Prabha Nandagopal

Prabha Nandagopal. Photo: Supplied

What it’s like being a human rights lawyer and founder as a woman of colour

"I've often found myself the only woman of colour in the room. For the longest time, I didn’t think much of it — until a few years ago when I started to question what that really meant," writes Prabha Nandagopal.

For the past two decades, I’ve had the privilege of working in the human rights sector in Australia. I’m a human rights lawyer, sole parent, founder, daughter of Indian migrants, and a proud Tamil woman of colour. From school years to the workplace, I’ve often found myself the only woman of colour in the room. For the longest time, I didn’t think much of it—until a few years ago when I started to question what that really meant.

Looking back, I’ve had a dream career in human rights. From working on the front lines protecting the rights of asylum seekers and refugees, campaigning for a Human Rights Act, pushing for counter-terrorism reform, intervening in high-profile High Court cases, leading a national inquiry into children in detention, to helping reform workplace culture in Commonwealth Parliament. It’s understandable that people might wonder what challenges I have faced succeeding as a woman of colour. Truthfully, for many years, I had the same question.

A few years back, I began to notice something: most senior executive and public-facing roles in the human rights sector were occupied by white men and women. Why are people of colour stuck in the engine room doing phenomenal work, yet not represented in the highest positions?. It certainly wasn’t due to a lack of talent or ambition. Some of the most brilliant, innovative, and fearless leaders I’ve known are women of colour. I then began to unpack the impact of systemic barriers such as hiring and recruitment bias and exclusion from informal networks that give rise to a cultural glass ceiling.

After 12 years working in a human rights organisation, it was time for a change. Frustrated with the lack of diverse leadership representation, I decided to start my own consulting practice to promote positive social change. I’m unbelievably proud of the diverse and multidisciplinary team I’ve established at Elevate Consulting Partners– it’s the first time in my career I’ve felt a true sense of belonging. 

As for the challenges I now face as a woman of colour – even as a Founder with extensive expertise, I can struggle to have my voice heard. While there are some positive strides, feminism in Australia still predominantly caters to the needs of cisgender white women. First Nations women, culturally and racially marginalised (CARM) women, LGBTQI+ women, and women with disabilities are all at a higher risk of sexual harassment. Almost daily, however, I see policy reform processes, research projects and expert panels without representatives from these groups. I’m tired of allies speaking about diversity yet not using their privilege and power to sponsor those with actual intersecting identities. 

The challenges of being a woman of colour in a predominantly white system haven’t deterred me—they’ve fuelled my drive. I actively call out lack of representation when I see it. My tenacity and integrity have led me to success. I never question if something can be achieved; instead, I figure out how it can be achieved and, crucially, execute! Integrity is vital—it’s what keeps us grounded and guides our actions. It’s the cornerstone of my professional and personal life, helping me navigate through challenging times.

I don’t fit the western leader prototype. I’m softly spoken, an introvert and being a sole parent I have minimal ability to extensively network. My leadership is rooted in empathy and collaboration, proving that aggression and dominance are not prerequisites for inspiring and guiding a team to success. 

To my fellow women of colour, LGBTQI+ individuals, First Nations women, and women with disabilities: don’t be afraid to speak up about your experiences, ideas and needs. Your accent, your culture, your abilities are your superpowers and should be amplified, not hidden away. Your voice matters, and your perspective is invaluable. We need you at the decision making table to bring about change that is both meaningful and sustainable. And to organisations and institutions: it’s time to listen, include, and act. 

Together, let’s redefine what it is to be a leader. Now, who is with me?

Prabha Nandagopal is a Human Rights Lawyer and Founder of Elevate Consulting Partners and SafesSpace@Elevate