People: How hairdressing paved the way towards a diverse and inclusive mentoring platform

The below is a guest post from Joan Dellavalle, owner of Ebony and Ivory.

As an international student who arrived in Perth from Zambia in 2001, I had never felt so excluded as when I sat in a local hairdresser chair trying to get my hair washed and blow dried. The experience though gave me the courage to use whatever savings I had to study, become a hairdresser and open my own inclusive salon space – Ebony and Ivory.

What does an inclusive salon space look like?

For me, it is a space where people of all backgrounds – race, colour, culture – can come in and not feel like what I felt two decades ago: that having a different type and style of hair is not something to be ashamed of, but an opportunity to learn more about other people’s diversity – their uniqueness.

Achieving an inclusive social space such as Ebony and Ivory does not have its roots in large amounts of funding or being able to recreate the current “it” style.

Instead, it comes down to acceptance and a genuine interest to listen, discover and empathise with other people’s stories – funnily something that I feel are the characteristics you need when you are a hairdresser!

After all, how many of us have talked non-stop, divulging often personal stories or funny incidents with our hairdressers?

To that end, creating an inclusive salon space at Ebony and Ivory involved:

  • Creating a warm brand that says “we’re open to anyone.” It’s amazing how things such as the design of your logo and what language and image you post on social media can say about you and your business!
  • Hiring and training hairdressers from diverse backgrounds and importantly with an interest in not just hair but the people under the comb, hairdryer, colour brush.
  • Taking that inclusive space to outside of the four walls of a salon! More on this…

From the salon to the streets of Perth

Hair salons are a grapevine of stories and I realised, a place to understand more what’s happening “out there.”

Two styles of stories generally come out – one of inspiration and the other of challenges – the latter often of how young people are lacking positive role models and the opportunity to learn about diversity, difference and a different perspective.

After years of listening to such countless, remarkable stories, I was reminded of how in Zambia, we would spend time with our Elders, just listening and talking as they shared their knowledge and wisdom. Here we learnt about the power of listening, of possibilities, of accepting, of being open to difference.

The stories and my experience of sharing them gave me the idea to create a diverse and inclusive space to the streets of Perth. That’s how the Ebony & Ivory Masterclasses and Mentoring Program began!

Since 2017, I have myself run more than 21 lifeskills Masterclasses, sharing my own story of changing exclusion towards inclusion and collaborating with role models (such as Dr Rishelle Huma, CEO of Indigenous Women in Mining, Florence Drummond and international educator and Oprah’s favourite guest of all time, Dr Tererai Trent) who didn’t let difference get in their way of achieving their dreams and also advocating for diversity and inclusion.

We start the Masterclasses with setting a promise to each other how we can all contribute to creating a safe, inclusive and diverse space to gather.

These Masterclasses are mostly aimed at adolescents – to date we’ve had over 80 – go through one-day through to seven week programs, designed around learning and accepting difference via immersive storytelling such as:

  • Watching the movie and talking about A Wrinkle in Time to talk about differences in spirituality;
  • Collaborating with relevant organisations such as Edmund Rice Centre to connect and listen to stories of refugees;
  • Open discussions about bullying and overcoming stigma, run by youth leaders or positive role models who have themselves experienced these challenges.

You know that it is possible for anyone, everyone, including a small business such as mine, to make a difference when you have the same young people return to your programs – confident and comfortable in themselves – to teach others about acceptance.


About the expert

Joan Dellavalle is the creative mind behind Ebony & Ivory hair and beauty. The Perth celebrity stylist and fashion designer has forged her Zambian routes into building the powerhouse salon that is Ebony & Ivory. The refreshing and colourful energy of Joan allows each client to feel as they are family when they walk through the Perth CBD store.

To find out more about Ebony and Ivory and our work towards a more diverse and inclusive community: https://www.ebonyandivory.com.au/the-community

Image description: Joan is standing with her hands together, presenting in front of an audience, with three black, leather armchairs behind her. She is wearing a dark green velvet blazer over a matching green blouse, has blue, curly hair, and is smiling.

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ADVICE: Ask questions, leverage experts with lived-experience, and focus on the output not the disability

Lisa Cox is an author, presenter, consultant and advocate. She had an extensive career in corporate advertising before acquiring multiple disabilities and had to restart her career from scratch. In this interview, Lisa shares her experiences with re-joining the workforce with disabilities, how business leaders can overcome their misconceptions of accessible work environments to create inclusive workplaces, and how she has used her deep skillset in communications to become a high-impact disability advocate.

  • How have your personal experiences impacted the way you advocate for disability inclusion and rights today? 

My academic experience and professional background are a big part of my advocacy work. Prior to my disabilities, I’d studied two bachelor degrees in business communications and media, plus I was working full-time in advertising agencies with national and international brands. After acquiring multiple disabilities, I realised that I could fuse my media background and experiences with disability together.

There was a clear gap in the disability advocacy space which I knew I had the ability to fill.

I’d spent so many years making my clients, their products and messages visible that I knew I had the experience to apply similar skills to my advocacy work, That’s when #visibilityfordisability was born.

Words are important but I strongly believe that actions speak louder than words so I don’t partake in the bitter cesspool that is Twitter activism.

Instead, I now work with fantastic organisations like Media Diversity Australia plus other businesses or individuals (and a few fashion brands) who, like me, want to change the way disability is represented in mainstream media and other popular culture.

  • What differences have you personally experienced when applying for roles before and after you acquired disabilities? 

I’ve previously written about this and noted that when meeting someone for the first time (without disabilities), a standard question would be, “where do you work?” However, after acquiring my disabilities and meeting a stranger for the first time, the question became, “do you work?”

I also found that I had to try much harder to ‘prove myself’. Before my disabilities, I would show my resume (with academic credentials, awards and considerable experience) plus examples of my work. This frequently resulted in a job offer and professional commendations about my work history.

Yet when I presented the same resume along with examples of my work from a wheelchair, there were far fewer (if any) job offers. The comments that followed were also condescending and patronising. “Oh good for you,” some would say while looking down at me with pity or sympathy.

Others were clearly surprised that someone with visible disabilities had such an extensive history and was seeking work in the media/advertising industry.

All of these examples highlight the generally lower expectations that are placed on people with disabilities in a working environment. Stereotypes and assumptions are rife and often perpetuated by a very limited public perception of what life with a disability can be like. This is something I’m working hard to change.

  • How have your experiences as a candidate impacted how you train and coach business leaders on inclusion? 

I share a lot of my own stories and experiences because that genuine lived-experience is far more powerful for audiences.

There have been occasions where I’m speaking on a panel alongside a number of highly skilled and credentialed professionals. However, I’m the only one with lived-experience – That’s why one of my presentations is called ‘Context Beyond Textbooks’. It’s important to get that holistic view of a situation.

When I consult, I also have the ‘advantage’ of being able to see the situation from both sides. I spent the first 24 years of my life without a disability so I can understand and pre-empt some of the questions or concerns that may arise.   

  • What is the most common challenge you see business leaders struggle with when it comes to diversity and inclusion? 

I’ll answer this in two parts. The first problem is structural or environmental whereby the ability to do one’s work is hindered by their physical setup. This could include things like accessing transport to the office, ascending stairs at the office or reading the text on the computer screen (if the employee has low vision).

The second problem I see is all about attitude. You can have the most physically accessible office in the world but that means nothing if the business has a discriminatory culture. Or if the business (consciously or subconsciously) sees employees with a disability as ‘less capable’ than those without one.

Let the quality of work be gauge of a good employee – not whether or not they have a disability.

  • What’s your advice to business leaders currently experiencing these challenges?

Don’t be afraid to have the conversation and ask the individual rather than assuming what a person with disabilities needs – We are all VERY different.

For example, I was grateful to a former advertising agency employer for taking the time to sit down with me and find out what I personally needed as an employee with disabilities.

In their minds, I think they had conjured up images of having to do expensive remodelling around the office, or of me requiring $50K worth of assistive technology for my desk.

None of that happened and all I needed was to leave work 30 minutes early every Wednesday for a medical appointment and an extra lock on the bathroom door which they bought for about $5 at Bunnings. They wouldn’t have known that if they hadn’t asked.

Note [from Lisa Cox]: The next employee with disabilities will have a very different set of needs but you only know by asking.


About the expert

Lisa Cox is a multi-awarded writer, presenter and consultant. She is a proud disabled woman and active leader in the disability advocacy space, fusing her professional background in media, advertising and communications with her lived experience of multiple visible and invisible disabilities.

As a Disability Affairs Officer at Media Diversity Australia, Lisa is passionate about using her professional and personal experiences to change the way disability is represented in mainstream media and other popular culture. The fashion industry has been a particular area of focus for Lisa and she has been a model for various brands and at a number of events, including the most recent Mercedes-Benz Fashion Festival.

Lisa is bridging the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ (disabled and non-disabled people) to counteract stereotypes perpetuated by the media. She has been writing for a number of national and international publications including, Harper’s Bazaar, Huffington Post and Sydney Morning Herald. You can meet the woman behind the words on Instagram – @lisacox.co – where she writes for a disabled and non-disabled audience.


Image description: Lisa is a 40 year-old woman sitting in a wheelchair. She has long blonde, wavy hair and wears black pants with a dark aqua top made from silk with no sleeves. Lisa’s expression is happy but also stern to reflect many of the serious issues she advocates for.

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: Diversity is being prioritised over inclusivity in our workplaces

We know diversity in the workplace leads to stronger innovation, culture, collaboration, and profit margins, but what about inclusivity? In the corporate world, the two terms are often bucketed as ‘Diversity & Inclusivity’ or D&I when it comes to department names, roles, or initiatives.

However, Gemma Saunders, Founder and Lead Consultant at Workplace Edit, argues there is imbalance between how the two issues are prioritised within businesses.

Gemma says, “Although many people talk about D&I, their priorities are really about diversity – the mix of people. There are great examples of organisations who are truly focusing on inclusivity however generally, across Australia, the D still leads the I.”

The key leadership trait critical to effective inclusivity

In Gemma’s experience as a workplace experience consultant, she’s observed many business leaders and leadership teams as they navigate, develop and implement inclusivity strategies.

In her view, the way feedback is listened to and acted on by business leaders is the secret to success.

She explains, “Examples of getting it right really shine through when you see the behaviours of curiosity, vulnerability and empathy at all levels.

“Good organisations are dedicated to listening and acting on feedback and, importantly, looking at gender and demographic disaggregated engagement and HR data to see how different employees are truly experiencing their organisations. The not-so-good have all the marketing material & shiny PR but employees are reporting a different story.”

Getting inclusivity discussed beyond HR

While boardrooms and executives are discussing innovation and business transformation, diversity and inclusivity initiatives and challenges are typically limited to discussion within HR teams or, at the least, are seen as an HR-related issue, according to Gemma.

Rather than being treated separately, gemma believes diversity and inclusivity needs to be part of discussions around major business priorities. She explains that innovation and transformation “isn’t possible in a sustainable way without inclusivity.”

The road to inclusivity

While there are many things businesses and individuals can be doing to promote inclusivity in the workplace, Gemma shares two actions she sees are low-hanging fruit.

Gemma says, “Two things I believe are key to inclusivity are ‘flex for any reason’ flexible work schemes, and parental leave equality meaning the removal of secondary and primary labels in favour for equal parental leave. The flexible working piece acknowledges we all have lives outside of work and shows a big symbol of trust extended equally to employees. The parental leave piece supports empathy with all genders participating in care-giving, reduces the gender gap and just makes sense given our kids don’t refer to us as parent primary and parent secondary.”


About the expert

Gemma is on a mission to redesign workplace experiences so they genuinely work for more people and more organisations. Gemma has led game-changing overhauls to parental leave policies, flexible working and talent acquisition models resulting in sustainable change and multiple awards. This goal is what inspired Gemma to start Workplace Edit which focuses on changing the workplace practices, systems and behaviours so workers get the best from their workplaces and workplaces get the best from their workers.