about being open-minded and embracing different ideas, but are not doing this in reality.

  • How do we change both the stigmas and realities of the difficulties of making it to senior leadership and board positions?

We need to have more conversations that include C-suite executives and middle management about what leadership is and what it is not; genuine conversations with genuine opportunities in place to ensure the leadership pipeline is inclusive, that is, looking at leadership from the lens that is beyond gender.  

When I curate and manage these types of conversations, I encourage involvement from every person in the room to create a safe environment for an open discussion. These types of forums help to highlight what the challenges are, and how the people in the room can leverage of one another, and not work in isolation.  

What we frequently discovered in these forums from the individuals from within organisations was a lack of confidence, limited mindsets, lack of networking skills, and low presentation skills. From these discoveries, we have worked with these organisations to develop targeted training and leadership initiatives.

I have often expressed to attendees that they have to persevere with these networking and leadership development opportunities, otherwise these initiatives and conversations disappear from people’s consciousness. People get busy, external factors and economic challenges take priority, and business leaders can easily find themselves putting this on the back-burner even after significant resources are put into an initial investment.

  • Would you recommend a career in politics to others?

Absolutely. While there can be frustrations, and certainly lots of hurdles, there are huge opportunities to influence how to shape our society, develop our economy, and plan for the future.

It can be lonely, though, particularly for women and people of colour.

I have been someone who stands out with my voice and my views, challenging the status quo. This can be difficult, but just like John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem Don’t Quit, I believe “rest if you must, but don’t you quit”. I believe I can make a difference and need to persevere to generate change.

  • What’s your advice to women overwhelmed by stepping up and stepping in?

My tagline is ‘the difference is you’. The reality is, no matter how much meditation or mindfulness you practice, at the end of the day, you as an individual need to overcome your own personal barriers.

When looking at society, where you work and live, ask yourself, “Are you happy with society, the way politicians are elected, and the way your needs are represented?”

It’s easy to leave it to others to address these issues, but if society continues with that complacency there won’t be the best and most relevant politicians representing our communities.

When I looked at my community and asked myself if I was happy, I saw things that I wanted to change and improve, so I took a step back and reflected on how I could make an impact.

If you’re not happy with what you see, have the courage to seek guidance on how to initiate change step by step. Change comes when you have the numbers – you have to work together with other people with the same vision.

About the expert

Dai lives and breathes diversity and inclusion. Her mission is to help build an inclusive society where the leadership of mainstreams institutions and organizations genuinely reflect the diverse community we live in.

Born in Saigon, Vietnam, Dai spent many years in refugee camps in South East Asia before being accepted for resettlement in Australia. Her childhood experiences and growing up with a dual identity – being a Vietnamese in an Australian and western cultural surroundings, helped to shape her perception of life. It has also made her a passionate advocate for refugees and migrant communities.

She founded DAWN, a platform that gives a voice to diverse and inclusive talent who are shaping today’s society as well as the South West Entrepreneurial Hub (SWEH) a platform for business owners, start-ups and entrepreneurs living in Sydney’s South West, to meet, collaborate and share their experiences and learn from one another.

Dai currently serves as an Advisory Board Member to Multicultural NSW, a Government statutory body; She is also a director on the Local Government NSW Board. Dai was a former Ambassador for Fairfield Relay for Life and NSW Cancer Council Greater Western Sydney. Dai is also a councillor on Fairfield City Council, one of the most culturally diverse Councils in Australia.

A former award-winning journalist, film-maker and broadcaster with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Dai was named one of AFR-Westpac’s Top 100 Influential Women in Australia in 2014. With over 20 years of change making experience, Dai is a strong believer in the use of storytelling to inspire, educate and inform.

Dai is also a breast cancer survivor.