February 12, 2017

Mai Chen: Super diverse women are the future

Published in the NZ Herald

This week sees the launch of a new organisation dedicated to championing the rights and achievements of women from indigenous and migrant backgrounds. Super Diverse Women has more than 100 foundation members, many of them leaders in their chosen fields. Today, inaugural chairwoman Mai Chen explains why the initiative should matter to all New Zealanders.

My son said to me as we came out of the movie Hidden Figures (about discrimination against female African American mathematicians who helped Nasa’s space programme to reach the moon), “But it’s not like that now Mum”.

I replied that the journey is still harder for diverse women, even if the discrimination is mostly more subconscious than conscious in 2017.

A first-ever survey of super-diverse women’s views (half living in Auckland and half in the rest of NZ) independently conducted by Pauline Colmar, one of the founders of Colmar Brunton, has found that Maori, Pasifika and Asian women feel empowered by their culture and gender.

Many respondents said there were advantages and opportunities in being super-diverse women in New Zealand in 2017, however the workplace, in particular, still poses gender and ethnic equality issues.

Maori, Pasifika and Asian women respondents are looking for more role models like them, particularly in governance and management roles; less subconscious and conscious bias; and an understanding that being different visually and in culture and accent can make them a target of discrimination.

The survey was commissioned by Super Diverse Women, a new organisation that will celebrate the achievements of these women and recognise their experiences and the contribution they are making to New Zealand.

Wednesday’s launch of the organisation is accompanied by the release of a series of video interviews with foundation members recording their stories, thereby making visible their typically invisible experiences and achievements. Their stories have not been told, but they should be.

In Auckland, Maori, Pasifika and Asian women now comprise one in every four people, and an even larger proportion of younger women.

Research in the Diversity Matrix: Updating what diversity means for discrimination law in the 21st Century (which will also be launched this week) confirms that it is typically harder for visually different women in every sphere of life, whether they are Maori women indigenous to this country or new migrants.

The Human Rights Commission’s statistics over the past five years also show that discrimination complaints are increasingly based on more than one ground of discrimination – from 9.19 per cent of complaints in 2011/12 to 15.4 per cent in 2015/16. The majority of these complaints concern race and sex, followed by disability and age, sex and age (older women), and race and disability.

The videos filmed by Super Diverse Women also confirm that their members’ journeys are typically complicated by having to navigate the double disadvantage of gender discrimination and race discrimination. Ethnicity can impact these women’s experience more greatly than gender, especially if they look different.

Common themes in the videos include constantly being underestimated and experiencing conscious and subconscious bias. These women often feel alone, particularly at the top levels of business or government. They have to carve their own path because conventional paths are often not a successful fit.

Yet the more difficult journey posed by race and gender has sometimes been the fuel for success. This has been the case for Anchali Anandanayagam, whose experience affected her decision to become a lawyer, so she could help others who encounter discrimination and prejudice, and suffer injustice.

Other super-diverse women have turned to entrepreneurship because, as outsiders, they can see what others have not in terms of new products or service. They often bring innovation because they have to be creative to succeed.

Some super-diverse women are already leading New Zealand at the highest levels, like the Deputy Prime Minister, the Hon Paula Bennett, and the Prime Minister’s wife, Dr Mary English, and daughters. Yet super-diverse women generally remain chronically under-represented in the leadership of company boards, and local and central government.