The day before International Women’s Day and my interview with Dai Le, I am reminded of my place in the world. My GP does not work on a Saturday, so I see the other doctor in the practice to collect some test results. In the course of conversation, this Caucasian male figure asks if I am seeing someone and if my parents are ‘helping out’. When I answer in the latter question in the negative, he takes it upon himself to advocate the benefits and success rate of ‘arranged marriages’. I inwardly wonder if he would have any interest in such unsolicited advocacy were I a man, of any colour, or a white woman. On noticing my nonchalant expression, he stops his lecture and I leave the room.
While debriefing about the strange and inappropriate encounter with a friend later, I am not melancholic about what I see as his perception of me as a powerless brown woman. In that moment, telling him that I held a doctorate, taught hundreds of university students, and had been living on my own for over a decade would have achieved nothing. I decide that writing about, and contextualising the experience would be my political tool of choice. This power may not be the kind that transforms conscious and unconscious attitudes overnight, but I am willing to invest in the belief that this ‘ethical singularity’ will eventually change the personal, and the political. In other words, we need to shift the discourse of our day-to-day communication in order to amend the power imbalances at all levels of society and politics.
In this spirit, I arrive at the Dulwich Hill home of former NSW Liberal candidate and founder of the Diverse Australasian Women’s Network (DAWN), Dai Le to talk all things diversity, leadership and politics. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
I marvel as Dai expertly grinds spices for chai in a mortar, begins pan-frying Korean dumplings for a leisurely Sunday family lunch, and introduces me to her husband and son while being mindful of my iPhone placed on the kitchen table to absorb all the ambient sounds. We begin talking about DAWN, which she started with like-minded friends and colleagues in November 2013. She tells me that it is the persistent lack of diversity in media and politics that drove her to take on yet another new venture. ‘Most companies have a diverse workforce, but this is confined to the lower and middle management, and doesn’t extend to the decision makers’, she adds.
Her plan to counter this is not only through mentoring, but also by developing a strategy so that Asian Australians are better equipped for leadership (through leadership training). In addition, DAWN aims to create a platform for them to raise the issue, and facilitate institutional change.
We continue talking organisational change as Dai observes that most organisations find it ‘confronting’ when the issue of diversity is raised. She is of the view that Australia has an interesting history (compared to the UK, the US, and NZ), and that is part of the reason why it is behind in terms of embracing Asian Australians. She tells me that she thinks there is unconscious bias towards ‘Orientals’, or those of Asian origin, especially in the old establishment. However, she is optimistic about the future and thinks that organisations could change by becoming conscious of their unconscious bias.
Our conversation moves back to DAWN and leadership, and she says that when she Googled ‘Asian Australian women leaders’ a few years ago, the search came up with dating, exotic Asian ladies etc, and that she was understandably very disappointed. DAWN became a site with a readily accessible (and searchable) bank of Asian Australian women leaders.
This brings us to the issue of her political career, and I ask her if it was something she had considered during her years as an ABC journalist. She traces her interest in politics to her affiliation with the south-western Sydney suburb of Cabramatta, where she grew up. She adds, ‘You can take the girl out of Cabramatta, but not take Cabramatta out of the girl’. Dai still identifies with the aspirations of the migrants and refugees who call Cabramatta home, and this led her to put her hand up for the historic by-election in 2008. Although a political novice at the time, she created a huge swing for the Liberals, thereby turning safe Labor territory into a marginal seat.
I am now curious about not just her campaigning methods, but what she thinks about migrant voters. She tells me that she barely had time to campaign extensively in 2008, but she does have a good sense of the electorate. She thinks that migrant voters worry about jobs, infrastructure and the economy like everyone else, but they also care about how they are going to be represented (on issues such as language schools and treatment at work). She is of the view that different cultural communities might have slightly different needs (beyond creating new jobs), and it crucial for candidates to be mindful of that.
On the issue of different communities, I am curious about what she thinks of the ethnic segregation of parts of Sydney. Dai is reflective and says that Australian multicultural policy, for decades, has isolated communities. She is, however, quick to add that the current state government, especially through minister Victor Dominello (Minister for Citizenship and Communities), is trying to change that. On that note, we discuss the importance of talking to both the ‘mainstream’ and one’s ethno-linguistic community, despite the effort and energy it takes. Our chat ends as I take the last sip of my delicious chai and Dai talks about harnessing Asian Australian leadership in an organisation not just for doing business with Asia, but for their overall contribution. While this business-oriented language is not part of my everyday idiom, I do see its place in changing the nature of all kinds of leadership.
As I drive to work and reflect on my kitchen-table chat with Dai Le, I wonder about all the women who are relegated to talking celebrities and fashion in the media (despite probably doing better than their male peers in the university journalism assignments), and the bright political ladies still serving as deputy leaders or in ‘nurturing’ cabinet portfolios. Then, as if on cue, my attention switches to an interviewee talking about ‘multicultural writers’ on the ABC Radio National program ‘Book and Arts’, who declares it a travesty that multicultural writers are labeled thus. And I make a note to self about my role in taking the consciousness of our unconscious biases far enough so that the next doctor’s room I find facing a cultural diagnosis, will not be without self-assessment.
Sukhmani’s work is the first in a series of collaborations between Peril and the Asian Australian Democracy Caucus (AADC). To find out more about this collaboration read here. The AADC is a non-partisan organisation and this article is not an endorsement of any party or policy in the NSW State election.