Brenda Gaddi on need for intersectional, female-led politics and founding Women of Colour Australia

Brenda Gaddi is the Founder and Managing Director of Women of Colour Australia

Can you tell us a little about your upbringing - and your experience as a first-generation migrant from Manila?

I grew up in a household where kids are treated like adults. We were free to speak our minds and were  empowered to have opinions. My father was a lawyer and he loved to engage in conversations that would challenge him and his viewpoints. Our dinner table discussions were lively to say the least. My mum was also very opinionated. She was very direct and I think I inherited that from her.

Being a first generation migrant was and is still very enlightening. I’ve had my fair share of racism. I still remember to this day when I got told by a white woman to “go back to where I came from”. I remember feeling the rage and sadness at the same time.

What led to the establishment of Women of Colour Australia?

Starting Women of Colour Australia is what got me out of my deep depression after suddenly losing my mother in March 2020. My mum Electa moved to Australia from the Philippines in the early 80’s off the back of the White Australia policy. She lived through the racially divisive “Australia’s in danger of being swamped by Asians” 90s rhetoric. A malignant rhetoric that has calcified into our national psyche of which the harmful effects are still being weaponised today.

Although she was a very proud woman, she faced more racism and discrimination than she cared to admit. She faced countless challenges while trying to navigate her way through the white spaces. At only 4 feet 9 inches tall, my mother always stood up for herself. She always told me “You have the right to exist in this world”. 

The thought of founding WoCA came from my most broken self when I was looking for an avenue to channel my grief and sadness and honour my late mother. I wanted her spirit to live on, “to exist in this world” and WoCA is the organisation I wished my mum had access to when she moved to Australia - a community of women who are racialised and minoritised.

What are the current objectives of Women of Colour Australia?

 Our purpose at Women of Colour Australia is to advocate, support and strengthen the lives and experiences of Women of Colour in all places and spaces within Australia. We want to create a world where girls and women of colour are afforded equitable opportunities to reach their full potential.

The organisation is about promoting racial justice, but we want to advance access and equity, and champion economic justice for women of colour. We conducted a survey earlier in the year to hone in on lived experiences of women of colour in the workplace in Australia, and what we found is that the majority are still experiencing discrimination, despite having Diversity and Inclusion programs in place. Their career progression is not as speedy as their Anglo peers, even though most are just as qualified or experienced or even more,  and that’s a huge problem for us. We want Corporate Australia to face this reality and look at why this is happening. It’s important to recognise the embedded racism and start taking action to dismantle it, together and in solidarity with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of this country.

Women of Colour Australia and Murdoch University have partnered to research how Women of Colour are experiencing their workplace in 2020. What were the key findings and what are some of the challenges Women of Colour continue to experience in the workplace?

What came out loud and clear in Women of Colour Australia’s Women of Colour in the Workplace  inaugural survey is that there is a clear disconnect between Australian organisations' good intent and elaborate D&I programmes, and the real lived experiences of minoritised and racialised groups in the workplace. The survey of more than 500 women of colour in Australia revealed that 60% of women of colour in Australia have experienced discrimination in the workplace related to their identity as a woman of colour, despite almost the same number (59%) of respondents saying their workplace has a D&I policy in place. And 18% of respondents were unsure whether their workplaces even had a D&I policy, which in itself is very telling. It means that despite the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion, clearly existing D&I programs are not working.

What was also very interesting is that the survey proved that discrimination and racism in the workplace towards women of colour are not impacted by industry, positions or salary. Many of the respondents were white-collar workers, with 70% working full-time and close to 30% earning between $100,000 - $149,990.

When gender and race intersect, it creates specific, unique challenges for women of colour. These are too often overlooked with broad platitudes that seek to advance women’s representation without questioning which women are most likely to benefit, and which ones are being held back. Women of colour face additional challenges and barriers in the workplace that stem from a history wrought with racial exclusion and segregation. They remain woefully under-represented across industries, especially in senior roles.

How can these outcomes be improved?

If D&I programmes are not helping women of colour break through the concrete ceiling, then it’s time to re-evaluate, pull apart the existing policies and approach D&I through a lens of intersectionality. 

If intersectionality isn’t central to D&I strategies, discrimination in the recruitment stage will still occur, wage inequality will still persist, professional development will not be distributed equitably, and companies will keep losing talented employees.

For D&I to have a higher success rate, they must first and foremost be led by the people who will be directly affected by D&I policies. First Nations women, refugee and migrant women, women of colour need a seat at the table, to develop and shape the strategy from the outset.

Organisations need to start by having open conversations, and getting CEOs, senior executives, and founders to acknowledge the unconscious bias and privilege that can make talent invisible to them. 

They should also create a safe mechanism for employees to report prejudice and discrimination and take action, as well as train bystanders on how to intervene when they witness discrimination and how to become active allies.

With the rise of ‘woke’ culture, Australian businesses must step up their game when it comes to improving D&I policies. A good starting point is to apply an intersectional lens at the core of their initiatives. Otherwise, they run the risk of well-intentioned changes to be short-lived, or worse still, detrimental.

How can we get more Women of Colour involved in politics? What is your advice for young women wanting a career in government?

Despite 71% of Australians saying they want a more diverse parliament, the stark reality is that all Australian governments continue to be over-represented by Anglo-Celtic/White European politicians.

The White Australia Policy mandated that all Australian governments and institutions racially exclude and wholly disadvantage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as well as migrants and refugees – broadly speaking ‘people of colour’. Unfortunately not much has changed in 2021.

According to Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi, Australia's first Muslim woman to be a member of an Australian parliament in 2013, our political system is steeped in patriarchy and racism that go hand-in-hand to oppress women of colour.

The need for intersectional, female-led politics is vital because of the multicultural nature of Australia’s population. Nearly half (49%) of Australians were either born overseas or one or both parents were born overseas, according to most recent Census data, yet our parliament isn’t representative of that. Unless people who are affected by political decisions have a seat at the table making these decisions, their perspectives and views aren’t taken into account.

The Australian government needs to address some of the structural issues of white elitism in politics that Faruqi mentioned will help open the doors for WOC. And young women of colour should be provided with the opportunity to forge their path to political success.