It’s only recently that Michelle Lim has started introducing herself by her birth name: Min-Shi.
“I used to never do that,” she said.
It was an epiphany that came to her through her work on organizational culture, ethics, diversity and inclusion at the Reserve Bank of Australia.
“[It’s] kind of a ‘cultural tax’ that people from diverse cultural backgrounds have to take on,” she said.
“We feel like we’re being an inconvenience … like even just having to re-say our name, because it’s just not part of the normal vernacular, or it’s not viewed as a ‘normal’ Western name, people just aren’t used to it.”
Ms Lim, one of the finalists in the 40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian-Australian Awards, is the daughter of a Thai-Vietnamese mother and Chinese-Malaysian father.
She said people of diverse cultural backgrounds often feel the pressure to behave like a “model minority” in the workplace.
However, there have been times where bias or racism in the workplace was more explicit.
After a racist incident came to light at a former workplace, Ms Lim voiced her concerns, but said those were met with silence or lip service, so she decided to leave.
“I just couldn’t stay at an organization that didn’t align to my values and principles,” she said.
This alignment of personal and workplace values is becoming increasingly important for young employees.
The pandemic has shifted the way many people perceive their work, with terms like the great resignation, burn out and work-life balance becoming common parlance.
“I think workplaces or organizations tend to fall into this thinking that, ‘Oh, no, we’re losing all these staff because they feel they’re not fairly remunerated,” Ms Lim said.
That might be a factor, she said, but it was not the whole story, and there was no one-size-fits-all solution.
“A lot of it comes back to organizational culture again, and it’s that sense of belonging and having psychological safety at work. I think that’s fundamental to keeping staff and ensuring that people feel empowered and can thrive at work.”
That includes having an environment where you feel you belong, having the opportunity to learn and grow, to challenge things, make mistakes, and feel a part of something bigger.
“Work isn’t just a means to an end anymore … we want to be part of something and we want to feel like it’s meaningful.”
Fighting for climate justice
Finding work that aligned with his values was key for Matthew Floro.
The Parramatta man is the son of Filipino parents who came to Australia seeking a better life.
Mr Floro worked at commercial law firms and in the government and non-profit sectors before becoming a special counsel at the Environmental Defenders Office, where he specialises in climate change litigation.
“I was always wanting to do something that was a bit more aligned to my values, which are working in the public interest and fighting for justice, fairness and equity,” he said.
“The work that a lot of people do now is based on self-actualisation — living your values.”
Mr Floro — who was also named the 2022 Mahla Pearlman Australian Young Environmental Lawyer of the year — has worked on major environmental cases, including representing the Gloucester community, which wa fighting against an open-cut coal mine proposal.
“It was the first time in Australia, in perhaps the world, that a coal mine proposal had been rejected, partly on the basis of climate change grounds,” he said.
“In terms of cultural diversity, environmental law has traditionally … favored Western individualist conceptions of governance. But there is a need to consider different ways of thinking about the environment, particularly drawing on First Nations’ heritage and thinking.”
He also helped farmers protect pristine agricultural land near Mudgee and represented bushfire survivors, forcing the NSW Environmental Protection Authority to develop climate policies.
Apart from finding meaning in working for environmental justice, Mr Floro said flexible work was important and becoming more of a priority for young lawyers.
He said there was often an expectation at big accounting, finance and law firms that workers will arrive around breakfast and leave after dinner.
Some employers try to tap into workplace wellness and offer benefits — for example, free dinners in the office or discounted gym memberships — but that doesn’t always address underlying concerns.
“That sort of wellness washing doesn’t amount to anything if the workers themselves don’t have enough time to take up the free yoga class or the discounted gym membership,” Mr Floro said.
“I think that lawyers and graduates are increasingly viewing those perks with some scepticism.
“Flexible work is really crucial to achieving a better work-life balance.”
Diverse environment contributes to success
Rona Chandrawati has always been a curious person who likes to solve problems.
These traits have led her to make a breakthrough in her research after developing a technology to help with one of the world’s biggest concerns: food waste.
“We develop material, that is a polymer, that can change color in response to the food spoilage and then attach this sensor into food packaging,” she said.
“Our goal is to provide a real-time monitoring of the food quality and, therefore, we hopefully waste less food.”
Associate Professor Chandrawati — who won the science and medicine category — moved to Australia in 2004 to study and now lives in inner-west Sydney.
She said a diverse environment was important as it contributed to her success.
“My environment has always been in a university, where people come from everywhere,” she said.
“It has been an environment where we support each other and understand that people have different perspectives from a different culture.”
Crediting her achievements to her team’s hard work and the support of her workplace leaders, she hopes to pass on her knowledge to younger scientists.
“Hopefully, I’ll inspire the next generation, be it Asians or not, to also look together to achieve the best that we can for Australia and the world,” she said.
‘Where do I want to be and how do I get there?’
Mahjabeen Zaman — the head of foreign exchange research at ANZ Bank — made the move to Australia six years ago.
As the winner of the corporate category, she said “paying it forward” by mentoring other young women was vital to her.
She said it was not just about sharing her own experiences and obstacles, but also that she benefits from it.
“I’m from a different generation than the current 20-year-olds, for example, who are now stepping into the workforce,” she said.
“For me to understand their mindset is so important, because these are the people we’re going to be hiring. These are the future leaders in finance.”
Ms Zaman — who has Pakistani heritage and was raised in Singapore — has been active in advocating for cultural and gender diversity in leadership positions in the banking and finance sectors.
“The idea is to increase that number [of women on boards] by connecting women, coaching women, celebrating successes and bringing them together within the cultural space,” she said.
While she said she had been fortunate in her career, she had spoken to others breaking through the glass and bamboo ceilings who have experienced unconscious bias in the workplace.
Her advice to young women of color is to be ambitious.
“We need to be agile,” she said.
“I think lifelong learning is important. Constantly improve and develop yourself.
“Something that I personally did when I was dealing with change was really just take a step back. Think: ‘Where am I now? Where do I want to be and how do I get there?’
“It does not happen overnight.
“[It’s about] really getting comfortable with the uncomfortable, putting your hand up … not being shy, not holding back.”
The ABC is a media partner of the Asian-Australian Leadership Summit’s 2022 40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian-Australians Awards. The winners of the awards were announced on Tuesday, October 4.