Changing Perspectives: On achieving leadership diversity

Rebecca Chan
By Rebecca Chan | 11 June 2024
Rebecca Chan.

The MFA DE&I Council would like to see an industry where everyone can thrive, feel heard, supported, and safe to do their best work. Let’s meet the Changers who are sharing their own lived experiences to inspire us all to change for the better.

Rebecca Chan is Marketing Lead Tim Tam at The Arnott’s Group.

 A hard worker, quiet overachiever, safe pair of hands, humble and resilient – traditional Asian values instilled in me, which not only gave me a sense of fulfilment but led to opportunities to step up.

That is, until I received feedback that although I was more experienced and performing at the next level up from my role, I wasn’t visible or vocal enough in talking about my achievements – necessary traits for a leader.

Honestly, I was a bit taken aback by this feedback. As someone who defaults to ‘we’ not ‘me’, I’ve always found it really uncomfortable to talk about myself or even accept compliments. From a young age, I was taught by my immigrant parents that if you work hard, success and recognition will follow. But that moment made me stop, reflect and want to find out more on the dichotomy of cultures I was experiencing...

‘Is it about finding your voice?’ I was recently asked. In short, no. Finding your voice can translate to a lack of confidence and it’s so much more nuanced and extrinsic than that. Beyond cultural differences, there’s expectations and unconscious biases that plague Asian women: ‘model’ minorities, hardworking, non-confrontational, subservient, seen and not heard.

Unfortunately, paired with a lack of relationship capital to lean on, these unconscious biases often culminate in a bamboo ceiling, where Asian women are significantly underrepresented within leadership positions.

The more I speak to others, the more I realise how universal and prevalent these experiences and assumptions are for Asian women. Recently, a colleague and I were asked if we were sisters at a professional event – she’s ethnically Vietnamese and we look nothing alike…

I’ve grown a lot since that initial experience and am lucky enough to be in a supportive, empowering environment that continues to shape and evolve my leadership style, while not changing who I am authentically to fit into a ‘desired leadership mould’.

It’s taken some practice to overcome some of these invisible barriers, but I first needed to reframe my mindset and take ownership of the type of leader I want to unapologetically be – including challenging the status quo and common misconceptions that precede me.

So, what can we do about it?
Start by acknowledging that unconscious bias exists in the first place. Awareness is the first step in working towards change.

In the words of Michelle Yeoh, a trailblazer in Asian female representation who fights (literally) both gender and cultural norms: “Learning to fall teaches you how to land and learning to land gives you the courage to jump even higher.”

Unless we take that initial leap, we’ll never change this perspective to allow us to jump higher as a collective. So, whether you resonate with my story, are a leader or just want to learn more, here are a few tips and takeaways:

  • Be an ally and advocate: Start openly discussing the biases, stereotypes and underrepresentation that exist. Go for a coffee with someone in your company (at any level), network or even get involved in mentoring like the Assisterhood program where you can actively listen and advocate.
  • Find your people: Asian women lack relationship capital – people to lean on, be challenged by or even discuss experiences with, both personally and professionally. Having a network, sponsors and people in your corner is undeniably valuable and can empower pathways to leadership roles.
  • Broaden your perspective with an open mindset: Perspective helps develop cultural sensitivity and empathy. Take the time to reflect on your current perspective and tap into existing resources, such as the MFA Changing Perspectives Series (you’re in the right place!) and Advertising Council Australia’s Create Space program, with useful information, tools and an action plan based off the Create Space Census.
  • Cultural sensitivity as a soft skill: As one of the most diverse nations in the world, we need to embrace, celebrate, and value cultural sensitivity just as much as we value other skills within leadership, such as managing stakeholders, commercial acumen, or resilience. Invest resources and advocate for DE&I and bias training within your teams and organisation. But more importantly, be brave enough to call out when something is not ok. Inaction and silence perpetuate stereotypes.
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