DIVERSITY Minority Managers Going through the racial roof?

Election year, Winston Peters, minority bashing – ’nuff said, really. The race card is hardy triennial that serves to highlight the tired old truth that Kiwis don’t seem to cope with cultural diversity as well as our geographic position, economic circumstances or demographic profile suggest we should.
Instead the country operates in an uncomfortable dichotomy that both champions and rebuffs cultural richness. On the one hand we need skilled migrants to offset our brain drain and to develop the workforce diversity that will make us more effective players in an increasingly globalised economy. On the other we clobber talented new migrants with ‘Kiwi experience’ barriers that see many stymied from even reaching first base on the job interview front.
There aren’t whole lot of women who’ve broken through both ‘glass ceiling’ and ‘racial roof’ to gain senior roles in local organisations, and each of the women spoken to for this article has their own unique take on the ‘Kiwi experience’. But what they do seem to share is sense of dynamism that’s like hit of fresh air in local management ranks.

Bring on the cultural colour
Karen Chong turns up to interview in bright red jacket. This isn’t unusual – the 35-year-old senior marketing manager with Telecom has vivid wardrobe full of reds or fuschia pinks and sometimes feels self-consciously colourful in the rather m onochromatic world of Kiwi corporate culture.
So – trivial point perhaps, but it somehow represents the advantages and challenges of cultural diversity in the workplace. Colour can be both the energising or the uncomfortable aspect of difference. Do you try and tone it down or embrace it?
Women from minority cultures working in Kiwi organisations often walk difficult balance between blending into the customs of their adopted country and retaining – or feeling free to express – their own cultural identity.
Malaysian-born Chong fits more comfortably into Kiwi culture than many of her countryfolk might because she came here first as schoolgirl. She had already had taste of life overseas after earning an ASEAN scholarship involving two years’ study in Singapore.
“Then in 1987 my Dad decided to emigrate to New Zealand so I finished my schooling at Epsom Girls and went to university here.”
And here Chong might have stayed but she missed out on her dream job after graduating. So when her Malaysian fiancee couldn’t get work in New Zealand, she returned with him to Malaysia. There she spent the next 12 years gaining experience across whole range of marketing disciplines in several large multinational companies. Recent roles included that of marketing manager Asia-Pacific for Lucent Technologies and marketing director for SE Asia with The Boston Consulting Group.
However New Zealand still exerted strong pull – her parents are still here and her six-year-old son is their only grandchild.
“I love this country and had been trying to come back but the job opportunities were just not there. Every time I came back here on holiday, I’d talk to recruiters and assess the local employment options.”
When she came for her brother’s graduation in May last year she was told that because she’d been away so long it would be difficult to find something unless she was prepared to wait and probably take backwards career step.
Then the Telecom role came up and she moved back here in September to take it – even though it meant family disruption and pay cut that on dollar to dollar comparison works out to about 40 percent.
“I’ve joined one of New Zealand’s biggest companies in very challenging position so it was worth coming back. Also I’m now back in pure marketing again which I love.”
However, Chong is dismayed by the ‘Kiwi experience’ hurdles put in front of potential employees from another culture because they don’t seem to be valid basis for exclusion. Her own experience of working in multicultural environment has been very positive in terms of exposure to broader perspective and wider knowledge base.
“One of the things I miss here is the diversity of having people from all races working around me – Indians, Chinese, Malaysians, ex-pats from the US or the UK. Then because I was looking after the Asia Pacific, I could be on the phone to people in China or Taiwan, New Zealand or America.
“I had exposure to wider range of experiences and knowledge from across the [Asia-Pacific] region and, of course, Malaysia is multinational country with three main groups – Chinese, Indians, Malays – all working together. I think there is danger that New Zealanders can get bit myopic in thinking – that this is the right way to do things because it is the way we do things here.”
Greater diversity also meant more national festivals to celebrate. It helped create more festive air at work.
“People would come to work in traditional costumes, usually on Friday because that’s when many Malays go to the mosque. It’s very colourful and I think that sort of tricks your mind into thinking differently – people are more likely to try fresh approach. Perhaps it’s why things seem to happen much faster there – why people are open to change.”
There’s also personal side to the ‘Kiwi experience’ barrier. Her husband hasn’t yet found local employer who wants to take punt on his 20 years’ experience in the banking and operations world so he remains in Malaysia. Despite frequent phone calls and regular mutual visits, she misses him – as does their son.
In global economy, work skills are very transportable. Chong, who already speaks five languages, is not phased by the prospect of learning another and feels that workwise, the world is her oyster.
“I always think now that I can go to any country – if position comes up requiring the skills I have – and I can adapt. It could be Taiwan; it could be Switzerland. Even if I don’t speak the language, I can learn that, put my marketing experience to work and adapt. In any new position, you have to start from the bottom to some extent – learning about the industry, the new company, or new country with different legislation.”

When in Rome…
Chong believes new migrants need to adapt to the culture of their adopted country.
“While I say it’s good to challenge the status quo – to think differently – I don’t want to rock the boat too much. I wouldn’t be telling people to do things like this because that is how we do it in Malaysia. I don’t live there anymore but I am bringing experience from there that could perhaps be useful.”
Her advice that new arrivals should “continue to believe in themselves and not be undermined” because they come from minority culture is echoed by others who’ve broken through the ‘Kiwi experience’ barrier.
India-born Edwina Pio had to hang on to her self-belief quite firmly when she chose to come to New Zealand in 2001 with years of university-level business teaching and research experience in India, Austria, Spain and the US behind her – but no particular job.
“I had the local Indian community telling me ‘you will never get at job at university, Edwina’ but I couldn’t see myself working in supermarket or as cleaner. So I made cold calls and went to four or five interviews day by bus. I call it the rites of passage.”
Pio’s playful, often self-mocking sense of humour helps her through those times when people appear to think she’s escaped from local dairy to front up in the lecture hall or start earnestly explaining to her the meaning of commonly used English sayings.
“I don’t say anything because I know they have good intentions but come on… I have published in international journals, taught around the world in English. Of course I know these things. Only the real Kiwi expressions – like feeling crook, for instance – were new to me.”
Since she was taken on by the Auckland University of Technology more than four years ago, Pio has steadily moved from junior part-timer to senior business lecturer who is on the Board of Studies for AUT’s MBA programme. Not surpr

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