While the topic of the gender pay gap is, for so many of us, an important issue there are other factors that affect a woman’s place in the workforce.
Women of diversity face more hurdles than simply their gender – they contend with barriers such as the colour of their skin, a disability or their age.
But there are two women who are striving for progress in the workplace and community despite their diversity.
Dr Dharmica Mistry is a microbiologist and chief scientist at BCAL Diagnostics. The Sydneysider is working on a blood test that could help detect breast cancer.
While of Indian descent, Dharmica was born in England and raised in Australia by parents of equally rich diversity.
Being a woman of diversity
Dharmica’s diversity has been with her since birth, coming from a mixed family spread across the globe.
“Where you grow up impacts who
you are,” she said.
“My mum was born in India, raised in England. My father was born in Africa to Indian parents then moved to England. My extended family is spread all over the world, though we’re all Indian. We’re a confused bunch, in a good way.”
When growing up, Dharmica found it challenging to work out who she was, where she belonged and how she fit in.
“When I go to England I’m a foreigner. In India, I’m a foreigner. When I’m at home in Australia, people see me as something different. You can feel as though you don’t belong anywhere,” she said.
Although it has taken time, Dharmica is embracing her differences and appreciating that her heritage, ethnicity and community all add to the woman she is today.
Kate, on the other hand, acquired her disability when she was diagnosed with a genetic neurological disease (Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia), and in turn, her element of diversity.
She went from being an able-bodied actor with a 20-year strong career, to a wheelchair user who has only attracted one audition in the past decade.
“The experience of working with disabled and non-disabled performers has shown me that everyone has some experience of disability – in their family, working life, or just around them generally – but it is not widely acknowledged that one in five people live with a disability of one form or another. That’s 20 per cent of the world’s population!”
When Kate became a wheelchair user 10 years ago, she had to begin a new career, as an actor with a disability.
“I am now, for the first time, making theatre as a person who has a neurological condition. It has been confounding, exhausting and exhilarating,” she said.
Representation of women of diversity
Both Dharmica and Kate said they not only lack female role models in the workplace, they lack female role models who look like them.
“I was confused about a career in science because there aren’t enough role models,” Dharmica said.
“I didn’t know what it means to be a scientist and what a woman in science might look like. A scientist is Dr Karl and other guys like that. What about other sciences? What about the women who work in these fields?”
At 31, Dharmica also finds that her age, as a young woman excelling in her field, is a hurdle she must now cross.
“Being a young woman really does make it difficult to progress in your career,” she said.
“People expect you to have years of experience under your belt before you can even start something. They’re not even willing to give you the chance. I’ll be the first to admit that I still have a lot to learn but I’m willing to take risks, fail, and try again. At least give me the opportunity to learn.”
Kate has always found that there are less roles and opportunities for women working in the arts. But as a disabled woman, it went from few to zero.
“It is common knowledge among women working in all aspects of the (arts) industry that the road is harder for us. We are not given as many leadership roles, we don’t get paid as much as men and our opinions are not considered with the same gravitas as those of men,” she said.
Kate is now discriminated against on two fronts: as a female and as a person with a disability.
“As an able-bodied woman, I was never considered for the same number of roles as men but at least I was actually sent for auditions. As a disabled female actor, my experience is that I have been absolutely invisible since the day I began using a wheelchair,” she said.
“We are hardly represented at all, and on the rare occasions that a disabled character is represented, generally an able-bodied actor will play the role. We are rarely given the opportunity even to play ourselves.”
Progress for women of diversity
Dharmica said awareness is key to achieving progress.
“People need to be aware in order to break down the barriers,” she said.
She also believes workplaces need to create environments where it’s safe for women to stand up for themselves.
But for some women who come from ethnically diverse backgrounds, their cultural influence could be prohibiting them from progressing.
“I guess you could call it cultural conservatism,” she said.
“My parents didn’t get a tertiary education. They came to Australia, they got good jobs, and they work hard at them. You’re encouraged to not rock the boat, be grateful for what you have and if you work hard, you’ll be rewarded. Whereas, what I’ve learnt from my mentors, many of them men, is to stand up and speak up… to get what you want.”
Dharmica encourages women to keep pressing forward.
“Don’t be afraid and keep trying. It’s simple, I know, but I feel encouragement is so important when following your dreams. I want young women and girls to see where science can lead them,” she said.
For Kate, progress is about getting clear on what diversity means, and including disability in the diversity discussion.
In her position as Deputy Chair of the Diversity Committee at Actors Equity in Australia, Kate said it has become clear to her that when people think about diversity, they almost never include disability.
“I’ve begun to separate the two words. Now I talk about disability and diversity. I have also formed a sub-committee of the Diversity Committee for Performers with Disability,” she said.
“Disability will be addressed when those in power within the industry see the sense in telling some new stories, and when they see that genuine disability can actually make the work better, as it did in Malthouse’s production of The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man in 2017, which I was proud to work on.
“When disabled women are seen in leadership roles, we will be valued as professionals who can influence society.”