Bridging barriers for women in the workplace

Bridging barriers for women in the workplace

By Kat Leonard • Mar 2023

When Poonam Sokhi migrated from India to Australia in 2019, she didn’t anticipate the challenges she would face. Following a successful career as an Agricultural Engineer with more than 10 years of experience Poonam found that having no local experience, cultural and language barriers as well as the cost of childcare inhibited her from finding employment in Australia.

Spending most of her time as a newcomer to Australia as a stay-at-home mum in order to help her child settle in a new environment meant that she had to step away from her career – a challenge felt by many migrant women.

The most recent stats from the Australian Bureau of Statistics state that just under 60 percent of recent migrants are female, and are less likely to be employed full time than their male counterparts. Meanwhile, they are also seven percent less likely to be employed than women born in Australia as well.

Thankfully for Poonam, in 2021 she connected with SisterWorks, a Melbourne based not-for-profit that provides women with opportunities to build their confidence, independence and skills to improve their economic outlook.

Speaking of her experience with SisterWorks, Poonam said the organisation helped her make connections, provided her with interview skills as well as enhanced her interpersonal and communication skills.

“Most importantly, the connections I made through SisterWorks are my real assets. Knowing if ever I need any advice, support or guidance I have SisterWorks and the amazing sisters by my side,” said Poonam.

SisterWorks is modelled around the vision that work empowers women. The SisterWorks Model is open to women of all skill levels and endeavours to provide opportunities wherever possible – helping to foster a sense of independence.

The doors opened by SisterWorks for individuals highlights the importance that bold, transformative ideas can indeed combat discrimination and the marginalisation of women – aptly addressing the theme for International Women’s Day this year, ‘Cracking the code: Innovation for a gender equal future’.

SisterWorks’s model Work Empowers Women brings together three key elements:

  • Learning by doing: SisterWorks engages migrant and refugee women in different roles in the organisation: as participants, entrepreneurs, volunteers or staff members. They learn about how to work in Australia by working and doing business together, within a supportive network and child-friendly environment.
  • Community: SisterWorks recognises and teaches the importance of community and the power of camaraderie amongst women. SisterWorks supports and uplifts its members to regain their ‘personal voice’ in Australia.
  • Financial incentives: SisterWorks shows women that they can add value and earn money, despite the barriers they have faced in gaining employment. This improves the women’s confidence in their skills and abilities. SisterWorks encourages women to explore options to earn money.

Maria Chindris from SisterWorks said that over the past nine years, they have supported over 1,900 migrant, refugee, and asylum seeker women from 102 countries to build a better life in Australia through skills training and work opportunities.

“Our mission is to provide these women with opportunities to build their confidence, independence and skills to improve their economic outlook.

“We provide vocational training programs in the areas of hospitality, warehousing, customer service, sewing and small business and are a certified social enterprise focusing on partnerships with industries to generate social and economic values for migrant, refugee and asylum seeker women in Australia,” said Maria.

A federal strategy plan to boost women’s workforce participation by 2025 acknowledged that culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) women have a significantly lower rate of workforce participation at 47.3 percent, in comparison to nearly 70 percent for CALD men.

They identified barriers such as language, lack of local work experience, the unfamiliarity of Australia’s workplace culture, and limited recognition of their skills and qualifications as playing a large role in these figures.

The work that SisterWorks does ensures that migrant women are given opportunities to become economically empowered, recognising the role that access to training and education can play in combatting discrimination and marginalisation of women.

Their unique model is centred around empowerment, fostering a sense of independence and providing opportunities for women.

When it comes to advice for workplaces that would enable them to create more inclusive recruiting pathways Maria said that there a few things organisations can do.
“Organisations can provide cultural awareness training for those in recruitment positions, build rapport with employees about their needs, how included they feel and analyse gaps that you can improve on as well as undergo an anonymous diversity survey with employees to understand the gaps of diversity in your workforce.”

Poonam added that it is sometimes beneficial to hire a person who has overseas experience even if they lack local experience.

“Talent is everywhere. This overseas experience will bring versatility in your team with an approach for fresh or different practices to be followed rather than sustaining ongoing years old traditions in the organisation.

“You can support migrant women on similar journeys to me simply by reaching out and showing interest.”

Stories such as Poonam’s remind us of the challenges migrant families can face when they are settling into a new country and how much we as a community can step up to help them. It is important to shine a spotlight on the disadvantages and challenges for migrant women and more broadly for intersectional identities. The innovative work done by organisations such as SisterWorks, continues to ensure that individuals have a place in society regardless of their background.

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