In a Sydney pub with her colleagues, Cathy Ngo thought it would be a normal Friday night out for after-work drinks.
Instead, to her shock, she was approached by a male colleague at the company, who picked her up and swung her over his shoulder.
Ms Ngo said her now former co-worker shouted to the pub, “I love Asian women!”
He later told Ms Ngo that his words were “just a compliment”, but Ms Ngo was rattled.
“He was a very tall, six-foot white guy. And I was 22 years old. I’m quite petite as well, [only] five-foot tall,” she said.
“I was treated like a child or something like that.”
Now the CEO of a public speaking agency, Ms Ngo said this was just one work-related incident where she was discriminated against or harassed because of her identity as an Asian woman.
She’s now calling for workplaces to be more safe and respectful for women of colour, and she’s not alone.
Discrimination at work
A national survey about the experiences of Australian women of colour in workplaces shows the majority don’t feel safe at work.
The report, conducted by advocacy group Women of Colour Australia in partnership with Murdoch University, surveyed 543 women of colour, with 7 per cent of them identifying as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
It found that almost 60 per cent of respondents experienced discrimination relating to their identity, such as their sex, ethnicity, age or religion.
Brenda Gaddi, founder and managing director of Women of Colour Australia, said the findings were unsurprising, and incidents often go underreported.
“Even if we’re saying 60 per cent, it might be like 70 per cent or 80 per cent in reality,” Ms Gaddi said.
Only one-third of respondents felt their identity as a woman of colour was recognised and valued at work.
The report echoes findings from the Australia Talks National Survey 2021, which found that almost half of respondents (49 per cent) experienced minor slights or subtle forms of discrimination, while 35 per cent said they were unfairly treated in the workplace.
The Australia Talks survey also revealed that 51 per cent of women experienced discrimination based on their sex, compared to 19 per cent of men.
‘Constantly having to prove yourself to others’
According to the Women of Colour Australia report, almost 70 per cent of respondents said there were no people with diverse backgrounds holding senior positions at their organisations.
Some respondents also noted they had to prove that they fit into the team “again and again” — an experience Dr Yumiko Kadota knows all too well.
Dr Kadota, a surgeon and the author of Emotional Female, recalled once meeting a patient who asked for a Caucasian doctor to treat them instead.
“When she saw me, she said, ‘Oh, I’ll have an Aussie, thanks’,” Dr Kadota said.
“It’s very frustrating, because you know that it has nothing to do with your skills.
“So you’re always constantly having to prove yourself to others, and that gets tiring.”
But some women feel they aren’t even getting the opportunity to prove their worth.
Caroline*, a Chinese-Australian woman, works in construction, an industry dominated by men.
She wished to remain anonymous as she feared speaking publicly would impact her future job prospects.
Caroline said she was the only woman in her team of 10 people, and that she was the only one who was not allowed to access the company car to drive out to construction sites.
She said her senior colleague also refused to print business cards for her and another Asian colleague, and told her: “You stay in the office all the time anyway.”
“Unlike discrimination that happened on the streets, these discriminations at the office were usually subtle,” Caroline said.
“And that’s the scariest part of it.”
Why it’s difficult to speak up
Ms Gaddi said according to the report, many felt like they couldn’t make a complaint about discrimination.
“A lot of women, especially women of colour, they don’t feel safe because of the potential repercussions,” she said.
“[The complaint] might affect their job prospects, then their economic standing.”
Even for those who make a successful complaint, cultural barriers persist.
Janelle Da Silva, an Asian-Australian artist based in Melbourne, took a racial discrimination complaint to the Fair Work Commission.
She reached a settlement, but said there were cultural barriers that prevented women like her from speaking up about their experience.
“It’s a part of our culture, you know, to be respectful and almost even know our place in society to a degree,” she said.
“We are expected to always act grateful as if we’ve been given an opportunity by being heard or seen all the time.
“I think that that is an illusion and I feel like that is paternalism.”
Apart from cultural barriers, not knowing how to report discrimination at work was also a reason some women of colour did not make complaints, according to Lina Cabaero, coordinator for Asian Women at Work.
She said many migrant women working in hospitality, on farms and in beauty salons might not hear about unions or organisations where they could seek help.
She said another factor was that many women with migrant backgrounds weren’t fluent in English.
“So most of the time, they don’t get the right pay, they don’t get the entitlements,” Ms Cabaero said.
“But they continue working because what they get here is much better than what they will get in their country.”
Creating a safer workplace
The Women of Colour Australia report found that over half of respondents said their organisations had inclusive policies.
But 30 per cent of them thought those policies were “unsuitable”, meaning they were “out of date”, “not as diverse”, or “not implemented”.
Meanwhile, 48.4 per cent of respondents said their organisations offer diversity training, with two-fifths of them finding the training useful.
The report also found many respondents wanted mentoring programs for women of colour.
Ms Gaddi said that showed they hoped to build a sense of belonging at their workplaces.
“It’s about reclaiming their identity and … that sense of belonging,” she said.
“[Then] they can they feel they are seen, they are heard.”
She said creating a safe workplace for women of colour requires stakeholders to understand diversity and commit to action.
“Talk is cheap, and it’s not going to be overnight,” she said.