Diverse women have a lot to bring to our health care system. There are changes we can make to better benefit from their experience.

As a migrant culturally and ethnically diverse woman doctor from a non-Anglo-Celtic background, I am aware of the strengths I bring to my clinical and academic role in Australia.

I bring knowledge and experience from the large clinical loads in my country of origin, a strong work ethic honed by competitive environments, and the unique compassion, empathy and patient-centred care that comes from working in a low-income country.

Professor Dipti Talaulikar. Photo: Lannon Harley/ANU

From my adopted country, I have gradually had the opportunity, time and headspace to reflect. I have learnt applied knowledge – connecting dots and seeing further and deeper – and most importantly, I have learnt to relax and focus on people and teams.

But like women in healthcare across the world, the challenges I have faced are enormous.

Diverse women in healthcare leadership

Women in the global healthcare workforce account for a large majority, about 70 per cent of frontline staff. However, they are significantly under-represented at higher levels; fewer than 30 per cent of leadership positions within healthcare are occupied by women. If we delve deeper within this sub-group, culturally and ethnically diverse women, especially from non-Anglo-Celtic backgrounds, women like me, are virtually missing.

From an equity perspective, this then represents an important group to target in promotion, leadership development, support, and mentoring. As we in Australia recognise the barriers faced by women more broadly and move forward towards our goal of achieving gender equality, it is important we do not forget diverse women.

What are the benefits to us as a community though? Is it merely a matter of living by the principles we espouse, the morals we teach in our schools? Why go to the trouble of addressing the issues of those who sit low down hierarchically, and represent a minority, especially when we have not yet reached gender parity in leadership? Would it not make sense to focus on women in the mainstream first?

There is good data that having gender balanced workplaces results in improved outcomes. There is also data that diversity brings similar gains in healthcare outcomes, and even larger financial gains than gender equality for organisations, so it certainly makes good business sense to support diversity and intersectionality.

“Women need to have a voice, to be given a platform to tell their stories, and showcase their achievements.”

Culturally and linguistically diverse leaders in hospitals and our healthcare centres are more likely to implement inclusive policies for patients and for staff.

The international students we invite willingly into our universities and colleges look for how woke we are, and whether they see staff and leaders with who they can identify. The skilled migrants we want to attract to our shores look at our workplaces’ culture and our approach to anti-racism.

Difference is a daily challenge

The challenges for women like me are additional hurdles we must constantly overcome.

Some are obvious. I differ from the mainstream. I certainly look different. I think and communicate differently. I work, react and lead differently. The migration journey is not easy – I struggle to fit in, to hear and be heard, to understand and be understood, and to accept and be accepted.

A major challenge is that of overcoming gender biases that are much more pervasive where I grew up than in my adopted country. These are barriers that are not just external, they are so ingrained they become internalised.

Last but certainly not the least, I counter prejudice in my adopted country.

The intersectionality of added biases caused by my gender, my migrant status, being trained overseas in a developing country, and my ethnic and cultural differences can be demeaning and hurtful.

There are microaggressions, minor slights and slurs, digs at my culture and country of origin, at the way I look and the way I speak. I face heightened expectations and low rewards. My failures are celebrated more than my wins. There is more sympathy for the perpetrators than for me if I dare speak up as a victim.

Dealing with these requires tapping into resilience I didn’t know I possessed. But when I do, ably supported by family, mentors, and advisers, I emerge stronger. I gain wisdom and courage and even more empathy, now also for fellow colleagues and future generations of women like me.  

But there are steps we can take to improve the experiences of women from diverse backgrounds so we can all benefit from their knowledge and skills.

How can we build an ideal world?

There is much work to be done on both sides. The first step is to acknowledge the problem for there can be no change without it. Women need to have a voice, to be given a platform to tell their stories, and showcase their achievements. 

This is the aim of the Link and Grow initiative at the School of Medicine and Psychology at The Australian National University (ANU). It was launched on International Women’s Day in 2022 with an honest and heartfelt panel discussion on the barriers faced by diverse women in healthcare.

The initiative’s Diversity Blog provides a platform to celebrate the achievements and varied paths and experiences of diverse women. Through storytelling, we are highlighting a range of voices  often missing from mainstream health discourse. The podcast series to be released next week, further probes the barriers navigated by individual women.

There is a need to build robust networks, to create communities of support with allies and champions of change. The Link and Grow Mentoring Program is a national, virtual six-month program, co-designed with Franklin Women, and aims to grow the careers of diverse women in healthcare. The focus on diversity and inclusion training in the program will potentially start to bring about change – not just in the mentees, but hopefully also in mentors and in organisations.

Systematic organisational, political, and social change is required. We need to build policies that support anti-racism, allow for representative leadership, and celebrate the achievements of every person who contributes to Australia’s growth.

Australia is an incredibly multicultural nation – we have people from 170 countries residing here, speaking more than 300 languages. There is no fixed Australian mould created by white Australians, that culturally and ethnically diverse people must somehow fit into. The mould is shaped by every person who resides here – it changes every day. And we will all benefit from that change beyond being able to have an authentic Vietnamese coffee, a ramen at a night noodle joint, a biryani or a curry.

Our multiculturalism must mean more than that.

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