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Roots: South Asian representation in the Australian media & business

In conversation with Shamila Gopalan, one of 'Asia's Top 50 Women Leaders'


Shamila Gopalan, one of Asia's top women leaders, pushes for more representation of women, specially from culturally diverse backgrounds, in the world of media and business. Currently the CEO of Australia based leadership firm, HerWit, she hails from Malaysia and has worked in countries like Singapore, USA and India.

In the second episode of Roots with South Asian Today, Dilpreet Kaur speaks with Shamila Gopalan on what representation looks like for South Asian women in Australia day and how we can move the needle even further.

Transcript:

Dilpreet Kaur Taggar (Host)

You're listening to roots with South Asian today. This podcast is being recorded in Australia on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to the Elders past, present and emerging. Sovereignty was never ceded.

Welcome to the second episode of roots with South Asian today. My name is Dilpreet Kaur and I'm very excited to be speaking with Shamila Gopalan, one of Asia's top 50 women leaders and the founder of HerWit, a profit for business female focused leadership firm.

Welcome to Roots, Shamila, thank you so much for joining me.

Shamila Gopalan (Guest)

Thank you for having me, Dilpreet! It's an honour to be on this podcast with you.

Dilpreet Kaur Taggar (Host) 

Thank you very much. To begin with Shamila, I am curious to know what exactly is HerWit and why did you start it?

Shamila Gopalan (Guest)

Herwit, it is a profit for purpose venture that I started in July 2019, where I work with ambitious female founders and entrepreneurs to literally pivot scale grow their startup or small business while I help them amplify their voices and position them as inspiring leaders to ignite conversations that will create a positive change, especially for young girls and women around the world. My whole mission around her which stems from wanting to create more female leaders and role models, especially in the diverse cultural background and community. And this comes from my own experiences growing up as well.

Dilpreet Kaur Taggar (Host) 

Right. I can see on the website that HerWit, it means here's what I think. 

Shamila Gopalan (Guest)

Yes, yes, it does.  

Dilpreet Kaur Taggar (Host) 

Did you come up with it? Is there a story behind that?

Shamila Gopalan (Guest)

Yes, so when when I first started brainstorming and putting the business together I had a bunch of different names for for the venture. And this actually was quite an interesting one because when I first started HerWit, it was going to be very much around thought leadership content.   However, with COVID I think one of the things that me as as a startup and a small business had to do was I had to pivot that aspect of the business.

However, it still resonates and still flows back to the core of here's what I think it does position women and I do help women founders, entrepreneurs, solo entrepreneurs, to actually scale their business, grow their business, pivot their business, whatever they want to do in wanting to become a successful entrepreneur. But at the same time, I've put their voices out there, their messages out there, what they think, what the what the experiences have been, what their challenges have been, because I think many times we as well. Women don't really get asked that question. I felt that, you know, whoa, it was really great because it's her and wit, you know, it's like it was apt for what I wanted to do with my mission as well. 

Dilpreet Kaur Taggar (Host)

I love that. So before we started recording, I was talking to Shamila and she told me, she's lived in Malaysia and Singapore and America, even in India. So now that you're living in Australia, I am curious to learn from your perspective. Where do you think the representation for South Asian women stand in this country?

Shamila Gopalan (Guest)

I have to say, I mean, obviously, if you're comparing it with the countries that I've lived in, I would definitely look at the representation for particularly in Australia, really, really small, or even non existent.   To be honest, I mean, I don't know if you're aware there was a report done in Australia, Australia wide in 2018 on the representation of just the Leadership right across governments universities. And that report actually stated that 95% of senior leaders were Anglo Celtic or European background with only 5% of non EU accounting for that leadership group.   And we are going to start looking at breaking it down to South Asian, and specifically women. I think it is going to be like I said meniscal or possibly even non existent. We definitely have a long, long way to go. And there are several barriers that need to be broken down.

But I'll be very honest, from the time I've been here, I think we can start seeing I wouldn't say the barriers specifically for South Asian women, but I think specifically for culturally diverse people and you know, that would include women that would include non white cultural communities as well, that representation that voice starting to come through. I know I think we just need to continue to I hate to use this this sentence but fight the good fight, I guess.   Yes, you know, and I think we need to do it as a community and as a collective in order for it to actually come through to see the results of more representation of culturally diverse people, and specifically women and even more specifically South Asian women.

Dilpreet Kaur Taggar (Host)

Yes, I see the same kind of pattern in journalism as well. When I was doing my Master's in journalism from the University of Melbourne, I saw heaps of people of colour around me, studying media subjects, podcasts, videos, publishing, writing, but when I entered the newsrooms in Melbourne for internship purposes, I hardly ever saw any people of colour around me hardly ever saw a South Asian journalist and it made me think, yeah, it's not That people of colour are not studying journalism, but people of colour and not able to pierce through these newsrooms. They don't appear on our TV screens. And Australia, newsrooms are still very, very wide, even though there's this idea of a multi cultural Australia, but I never see it in the media.

Shamila Gopalan (Guest)

That's exactly right. And I think I don't know if you heard the new report that came out by the media diversity of Australia. Yes. And it actually proves your exact point, you know, which stat which literally shows 75% of commentators, reporters, presenters are Anglo Celtic and only 6%, either non European, or, you know, First Nations background. I mean, this is shocking.   And just like you when I first got here three years ago, that was one of the first things I noticed, and maybe it's because we come from a media background and kind of maybe stands out a lot more. So when I was watching television, I'm like, Why are there no representation of what truly Australia does have in terms of the diaspora, right? Where are the multiculturalism? Where were the Asians? Where the South Asians, where where are the indigenous people? So, I'm you know, I was that was, yeah, that was definitely one of the very first questions that I asked as well. And I mean, let's not even go further than the news and the commentating because if you look at even the lifestyle shows, or the, you know, just the entertainment shows, you'll always see the same host. Play you have 25 million people and you have the same guy or girl in every show. This is just shocking, right?  

Dilpreet Kaur Taggar (Host)

Surely, you can find more people!

Shamila Gopalan (Guest)

Exactly, right. I mean, it's ridiculous, but yeah, that's where you're at for now. Yeah.

Dilpreet Kaur Taggar (Host)

So what can we do as a country to solidify more Brown women in business or journalism or in other professions in general?

Shamila Gopalan (Guest)

Well, I think the first thing that we need to really start discussing when it comes to equality is not just from a gender perspective, but do explore this on a deeper level that also goes into culture and race, right. So while there are some similarities in the obstacles for greater gender and cultural diversity, the issues are not identical. There is a much more complex situation when it comes to cultural diversity and inclusion. Right. It's a lot more onions that you need to peel. I think there needs to be given a dedicated time and energy to cultural diversity in its own right.   When I first you know, came to Australia, one of the things that I was definitely exploring I had to go out and network and meet people, I meant for a lot of events, you know, I started catching up with people. And every time I went for an event, I would say 9.5 times out of 10, the discussions around diversity was always around gender. And the reason for that, if if we really look at it, and it's quite an obvious reason, I think it's been discussed multiple times, is because when you look at Anglo Celtic women or European women, that is the challenge that we have, and by all right, it is an absolute challenge. It is an absolute glass ceiling that is there.

However, when you dig deeper, and you look at the different cultures that that add on to that discussion, we're not Anglo or European, we have much more, you know, layer discussions that need to happen, right. So from not just a gender but from a culture from a race from The biases that exist within those categories as well, which need to be addressed which need to be discussed, which need to be overcome. So I think that is a very, very important point. If we ever want to move the needle, the second huge area is definitely hiring practices. So then first point kind of trails into how organisations hire, there needs to be more accountability.   Having accountability basically means ensuring that they treat diversity and inclusion as a priority and not just a checkbox. Next, to be honest, for people who come from a culturally diverse background for South Asian women like me and you, whether we're, you know, a migrant, whether you are second generation, you know, whatever aspect in in society you're, you're at, the challenges of moving through those ranks and even getting to leadership positions, sitting on boards. Being in a ASX 200, governmental or even universities, right, which is quite shocking seeing that we contribute mean in India itself contributes to such a huge deal GDP towards the country, as well as to the education sector that we do not have more South Asian, let alone South Asian women in leadership positions in those organisations.   So I think there needs to be accountability, whether be in performance, whether it be in benchmarking, you know, there has to be something that's put in place in order to force as well as push people in that direction.

Dilpreet Kaur Taggar (Host)

You know, when you say hiring practices, I'm taken back to some incidents when I was applying for a job here. Now when you feel the difference, and when you feel different in a country, those kind of biases you internalise them somehow. So when I used to apply for jobs, and they used to ask me what's your you know, do you speak Any other language at home? And I'd be like, yeah, Hindi and Punjabi. And there would be a certain moment, I was like, are they gonna judge me on that? Are they gonna be like, Oh, another Punjabi, so many Punjabi is in Australia. So it's always that thing that is constantly in your mind. And that you have to remind yourselves that, you know, I'm a proud Punjabi speaker. So I'm not going to hide that fact. But I'm also going to acknowledge what these biases are doing to me on a very subtle level, that sometimes I think twice!

Shamila Gopalan (Guest)

100% if you take the example of you, or even myself, like when I first got here, one of the things that I wanted, which I needed to do was build my professional network because I came with zero network in a country like Australia and mostly Melbourne. And we know that Australia and specifically Melbourne, it's really about your community and your connections. That is, you know, that's going to open doors. For you, so I really had to establish that foundation. And one of the things that I decided to do and I first got here was actually go out and see if I could get a job. I had gone for a few interviews and the pushback for me, when I first started going was, Oh, you do not have Australian experience, which threw me off because that was quite a shocking, I guess, a rhetoric that kept coming back and I couldn't really put my finger on it. I was like, what really is it? And you know, after being here for a while I realised it, you know, that could possibly be the mindset that a lot of recruiters and employers have or you do not have that Australian Australian experience and you're so set in that in that old school mindset. And they do not seem to understand transferable skills as an asset.  

Definitely, I would say there was some biases that were involved, for sure from a cultural perspective as well. And I'm a pretty global citizen. Even for me, it was quite a challenge. I can definitely empathise for new migrants that come through and the challenges that they have to go through. Definitely, I think the hiring practices is a is a big factor that needs to overhaul itself completely.

Dilpreet Kaur Taggar (Host)

On that note Shamila, as someone who is counted among Asia's top 50 women leaders, which is absolutely fantastic. What piece of advice would you give to young South Asian women who are starting their careers or starting their own businesses?

Shamila Gopalan (Guest)

Well, I mean, the first and foremost thing I would definitely say is you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Because you know, when you're embarking on anything new in your life, it's not going to be an easy road. You know, whether you graduate and you know, you're trying to get into your first job, or you're moving from a corporate position into wanting to be a business person. It is going to be a bumpy road, you're going into unknown territory.   But if you prime your mind to be ready for it and flow with it, then you start enjoying it. I used to be very impatient, and I wanted things to move really quickly. And, and it was really hard for me when those, you know, when what I wanted or what my expectations were did not hit the timelines I was looking at, I would simply say, you know, take a step back and just enjoy and go with it. And when you do this, you will actually learn a lot from that experience. But I would say the most important thing above all of this, as a multicultural person, as a South Asian as a woman, you have to be confident to always be proud of who you are. And this comes from the lessons I learned when I was younger trying to fit in because you feel that's what people want. And you tend to do that in societies where the majority is not around reflection of yourself. That's the number one thing and always speak your truth and do not be afraid to be yourself.

Dilpreet Kaur Taggar (Host)

Yes, very important. Do not be afraid to be yourself. Well, before we wrap this up Shamila, one question that I asked all my guests is, if you had to describe representation in a single sentence, what would you say?

Shamila Gopalan (Guest) That's a good question. I would say a representation is familiarity. And I think it goes back to basically a good synopsis and conclusion of our, you know, discussion on this podcast, which is being able to see familiar faces, familiar challenges, familiar conversations, whether it be in the media, whether it be in government, and especially in our organisations and in the professional circle, because that is where you truly see the representation of yourself in those situations and I think bringing in the right people and creating that familiarity is what is going to push that needle in where we want to move.

Dilpreet Kaur Taggar (Host) 

Yeah, representation is familiarity. That's beautifully put. Shamila, thank you so much for joining me.

Shamila Gopalan (Guest) 

Well, thank you so much for having me. This is a lot of fun.

Dilpreet Kaur Taggar (Host)

To stay tuned with all our upcoming episodes, subscribe to our Spotify, Apple podcast, or give us a visit on www.southasiantoday.com.au

 

About the author

Dilpreet is the founder of South Asian Today. More about her can be found here.

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