VIEW: Our mental health system must reflect the great cultural and linguistic diversity of the Australian population

In Australia, people from a CALD background have a significantly lower level of access to mental health care and support in the wider community, with many not seeking help or support. Following his recent appointment as Multicultural Mental Health Ambassador for the Northern Territory, Mathews David shares his views on the value and role of mental health programs and policies for CALD communities.

  • Why were you originally interested in a career in mental health, and how has that interest changed over time? 

My friends always referred to me as an empathetic and meticulous person and they came to me for their personal issues and it became a profession for me in a later stage.

As a mental health professional, I am making a positive difference in someone’s life, family, and society. There is more work needed to meet the mental health needs of the CALD and indigenous communities of Australia.

  • You have recently been appointed as a  Multicultural Mental Health Ambassador for Northern Territory, Australia. What does this mean to you? 

Australia’s CALD population has unique identities and understanding of mental health and suicide. Quite often, a strong stigma surrounds the individual experiencing mental health issues or suicidal behaviours that may also affect their family, carer, friends and community. Spiritual and religious beliefs may contribute to this stigma, as well as social understanding and attitudes toward mental health and suicide within many cultural communities. As a multicultural mental health ambassador, I have a crucial role to play in terms of advocacy with government and non-governmental sectors to understand the specific needs of CALD mental health.

  • What are your priorities in this role? 

We are only in our early stages for developing CALD mental health. The majority of the service providers do not even understand specific needs of CALD communities. There is a lot to achieve; the key priorities are:

  • Mental health literacy
  • Addressing stigma and shame
  • Health promotion
  • Addressing Policy/ systemic issues
  • Why is CALD mental health particularly important to you? How does this differ to non-CALD mental health?

It’s important to  promote health and reduce illness by the development of culturally appropriate services that cover the spectrum of mental health care from the prevention of mental illness and the promotion of good mental health to treatment, rehabilitation, recovery and relapse prevention. An understanding of the role of culture is vital to the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of mental illness and is essential for everyone involved with the health and wellbeing of all people in Australia.

Many existing mental health systems and policies have been developed for non CALD communities and are only effective for non CALD communities. The First Nations people’s mental health and suicide statistics are much higher than the general community; government is trying to close that gap but still there is a long way to go. Similarly, CALD communities and leaders need to be consulted to create culturally inclusive service delivery in the health system.

As a side note, our budget gives no substantiative funding to CALD-specific mental health initiatives.

  • If you could change one thing about the current systems that manage mental health in Australia, what would it be? Why?

Cultural competency of the mental health front line workers must be addressed, and cultural competency should be a core business for all service providers. Similarly, systemic issues need to be addressed and culturally appropriate assessments must be readily available in each mental health setting.

About the expert

Mathews David is an experienced Mental health clinician with a special interest in CALD and Indigenous Mental health. He is an experienced Migration agent and Education counsellor for Australia, and was recently appointed as Multicultural Mental Health Ambassador for Northern Territory, Australia.

Image description: Headshot of Mathews – he is looking at the camera wearing a light blue-grey suit with dark tie and light blue collared shirt.


VIEW: Ethnicity should be portrayed in its entirety, not just for commercial benefits

Aarti Bajaj is the creative director of groundbreaking production company, Wild Dreamer Productions. Bajaj recently rejected the words “white” and “brown” on the set of her major stage production, believing the terms to inhibit inclusiveness and diversity. She said her aim is to offer actors, dancers, singers and composers a platform to showcase their talent, without being hindered by their ethnicity.

In this interview, Bajaj shares experiences from her career in production, and her views on the representation of ethnicity on screen.

  • What initially instigated your interest in production?

Every creative is a storyteller. Productions are a great platform where raw, uncut versions of various human efforts, emotions and expressions are brought together in a form of a story which then transcends in the atmosphere among the audience that is palpable. And to bring all this to life is the reason that instigated my interest and passion to create productions.

  • How has that interest evolved over time?

Time has taught me more about what NOT to do than what TO DO. The main intention and purpose for Arts in my life was to find the sustainability of arts and with time I have evolved to understand that just passion, dreams, desire and intentions to walk on the path of Arts and Creativity isn’t sufficient. If a sustainability factor needs to be incorporated in Arts, then the marriage of commerce and arts is essential.

The interest to create, produce and reach to the wider global audience has only intensified with time but with a better understanding of commerce and much more concise agendas and expectations.

  • What are your views on how ethnicity is currently portrayed on screens?

The portrayal of ethnicity on screens is more like a flavour, a preconceived idea about certain humans with certain ethnic backgrounds will only be shown in specific colours and roles. There are deeply rooted prejudices and stereotypes in human thinking patterns, which then also transcend in creatives, their portrayal of creativity and then the way their audience consumes it.

  • Can highlighting someone’s ethnicity in a role be a good thing? Why or why not?

According to me ethnicity is part of one’s life story. It should be portrayed, but should be portrayed in its entirety, not just picking the flavours and showcasing them for commercial benefits. Screen plays an integral part in designing and training society’s thinking pattern. Therefore, it can play a key role in breaking prejudices and stereotypes that we humans have about various different races, cultures and ethnicities.

  • What is your advice to other creatives, artists and performers in the industry currently feeling held back because of their ethnicity?

One key advice that I would like to give to other creatives, artists and performers in the industry who are currently feeling held back because of their ethnicity is there are numerous amounts of stories in this world, many yet to be told. Today the world has become one big little global village. It’s time to embrace your ethnicity and identity with pride and respect while honouring the others and their cultural backgrounds with respect and humility. Technology, science and modernisation have built the bridges all across the globe, nothing is too far, nothing impossible anymore, now it’s our turn to embrace humans from all walks of life. And if noone does that for you, then brace yourself, put your best armour on and sing your own song, fight your own battle. We live in the age of infinite possibilities, if none come your way, make one for your own.

About the expert

With a bachelor’s degree in Indian classical dance Bharatnatyam and experience of over 25 years in creating, performing and managing the journey of creative works and creativity as a whole: I believe the most important role of an artist is to tell stories. We are storytellers – storytellers that have the ability and power to transcend the emotions of humans and all other living creatures beyond boundaries, breaking geographical and ethnic cultural barriers using our expressions, physical and technical craft. The main ethos and motto for me as an artist remains to be a global citizen that sees art as an entity that speaks the global language and brings all culturally diverse backgrounds, humans and ideas on one platform of humanity.

Image description: Close-up headshot of Aarti. She has shoulder-length, dark hair, is looking at the camera is wears a floral camisole. Photographer: Helen Selmeczy

ADVICE: Understand and embrace engineering’s human factor – Trang Pham

Trang Pham, Civil Engineer at Aurecon and Chair of Women in Engineering Queensland at Engineers Australia, has had a varied career across retail, business, public service, and engineering in the private sector. She is passionate about representing and driving further diversity across STEM industries, particularly engineering, and recognises the challenges vary from organisation to organisation.

Engineering connects people – it’s not all stats and facts

Pham believes the engineering industry needs to make a greater effort to explain the societal and human impact of its work to invite and keep a more diverse workforce.

She explains, “People don’t understand it and think it’s very conceptual but it’s not. The stories we’re telling aren’t inclusive. We’re very analytical in how we describe our work. We say we’re building buildings, or designing roads, or building robots. This makes people think it’s purely technical and that engineering doesn’t require gender or diversity to be effective.

“But that’s wrong because the end users are humans. We need to talk about how the roads we’re building are connecting communities and providing access to health care and much-needed services, or how the robots we’re building are improving the quality of life for our ageing population.”

Being a woman in engineering was never a problem, until it was

Going to an all girls school, Pham remembers feeling empowered to study whatever she wanted, without any hesitation or restrictions based on her gender. At home, as the daughter of refugees from the Vietnam War, Pham also says engineering was a career she was encouraged to pursue by her parents because of its perceived stability.

By the time Pham started studying engineering at university, she started to realise that being a minority in terms of gender was going to be a part of her engineering career. She was often one of very few women in seminars and tutorials.

However, despite being a minority, Pham never felt the impact of a gender divide during her university years and says her diverse group of friends at this time ensured she was always welcomed and supported.

Once she joined the workforce, Pham’s experiences drastically changed.

In some work environments, she was part of truly diverse teams where everyone was from a unique background, culturally, religiously, or otherwise. She recalls having wonderful experiences because “you were a minority, but the majority was the minority.”

In other work environments, she “became an actual minority” and she saw significant shifts in how she was treated, viewed, and valued in the workplace.

At one stage, she had colleagues directly tell her she had only gotten a job because she was a woman and woman of colour – she ticked two diversity boxes for the company.

“It was so demeaning to my skills. I was so scared because of how I looked, I was actually standing out for once, and I felt so much more pressure to perform at a higher level than before,” she says.

Embracing a support network made me fearless

As well as her current role as Chair of Women in Engineering Queensland, Pham has been a Past Chair for Young Engineers Australia, and volunteers as a CSIRO STEM Professional in School partner. She attributes her ability to persevere past experiences of discrimination, while continuing to thrive in her career and contribute to the engineering community, to these support networks.

“Engineers Australia (EA) helped me maintain my voice within the workplace. It’s through Engineers Australia that I have developed my leadership and the role I play in the industry,” Pham says.

“It made me quite sure of myself in terms of what I had to say, what I had to contribute and that what I had to say was important. At times when I may have been scared of being seen or valued less in the workplace, through my experience with EA, I was able to take a step back and realise that I need to leverage my position and my voice to make sure I’m changing the industry for the better and for the people around me.”

Being empowered by her support network and with a drive to action change, Pham has been able to build allies and support network everywhere she goes, building her own resilience and ability to manage discrimination as it arises.

She encourages anyone experiencing discrimination in their workplace to “speak out”, but also recognises that this may not be possible for everyone. She says it’s important to assess whether the current situation is “taking your energy. If so, then you need to put that energy elsewhere that benefits you. That could be finding a job that supports you. That could be finding a support group of other women. That could be finding a hobby where you are supported and celebrated.”

She explains, “A lot of the time, people – not just women – get pigeonholed in a role and then their whole life revolves around that. For example, a lot of mums have that in any industries – people define them as a mum, not a professional, hard-working employee. It’s hard to say, ‘Ignore them’. But educating people that you are not just that person is really important, and developing that outside of work “

Today, Pham plays a key role in promoting diversity and inclusion at her current workplace, Aurecon, as well as highlighting for clients the ability to view engineering and business challenges through a human lens.

Relationships are everything in business

There were several times in her career when Pham felt she was a “failure”. She graduated several years after some of her peers due to needing to repeat some classes, and spent six months in retail management before using the skills from her business and engineering degrees in the corporate world.

However, over the years, Pham has realised that her perceived failures have led to some of her greatest strengths, and in the long-run, have enabled her to take leaps and bounds in her career that she otherwise may not have been able to achieve.

Her varied education across business and technical fields, combined with her diverse experience across multiple industries, combined with her strong work ethic and interest in understanding people has given Pham a matrix of skill-sets that are rare in engineering. In her words, it boils down to an ability to build relationships and connect on a human level.

She says, “If you can’t connect with your clients, you’re not going to bring work in and deliver the right solution. When you are building a relationship, you are trying to understand people’s stories, experiences and perspectives. Sometimes their issues aren’t engineering issues.

“Understanding that as well as the technical and commercial aspects is important, but understanding the person is the most important part. If you don’t get that, you’ll have slow growth in your career because you’re only skilled technically. If you build a relationship, people are asking for you and want you.”

About the expert

Trang Pham is a Civil Engineer at Aurecon within the Built Environment Unit, with previous experience in the IT and Infrastructure sectors. She is currently the Chair of Women in Engineering – Queensland and Immediate Past Chair for Young Engineers Australia – Queensland. Trang also volunteers as a CSIRO STEM Professional in School partner. Graduating from the University of Queensland (UQ) in 2014 with a Bachelor of Engineering (Civil) and Bachelor of Business Management (Marketing). Trang is currently involved with UQ’s Young Alumni Advisory Board and UQ’s Women in Engineering Alumni Ambassador Council.

Image description: Headshot from the shoulders up of a smiling woman with short, black curly hair, wearing a blue floral sleeveless top.

ADVICE: Don’t be scared to initiate the conversations – Renee Thomson

Renee Thomson, a proud Wiradjuri woman and Co-Founder of Western Sydney Aboriginal Youth Leadership Network, believes strongly in the powerful impact effective community engagement can make, particularly in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. In this interview, she outlines what constructive change looks like and how she believes we can get there.

  • What does ‘positive and sustainable’ change for Aboriginal people look like to you?

Positive and Sustainable change for Aboriginal people to me, is the:

  • Acknowledgement and acceptance that Aboriginal people are the original inhabitants of this land;
  • Whole of Australia embracing Aboriginal people;
  • True history of Aboriginal Australia prior to colonisation is acknowledged and accepted;

Australia’s acceptance of Aboriginal customs and cultural practices that sustained our people, land, water, plants and wildlife prior to colonisation needs to be embraced to fix our country and help in creating a culturally rich, harmonious country for us all to thrive in.

Change is Aboriginal people having a voice.

Positive and sustainable change for Aboriginal people is my people not leading the statistics for incarceration, health complications, decreased life expectancies, disproportionate child protection cases, suicide deaths, homelessness and unemployment in this country. In fact, it is my people having the ultimate power to determine their own destinies, lives and aspirations for themselves, their children and their grand-children.

It will be a time where we, as First Peoples aren’t continuously facing the ongoing inter-generational traumas, racism, prejudices and socioeconomic disadvantages across the country.

Once we get there, we as a country will create a culturally rich, unified, harmonious country for all to thrive in.

Ultimately, positive and sustainable change is Aboriginal people not having to justify our existence, and having the ability to excel like everyone else in this country with our culture and history being celebrated, not hidden or overseen.

  • What can Australian government organisations, corporates, business leaders, and individuals do to contribute to this change?

As human beings, we all have the power to contribute to positive and sustainable change. Regardless of whether you work within government, a corporate institution, you’re a business leader or an individual within this country.

We all have the power to work together to initiate change to the life of Aboriginal Australia.

I invite and encourage all individuals to conduct their own research into the history of this country. This will give individuals the opportunity to understand the impacts of colonisation and the everlasting inter-generational traumas which continue to effect Aboriginal people across the country of all ages, genders and socio-economic status.

By gaining your own clarity and a further understanding of Aboriginal culture, you will be open to shifting paradigms and challenging the current status quo surrounding the First Peoples of this country.

There are great resources online which are currently available to assist in furthering your knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal culture and history, also many individuals and organisations who will yarn with you to provide further insight.

Reach out to your Local Aboriginal Land Council and local Aboriginal organisations for guidance – just don’t be scared to initiate the conversations.

  • What makes you passionate about driving this change?

I am passionate about driving this change because I want all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to know that they belong, they are valued, they are loved and they play a pivotal role in our society.

We are the oldest, living, surviving culture in the world with over 60,000 years of resilience, strength and perseverance pumping through our veins and this is something we must never forget.

We are standing on the shoulders of giants, warriors, trailblazers and leaders who walked this earth long before our time, who fought for the opportunities we are presented with today, and I believe that we must continue their work.

I want my people to flourish in all aspects of their lives and know that they are capable of anything they put their mind too, especially our youth.

Our youth need to heal, feel loved and know they belong. By instilling self-belief, confidence and self-determination within our people, that is when the collective change will come.

We must not forget that it was only 50 years ago that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (My Mother, Aunties, Uncles, Grandparents and Great-grand parents) were considered flora and fauna (plants and animals).

They were not considered human beings and not counted in the Australian census, until the 1967 Referendum.

For far too long the systemic regimes which this country operate on have been failing and dehumanising Aboriginal people and continue to disempower us, on all levels. We as individuals must hold the power we possess within our hearts, minds and souls and continue to strive towards systemic, effective change.

One of my key motives and why I drive for this and many more changes, is because I long for the day when I drive down Luxford Rd (Mt Druitt), and I will not see an Aboriginal person being harassed/strip-searched and racially vilified by the Police, just for being Aboriginal. This is a daily occurrence in Western Sydney and across the country.

Regardless of the individual’s age, whether they’re holding their babies in their arms or their children are walking beside them, the Police will continue harass them.

It has to stop!

People don’t realise the ongoing impacts this behaviour and mentality has on the progression and self-determination within Aboriginal people at all stages of life. Whether this happens to us directly, or an Aboriginal person we may not know – it has the same effect on us mentally and spiritually.

Ultimately, I am passionate about driving change as I believe it is time for our people to take back our power and create long lasting, effective change now and for future generations.

  • What is the role of community engagement in enabling constructive societal change?

Community engagement is pivotal.

It is vital that communities are involved in all stages of any projects that may impact their Community – the planning, the implementation and the evaluation stages.

The role of community engagement in enabling constructive societal change is key. It will determine the success or failure of any community project.

When communities are not involved from the inception of a project, it is less likely to be adopted by the community. This happens at an increasing and alarming rate within Aboriginal communities, as institutions make assumptions, generalisations and judgements on a community, without understanding the history, values and current circumstances.

Through meaningful community engagement, institutions, companies and government agencies will gain a better understanding of the communities’ concerns, aspirations and values, which in return lead to the effective delivery of programs, legislations and policies achieving better outcomes for that community.

By upholding trust, transparency and honesty within communities through effective community engagement, it enhances the community’s approval, resulting in an improved uptake of services as they are more tailored to the unique aspirations of each community.

Community engagement can help shape and envision a community’s future, bringing wider societal change and global impacts through implementing services that benefit individuals and families in future endeavours and prospects.

  • What have been your biggest learnings from your career and experiences so far when it comes to community engagement?

The biggest learnings from my career and experiences within Community Engagement is understanding the importance of meaningful community engagement and the impact community engagement has on the success or failure of a service or program.

It has become increasingly evident that a service will either prosper or deteriorate depending on the amount of time and resources put into the effort of community engagement. Positive, effective relations between an organisation and individuals will usually lead to a successful process.

I’ve learnt to never set unrealistic expectations for any individuals or community members when delivering a service. I was once told, to avoid disappointing community you must always under promise and over deliver.

I learnt really quickly that community members are more likely to gain your trust through what you do not what you say. Many individuals have been let down by services who fail to show up when they said they would or haven’t provided the ongoing support their service is funded to provide.

Community engagement isn’t just the oral communication between an organisation, an individual or community. It is about being present, empowering individuals to make informed decisions and believing in the individuals/community you are working with.

When working in a community setting, especially within marginalised communities, you must be prepared to work longer than what is stated within your contract or your standard 9-5 hours.

I’ve learnt that if people aren’t willing to go above and beyond for community, do not apply to work within a community.

  • For those considering a career in community engagement with indigenous communities, what is your advice?

My advice through my lived experiences for those considering a career in Community Engagement within Aboriginal communities is quite different for those who are Aboriginal and those who are Non-Aboriginal.

Obviously those who are Aboriginal and are connected to their family and community will have a deep, thorough understanding of how to work with mob through their lived experiences. It is essentially working with family and upholding our values of kinship, respect and inclusion in all aspects when working with mob.

For Non-Aboriginal people whose roles may require them to work with Aboriginal communities through community engagement, my advice for you is to:

  • Speak to an Aboriginal person you know to have an open, robust conversation about your understanding of Aboriginal culture;
  • Request to participate in meaningful Aboriginal cultural awareness training prior to commencing your role to give you some context of our culture (note – this does not make you culturally aware or an expert in Aboriginal culture, rather just gives you a glimpse into the oldest, living culture in the world);
  • Respect Elders and leaders within in the community and involve them in important decision-making processes;
  • If it is possible, many community members would prefer men to speak to men and for women to speak to women, especially in circumstances where you are not known by the person or community;
  • Conduct your own research on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, so you are aware of the inter-generational traumas and ongoing societal impacts which continue to effect Aboriginal people of all ages, genders and socio-economic status’s;
  • Never assume, always ask (even if you may think it is a silly question, this technique will assist you more than you think);
  • Connect with your Local Aboriginal Land Council (LALC), local Aboriginal community organisations and Aboriginal elders groups to create meaningful, effective relationships;
  • Embrace your privilege and always be open to learning and shaking your unconscious biases;
  • Don’t be scared, worried or anxious when working with mob because we are the most welcoming, respectful, warm-hearted people you will ever meet.

I’m always happy to further discuss this topic and assist in any way possible, or be that person who you may want to reach out to.  

  • Why did you decide to create the Western Sydney Aboriginal Youth Leadership Network? What are the key goals for this organisation?

The Western Sydney Aboriginal Youth Leadership Network was created to be a culturally safe, inclusive space for the Aboriginal youth of Western Sydney and aspire to have a voice within government processes, strengthen partnerships between organisations and stakeholders and ultimately create social change.

William Trewlynn and myself (Co-Founders) noticed the lack of participation of young people in Aboriginal Organisations or the decision making on policies which affect us.

With that voice, young Aboriginal people can provide a youth perspective in helping create age appropriate change within their communities and throughout the world, if provided with optimal guidance, support and opportunities.

We believe that well-designed engagement with young Aboriginal people can lead to enhanced community involvement, increased self-empowerment and confidence, increased cultural connection and reduced contact with the justice system.

Prior to COVID-19 we were meeting once a month (the first Thursday of each month) at Kimberwalli in Mt Druitt, which unfortunately we’ve had to cease until further advised.

Together, at our meetings we discuss the current societal issues, policies and regulations that impact us as Aboriginal people and our ability to create prosperity for future generations. During our meetings we also strategise how we can overcome these issues collaboratively.

We have established a social media presence on Facebook, which is a public group open to any Aboriginal person under the age of 35 from Western Sydney. We share all meeting notifications, employment opportunities and community announcements through our page.

The goal is to ensure that the voices of our young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are at the table on conversations that impact them. We want to ensure that young voices are captured, articulated and heard on subjects which impact us.

We want to be spoken with, not spoken for.

  • What are you most excited about for 2020?

I’m most excited for the Youth Leadership Network to establish ourselves as an incorporated body of young people who are driving the change for our community and future generations.

I know that there is change on the horizon, and I am so excited to watch it unfold in 2020.

About the expert

Renee Thomson is a proud Wiradjuri woman with cultural and ancestral ties to Erambie, Cowra, Central Western NSW. She was born and raised in Mt Druitt, Western Sydney where she continues to work and live within her community.

She is devoted to increasing the economic prosperity and independence of Aboriginal communities and families across health, education, policy and reform and justice sectors.
Renee’s life experiences and ongoing involvement with community, has led her work in grass-roots and peak body initiatives and institutions across local, state and international platforms.

As the Sydney-Newcastle Youth Representative of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council Youth Council, Renee was selected to represent First Nations people at the United Nations, Expert Mechanisms on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Geneva, 2019.

Renee firmly believes that the secret to success is to listen and work with community, to create tangible and positive change for all. With those goals in mind she developed the Western Sydney Aboriginal Youth Leadership Network.

ADVICE: How to develop and foster cultural intelligence

The business and financial benefits of diverse workforces and leadership teams are evident in the latest research, yet many businesses still struggle with hiring, empowering, and promoting diverse talent.

This is where Wesa Chau, CEO of Cultural Intelligence, intends to make a difference. In this interview, she shares why she started her consultancy, the challenges she faces at work, and her views on unconscious bias and how to manage it in the workplace.

  • Why did you originally start Cultural Intelligence and how have your goals for the consultancy evolved over time?

I started Cultural Intelligence after working in the multicultural Not for Profit (NFP) sector and started to feel frustrated by the lack of innovation in the sector and as I was using my managing consulting hat (that was my first job), there are many more things the sector can learn from the corporate sector on training and using an evidence-based approach to improve. 

When I first started, my clientele was mostly NFP and government organisations because that was where my networks were, however that has shifted to more corporate and University clients. The shift also happened because corporate Australia has started to have the appetite to talk about cultural diversity (extending from gender diversity).

Now Cultural Intelligence spends more effort on evidence-based approaches and data-driven approaches to cultural diversity, rather than “fluffy” talks about the importance of cultural diversity which is hard to get businesses on board. 

For example, last year, we launched our research on Asian-Australian leadership in Australia. The approach we took was not simply about the number of Asian-Australians in leadership roles (or lack thereof), but to understand the natural workstyles of Asian-Australians so we can have a much more nuanced conversation about what skills and contributions Asian-Australians bring into the workplace.

The cultural diversity I see is an imbalance of power structurally and so my consultancy helps organisations create processes and policies to balance out the power imbalance to ensure people from different cultures feel equal.

  • How have your personal experiences impacted the way you manage your business and deliver your services? 

I think personal experience will always impact the way businesses are managed and the services delivered.

For me, I come from an engineering and commerce background, so using data and tools are natural to me and so even for a human related topic such as cultural diversity, I still enjoy looking at data and interpret the data in a human way. What the NFP sector has taught me was the empathy, listening and to always understand things from an individual’s perspective. 

So all my experiences inform my work, the education in engineering and commerce taught me the tools and an analytical mind, whereas my NFP experience taught me the human experience, so I combine the positive aspects of each of the areas and bring a new way to look at cultural diversity – and a different narrative to talk about the topic.

  • When working with professionals and executives to understand the benefits of cultural diversity, what are the biggest challenges and how do you overcome them? 

One of the key challenges to get people to think about cultural diversity is the lack of interest and feeling people are being pressed to do “too much diversity”, because we have just been talking about gender diversity where corporate Australia is finally starting to understand the importance of it, but rather than patting them on the back, some feel like people are slapping on another form of diversity. 

My message to them is always, if you really do diversity well – gender, culture, disability, age and more – then we don’t need this conversation, but simply looking at the face of corporate Australia shows that they still don’t do it well.

Not having people of colour in teams and in senior roles highlights that the team does not value different insights and perspectives, because people born into a different culture have different lived experiences that cannot be replicated by people who have never lived it. For me therefore, diversity is more than just about skin colour, it is about better decision making.

This is one reason why I need a different narrative to talk about the issue. The business case yes, but I wanted to show that Asian-Australians are more natural at certain workstyles and skills compared to others. So our research showed that Asian-Australians are more natural at solving programs (especially in data interpreting). This is critical in the 21st century – the data-driven century and it has just becoming even more important after covid-19 where more and more businesses are shifting their operations online.

  • Is unconscious bias inevitable? Why or why not?

Unconscious bias is normal for humans, it is how our brain works to help us to protect us, so we should not think it’s just bad. However, what we need to do is to understand our own bias and be able to manage our responses, so we do not unintendedly disadvantage a certain group. 

For example, I hear people say “I’m colour blind” (meaning they don’t care about others’ ethnicity), I just look at their work, but what if people behave differently but it is understood by another group in a different way?  For example, some people do not look people in the eye to show respect, but in Australia that would be perceived as shifty or rude. For a “colour blind person”, they are likely to see this person not looking at them as rude, that is the bias of perceiving eye contact to mean rude.

Our biases build from how we were taught as kids, which uses a frame that fits in the society we live in – i.e. rude people do not look at me in the eye – so to remove that takes conscious efforts. We can only overcome the biases when we withhold judgement on another person based on behaviour, assume the best from the other, and probe deeper at every human interaction.

There is also an Implicit Association Test based at Harvard University that everyone can test to check your own unconscious bias. It is a great one, because it helps you understand your own biases. It is only through knowing about them that you can manage your responses. Again I want to stress to not be too hard on yourself, because we all have biases. It is about how you manage your own responses to biases.

  • Have you ever met someone you felt was not open to cultural diversity, and not worth convincing otherwise?

One thing I have learned over the years is not to take things personally.  Even if I feel I’m having tense discussions with people about cultural diversity and do not feel they are open to it, you never know what seed you have planted. 

Whilst there are people with whom I felt was wasting my time at the time, I later found out that our conversations have planted a seed and a few years later they said to me the conversation we had made them think more about it and changed them somewhat. 

I’m much more compassionate about where they are at in their journey nowadays and am willing to engage with anyone (including some tense conversations) about cultural diversity. I would recommend people to have discussions with all people, however I must say to have conversations with people who are totally against cultural diversity are always difficult conversations, because sometimes they trigger my emotional responses and I get angry. I’m much better at it now, so I can still have interesting conversations with people and not make judgements about people too quickly.

  • For those currently struggling with finding an appropriate way to bring up a lack of cultural diversity in their teams or organisations, what’s your advice? 

There is no one way to do it, it depends on the context you are in – who you are talking to, the support networks you have, your workplace, how it impacts on your role, how confident you are, and more. These all impact how you might bring it up.

I ran a session to explore these issues at the Asian-Australian Leadership Summit run by ANU, PwC and Asialink. People within the session suggested all these ways can work depending on the context: having allies, finding mentors and sponsors, having empathy, don’t internalise conversations, finding friends, setup networks within the workplace, educate people by sharing personal stories, try working out their strategic objectives and relate your cause to that, build other alliances (e.g. women networks, LGBTI networks), etc.

Personally, I will assess the power dynamics of the situation you are in as the first step before developing a strategy to get there. One thing that definitely is required is thick skin – keep bringing it up at the right moments and do not give up, because it is a long battle.  Just think how long it took the gender movement to achieve what they have and still not quite fully achieved, we have only started to get some traction, which means we have a while to go. 

Whilst it is hard, it is important to maintain compassion with people who have not yet joined the journey because they never had our lived experiences and some genuinely do not understand it. We need to keep educating them.

About the expert

Wesa Chau is an experienced manager, board director, speaker, trainer and specialist consultant on cultural diversity.

Wesa is the CEO of Cultural Intelligence, a specialist consulting firm that help organisations better understand cultural diversity and its impacts on design, decision making, customer service, messaging and policy setting. In her capacity as Director of Cultural Intelligence, Wesa has worked with clients ranging from government departments, educational institutions, corporations and not for profit organisations.

As a board director, Wesa’s diverse experiences include serving on the boards of Carers Victoria, Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria and InTouch – Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence. She is currently a board member of Glenuc (Holmesglen Foundation), the Victorian Ministerial Council on Women’s Equality and the Multicultural Business Ministerial Council.

Wesa was named as the 2010 Young Victorian of the Year for her commitment to gender equality, cultural diversity and social cohesion has been recognised through the Australian Leadership Award and an inductee of the Victorian Honour Roll of Women.

Wesa is currently undertaking her PhD at Swinburne University understanding what political skills are and how people develop them. She holds a Masters in Business Management, Graduate Diploma in Law and Bachelors of Engineering and Commerce with majors in software engineering and marketing. Wesa is also a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and is a qualified teacher.

VIEW: How to change cultural representation in film

Diversity in the film industry has been lacking, with the so-called ‘Golden Age’ to blame for some of the worst statistics in terms of female representation of actors, screenwriters, directors and producers, according to analysis of 26,000 movies produced between 1910 and 2010. The trend of male producers hiring male directors and male writers has had a domino effect on how women are represented on screen, and their roles in the overall industry.

But times are changing, and the impact of each change is significant. Recent studies show that increased efforts to increase diverse faces, stories and perspectives on screen are having a tangible impact on young people. Many have experienced a boost to their self-acceptance and self-esteem, by being able to better relate to what they’re seeing on screen, including in new Netflix shows like Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever.

Rupanty Akid is an actress performing on screen in both Australia and Bangladesh, and has experienced first-hand how the industry prioritises people of certain ‘looks’. In this interview, she shares how those experiences have shaped her perspective and approach to working in the industry, as well as how she’s seen the power of audience demand in being able to spark change on issues like representation and diversity.

  • When was the first time you realised your complexion or skin colour impacted what roles you did and didn’t get? How did you feel at the time?

The first time I realised this was when I first started out as a freelancer in Sydney, and was seeking jobs online. The majority of acting and modelling jobs listed would say ‘appearance must be Caucasian, hair must be blonde’ and similar specifications. At the time as a child, this was just something I accepted as normal, which is an isolating feeling. I assumed that people just don’t want to see anything ‘different’.

Racial discrimination is a social concept we learn as we grow – no children are born knowing racism. I slowly grew up to realise I’m not different; that Australia is so multicultural, and I’m a normal part of this beautiful country, but it’s the Australian media that won’t represent it that way. 

  • How have your experiences with racial discrimination or preference evolved since you joined the film industry? 

Over the last 10 years that I’ve worked in the industry, and especially since signing with an agent, I have noticed a huge shift in attitude towards diversity. The more the general audience demands to see a broader representation, the more they will be heard. There is so much power in people which they don’t realise. The film industry is headed in the right direction, but it’s just not there yet.

  • What are the biggest differences you’ve noticed between working in Australia in comparison to the film industry in Bangladesh? 

Bangladesh is an entirely different planet from Australia. I love working in Bangladesh though, as it’s my way of staying connected to the culture and learning their language. But, there are some obvious differences like pay; what I earn per hour in Australia as a blurry background extra is more than what I earn as a lead role in an entire movie in Bangladesh. There, you do not get paid per hour, and so working hours on set are inhumanely long. Then there are some subtle behavioral differences. 

For example, the way I am treated in Bangladesh is like royalty, just because I work in front of the camera. This makes me feel very uncomfortable. Crew members freak out when I try to hang out with them and make a friendly conversation, because they’re not used to it, and can get in trouble for ‘disturbing the actress’. Even on social media, when I reply to my follower’s comments, they are so shocked I would respond to them, like they are beneath me for some reason.

There’s a very clear hierarchy, and you get treated differently based on that, I don’t completely understand it yet. There you have maids, drivers, personal ‘spot boys’. I guess, people just grow up with the mentality that some are ‘lower class’ and others like those in the media, are idolised, as though we are any different from anyone else. 

And of course, the obsession with ‘fair skin’ in their media is so huge. I can’t think of one big actress in Bangladesh who is proudly dark-skinned and successful without ‘white’ makeup or edits, because the audience would not allow it nor accept it. There are plenty of famous dark-skinned male actors though. The audience also shuns any female actors who get married, and they stop getting work. Whereas married male actors remain popular, but that’s a whole other discussion for another time. 

When I’m working on set in Australia, we are treated equally with respect. We all learn each other’s names and have a great time together, regardless of whether we are a background extra, lighting assistant, or a featured actor. On set, there is no outright discrimination based on gender or ‘status’ or any other factor. I love that it’s all about if you are nice to people, they will be nice to you. I’ve experienced how the golden rule of ‘treat people how you want to be treated’ does not apply in the Bengali film industry. But I still love it, as there are many positive things about Bangladesh, outside the media world.

  • Whose responsibility is it to address the issue of diversity and racial representation in the film industry? Why? 

It is up to each and everyone. I know I am privileged because I get preference, just because I am ‘fair for a Bengali’ and have that ‘foreigner’ look. But it’s my responsibility that I never accept compliments about my skin colour. I always educate them that there is no connection between beauty and fair skin. This is such an issue in South Asian cultures. But different skin colours are just a consequence of how our ancestors reacted to sun exposure, depending on their location. That’s literally all it is, yet people make it an issue. 

As an audience, if we see an ad that we love, everyone should commend the brand for their efforts. This encourages them, and other brands will follow suit. If you see advertising, movies, or shows with a lack of diversity, call them out on it, and generally just voice your thoughts everywhere needed. With incorrect portrayal in the media, they are erasing stories of the majority of the world.

As creators, as casting directors, as brands, as people in actual positions of power behind the scenes – they need to listen to the demand for more representation. Not just for diverse backgrounds, but to cast people with disabilities, or who are LGBTIQ+. At the moment, ‘mixed races’ are preferred so they can still play that ‘token’ diverse role without actually being from that ethnicity. People are quick to blame actors for this, but there are a lot of people involved in making decisions before filming starts. 

I have already seen so much improvement with casting in the media, and I know we will only move forward. Representation of diversity can still be so much better, and it will with everyone taking responsibility and doing their part. 

About the expert

Rupanty is an actress, model and influencer based in Sydney. Although born and residing in Australia, she travels to Bangladesh for work in the media, out of love for her heritage and culture.