Changing Perspectives - Start a conversation to overcome the hurdle of unconscious bias

Sneha Nair
By Sneha Nair | 11 July 2023
Sneha Nair.

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.

I am Sneha Nair, a media and branding professional with 15 years of experience. I’m a travel enthusiast who has been to four continents and worked in three, a giver of belly rubs to every dog or cat that lets me, a recent import to Sydney and a proud Indian.

Deep-rooted unconscious bias
Like most other migrants, I moved to another country looking for better opportunities and improvement in overall quality of life. But before I share my experience in Sydney, I welcome you to climb aboard my time machine. Let us go back to a distinct memory of mine: 16 August 2007, Orientation Day, UIUC MBA.

A fellow classmate, let us call her Margo, came up to me and well-meaningly (I want to believe) said, “Your English is really good.”

Jokingly, I said, “Well the flight from Mumbai to Chicago is over 18 hours long. My inflight exertainment was a superb CD that gives you a crash course on how to speak English like it’s your first language.”

We both laughed about it, and then I completely forgot about the incident. That was until the graduation party, two years later, where Margo and I happily reminisced about the two years that flew by. Then Margo got super serious and asked me, “Hey, were you pulling my leg when you told me about your flight to Chicago?”

Shocked is too mild a word to describe how I felt. For two years, during our many projects, study groups, Mug-Club sessions and socials together, she had believed my joke to be true.

Over a decade later, this incident has never left me. In that moment I realised how deep rooted the unconscious bias of westerners is towards people from non-English origin countries. If Margo had taken even a little effort, she would have easily known that thanks to colonisation, all prestigious schools in India have English as their medium of departing knowledge. That, despite being a Malayali Indian, English is my first language. It is as I say, the language ‘I think in’.

Let us get back into my time machine and travel to Sydney, February 2023. After taking some time off to settle in, I started applying for jobs that matched my skills and qualifications. I was instantly rejected (sometimes within 20 minutes of applying) or just received radio silence. I was advised to call recruiters so that they could hear that I speak fluent English. I thought that preposterous, but I started cold calling recruitment agencies anyway.

Easy fix: pick up the phone
That was a moment of revelation for me. Even in 2023, I was being judged based on my nationality, not my actual credentials and skills.

It didn’t matter that I had a double masters, well over a decade of experience in media and branding across multiple countries, or that the majority of my experience was at two of the most prestigious agencies in the world and that I had been a Vice-President and Business Director for the last four years of my career.

Instead, hiring managers were concerned about my English language proficiency. But this is an easy fix – pick up the phone and have a quick conversation. However, it was easier to keep aside my resume and not give it a second glance. The recruiters I did manage to speak with, quickly changed their attitudes towards my profile and took on my case.

I believe a deep-rooted affinity bias, coupled with the horn effect, are leading to an under-representation of people from culturally diverse backgrounds working in our industry. Australia is a proudly multi-cultural country and in an industry such as ours – built on people, human behaviour and understanding human emotion – we need the input and experience of people from different backgrounds. It makes the work better and it makes the workplace better for us all.

Being part of positive change
This story has a happy ending. Since starting at my role as Diverse Director at OMG, I have met some amazing people. People who are open, welcoming, and respectful. I am lucky to be in a company and at a role that is focused on understanding and celebrating diversity in Australia. I am happy to be a part of the positive change.

My experience during my job search and after landing the job are so vastly different. I believe, the hurdle is really that first conversation, first meeting or first break.

I want to leave you with the moral of my story, as they say.

  • For those who find themselves at the receiving end of unconscious (and conscious) bias: Believe in yourself and wave your brand flag high. Build a door with a gong if opportunity doesn’t come knocking.
  • For those who want to be the drivers of change: Enculturation is the key to turn this around. Travel more, read more, ask more questions, talk to the person at the next table that sounds or looks different than you – who knows, we might learn that we are all different but actually the same.

Sneha Nair is Diverse Director, NSW Government at OMG

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