Why I’m fighting for culturally diverse leadership

 In Dai Le, Diversity, Leadership

Dai Le recalls her journey from Vietnam and the ongoing challenges faced by Vietnamese Australians, in her role as founder of the Diverse Australasian Women’s Network.

Forty years ago, we lost everything. Our home. Our belongings. Our loved ones. And life as we knew it.

April 30th, 1975 was the date that Saigon fell into the hands of communists in Vietnam.

I was just seven years old when my mother grabbed us kids, my two younger sisters and I, and ran for our dear life. We thought we’d die; we thought we wouldn’t make it. Amid a crowd in panic, a city in chaos, and a people in despair, we managed to scramble onto a big boat to save our lives.

After a few years in squalid camps in South East Asia, my family and I were finally accepted to be resettled in Australia. So with just one suitcase between us, we arrived in Fairy Meadow Hostel in Wollongong and began rebuilding our lives.

Like many Australians of Vietnamese refugee background, I know this anniversary has many meanings. One of the most important is the message of commemoration – to remember those who died fighting for freedom and those who died at sea in search of it. However, I believe there is another as important message: It’s time Vietnamese Australians took the leap into mainstream leadership arena – be that in the corporate sector, in Government agencies, or in politics. There are a few out there, but not enough to inspire the younger generation.

After nearly two decades in the media and seven years in the political arena, I came to see that despite our diverse society, this diversity is not reflected in the leadership team across our mainstream institutions. As a woman of Asian background, I see the need to drive the conversation around this gap, this lack of culturally diversity in our leadership team in mainstream institutions. Just as the gender conversation created change in seeing an increasing number of women in senior leadership positions in our society, I felt that it’s time to also call out on culturally diverse leadership.

So with a group of Australians from various Asian backgrounds, we formed the Diverse Australasian Women’s Network, DAWN for short, with the aim to drive the conversation about the need to increase culturally diverse representation in leadership roles across society. DAWN aims to encourage culturally diverse groups to think about their capability and leadership skills. We want to ask the questions – are you ready to lead? What’s stopping you? And how can we help?

Why is it then important for Vietnamese Australians to consider stepping into leadership positions? My argument is, we have now been resettled in Australia for almost 40 years. Isn’t it time for us to want to play a bigger role within Australian society?

Each year, I attend the Vietnamese Lunar (Tet) celebration, and see the display of students who have attained high ATAR marks. This display of high academic achievement leaves me in awe. And yet, when I look across our mainstream institutions, few of our sons and daughters are in a position of influence, nor play a major role in public or corporate institutions.

The 2011 Census reveals 24.6 per cent of Australians are overseas-born and 43.1 per cent have at least one overseas-born parent. Vietnamese-Australians are the fifth largest group with 185,000 people in Australia who were born in Vietnam; 219,000 say they speak Vietnamese at home. So where are the faces and the voices from this group?

The Diversity of Council of Australia’s recent report “Cracking the Cultural Ceiling” has labelled some of the reasons Asian Australians are blocked from taking up senior leadership roles; stereotyping, cultural diversity bias, and unconscious bias, to name a few. A survey of more than 300 leaders and emerging leaders from Asian backgrounds revealed only 18 per cent of Asian talent feel their workplace is free of cultural biases and stereotypes.

So where do we go from here? How do we encourage talented Vietnamese-Australians, or generally speaking, Asian Australians, to take up senior leadership roles?

Culturally diverse leadership faces similar barriers as those faced in the gender sphere. We know that women make up more than 50 per cent of the population, but we lack the statistics to show what percentage is represented by women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. What we do know, is that one quarter of the Australian population (21.5 million in 2011) is from a culturally diverse background.

The Australian Institute of Company Directors recently announced that it has set a target for 30 per cent of board seats to be filled by women by the end of 2018.  That’s asking for the current figure of 18.2 per cent to almost double in five years’ time.

However, for women and men of non-English speaking background, there is still so much to overcome.

Building leadership capability within the culturally diverse segment is DAWN’s mission; we are about growing culturally diverse leadership. And there are growing voices within the culturally diverse community, and in particular the Asian Australian community, questioning the lack of representation at the various levels of influence. It is up to us to call this out. At the same we must be ready. We must willing to take up leadership roles, roles of influence in mainstream society. And most importantly we must build our capability to lead.

Unless we actively work to address this issue, women and culturally diverse groups will continue to be marginalised in the workplace. DAWN will continue the conversation and champion the push for a more inclusive and diverse leadership pool so that corporations and mainstream institutions recognise the talent and contributions our diverse communities can make to grow Australia.

It’s still a long road ahead. But a journey of a thousand miles begins with one small step.

Dai was born in Saigon, Vietnam and came to Australia in 1979. An award-winning journalist, independent film-maker and broadcaster Dai was appointed as Commissioner to the NSW Community Relations Commission. In September 2012 she was elected to Fairfield City Council. She also serves as a director with STARTTS, the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors and was Deputy Chair of the NSW Ethnic Communities Council.

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