Australian women from cultural minorities are often in unstable jobs - these women are challenging that

Hawanatu Bangura was inspired to start her own business after being made redundant. Source: SBS News

Culturally and linguistically diverse women in Australia are more likely to be underemployed, low paid, or overqualified for their jobs. But with the right support and mentors, some are excelling in their fields.

At her home in Sydney’s west, Hawanatu Bangura is looking through the footage from one of her films.

Featuring a cast of all Afro-Australian women, the short film titled 'I am and Black and Beautiful' is one of many the 31-year-old has worked on over the years.

Filmmaking has been a way for her to express her lived experiences - from coming to Australia as a refugee from Sierra Leone, to fighting the beauty ideal as a woman of colour.

“I really wanted to tell stories of women especially that look like me, women of colour, women who are facing challenges,” she told SBS News. 

“It could be mental health, identity and belonging, or other things as well, or if they've gone through trauma or through war.”

Making films allows Hawanatu to "tell stories of women that look like me".

Unfortunately for Hawanatu, her passion was economically unstable, so after studying social science at university, she began working full-time in the disability sector.

“It's really important to have sustainable employment, and I was really comfortable with the employment that I had because I didn't necessarily want to get out of my comfort zone,” she said. 


But in 2018, she was made redundant, forcing her completely out of that comfort zone, and forced to reassess her options of how to remain an economically independent woman.

Hawanatu (right) directing one of her films.
Hawanatu (right) directing one of her films.

Stories like Hawanatu’s are not uncommon for culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) women in Australia who face particular challenges when it comes to economic participation and financial security.

According to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, they have a significantly lower rate of workforce participation at just 47.3 per cent, compared with the rest of the female population at 59.2 per cent.

They account for just two per cent of ASX directors, a tiny fraction of the 30 per cent of directors who are now women.

SSI also reports one in four CALD women have been forced to scale back at work due to cultural barriers, including language.

CALD women

CEO of SSI Violet Roumeliotis says preparing these women for the workforce, be it through English classes, getting qualifications recognised, or finding affordable childcare, is not being “prioritised”.

“Many are very highly qualified, and in many industries that are male-dominated, in the sciences and engineering, they're underemployed, or they go on maternity leave and they come back in jobs that are under their qualifications,” she said.

“Or there's a lot of harassment or poor behaviour at work, then they don't get promoted, they apply for jobs and they don't even get interviews, so there's a lot of issues in terms of even getting through the door.”

“There is certainly a glass ceiling.”

'I was hiding my disability'

For Zhila Hasanloo that glass ceiling has been a constant battle.

As a migrant woman from Iran who is also visually impaired, the challenges she has faced are two-fold.

She said it has been a long journey, one that started in Iran as a young girl when no one knew about her disability, not even her parents.

“My parents never knew how serious my visual impairment was and I, as a child with disability, I didn't want to be seen as strange and different to the other children so I was hiding my disability,” she said.

Zhila says being a CALD women with a disability means there are "multiple layers" of challenges.
Zhila says being a CALD women with a disability means there are "multiple layers" of challenges.
SBS News

She described school as “hell”, and said not only could she not see the board or her textbooks, her schoolmates would not accept her.

Against the odds, she graduated high school and university and moved to Australia to complete her PhD in education at the University of Sydney.

It is here she identified many new challenges for CALD women, especially when it came to economic independence.

Zhila says having support from SSI's IgniteAbility program has been helpful to her starting a business.
Zhila says having support from SSI's IgniteAbility program has been helpful to her starting a business.
SBS News

“If a woman is from a [diverse] cultural background and also has a disability, she faces multiple layers of barriers in their lives and for employment."

“There’s also a lack of knowledge and lack of understanding about the culture and language barriers.”

Zhila has enjoyed a successful career in the disability sector in Australia but says most women like her aren't being given the same opportunities. 

“I think society should be more welcoming towards experiencing, at least, working with these women, give them an opportunity to be involved in the market, in the business."

Zhila has had a successful career in the disability sector since moving to Australia.
Zhila has had a successful career in the disability sector since moving to Australia.

With the help of the SSI program IgniteAbility, which facilitates business creation for migrants with disability, Zhila was able to start her own business called Ability Beyond Boundaries.

While it is still in its modelling phase, its aim is to provide webinars and toolkits for disability awareness, with a specific focus on the Persian community.

“Through providing accessible information, it’s one of my goals is that women with disability know about their rights and they know that there are opportunities," she said. 

“I also want to provide it in Persian language so that they know what’s available for them in Australia.” 

‘I like to see representation’

Hawanatu knows firsthand how risky starting a business is; it’s what she has decided to do after being made redundant.

“I thought 'I can't just be comfortable just relying on being employed by someone else, I actually have to create my own employment, I want to be self-employed',” she said.

Marrying her skills as a filmmaker and social worker, she has started Mahawa Creative - a storytelling agency that collaborates with local, corporate and government organisations to create videos and artworks that help people tell their stories. 

She too was supported by SSI's Ignite program during the initial stages of her business.

Hawanatu has now started her own business 'Mahawa Creative'.
Hawanatu has now started her own business called 'Mahawa Creative'.
SBS News

She admits she knew nothing about how setting up a small business worked, from registering an ABN, to creating a social media strategy.

“In the past I’d never thought of being an entrepreneur, that's like so beyond me, I'm just a social worker,” she said.

But having mentors has been integral to her success.

“Being an African person I like to actually see that representation of black women out there, so I was inspired by quite a few of them.”

A photo from the pilot workshop at Mahawa Creative.
The pilot workshop at Mahawa Creative.

She says good mentoring and networking with women who have experienced similar hardships will help improve the number of CALD women in Australia's workforce and help them to start their own businesses and head up boardrooms.

Her next goal is to be able to hire young women as part of her growing business.

“I feel like the more women that are doing this, that are taking the risk and sharing their stories, that will actually motivate other women as well.”

International Women's Day is marked on Sunday 8 March. 

Would you like to share your story with SBS News? Email yourstory@sbs.com.au

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