21 May 2021
World Day for Cultural Diversity: a perspective and recommendations
By William Majed Madani
'Fake tan doesn’t equal diversity.' This quote promptly turned me into a superfan of Australian basketball star Liz Cambage (despite having no interest in basketball and not knowing who she was before reading the quote). This month, Cambage made headlines for accusing the Australian Olympic Committee of failing to include athletes from diverse backgrounds in promotional photoshoots ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. I felt her frustration. Where were the diverse faces in those photos? Where were the people who looked like me? Ahead of World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, Cambage’s comments got me thinking about my own place in the law as an Arab-Australian and how far the profession has come and where it needs to go.
Given the depths of my feelings, it was surprising that it wasn’t until the middle of last year that I really reflected on my place in the law as a brown person.
My journey in the law really starts with my name.
Despite their Jordanian heritage, my parents Rima and Awni, purposely gave their three children ‘safe’ Aussie names. I was named William. My middle name is Majed. My parents took the view that ‘Majed’, an Arab name that translates as Noble in English, would not get as many job interviews as William. If you look at the research, it seems my parents were correct. A 2015 Australian National University study, for example, found applicants with names denoting a Chinese, Middle Eastern or Indigenous background, were less likely to get called for an interview, it’s clear to see that my parents were correct.
Our family of five grew up in a two-bedroom flat in multicultural Cabramatta in Sydney’s west. The former heroin capital of Australia is now a destination for foodies and shoppers across the state. For many years, we were reliant on welfare, and my siblings and I paid school fees from our after-school jobs at supermarkets or restaurants.
As a graduate lawyer, I was lucky enough to land a role at a small firm in the Sydney CBD that had high net worth clients. I was so grateful to be there that when I heard the office manager threw out resumes of anyone whose name she could not pronounce, I didn’t speak up. Shamefully, my first thought was, ‘My parents were onto something.’
To enter the law is to enter a world of wealth, power and privilege – at the top anyway. It was impossible to see what I, an Arab-Australian kid from Cabramatta, had in common with that world. No partners, barristers or judges that I came across looked like me. I had no previous connection to anyone in the law and there was an ever-present low-level feeling of needing to be grateful just to be there, even when some employers made openly racist statements. At that time, I buried my feelings. I was too busy trying to paper over my self-doubt to indulge any feelings of exclusion at that point in my life!
This lack of diversity made me cynical and impacted my ambition.
As I have grown older and more secure about my place in the law, I am happy to see a lot more diversity in the profession. I am also able to more confidently talk about complicated issues of ethnicity and inclusion. What I am realising is that, like the Australian Olympic Committee, many law firms need guidance from people with diverse cultural backgrounds because there is often a lack of lived experience at the top. This was true when I started as a lawyer, and even though things have improved, it remains true now. Change in this area is slow – just look at the homogenous ethnic composition of the judiciary.
What I have come to understand is that I cannot expect change to come. I need to help be an agent for change, as we all should be! Hall & Wilcox has empowered me to speak out and work with them to help make the firm a more inclusive place. A place where people from diverse backgrounds feel comfortable and can imagine themselves succeeding – and who knows, perhaps making it to the Bench.
Some of the things I think could contribute to improving cultural diversity in the workplace include:
- considering 'ethnic and cultural' diversity as a factor when considering board and senior leadership appointments. If the ethnic talent pool is shallow – thinking about promoting diverse candidates who contribute to greater diversity of experience and perspective;
- conducting a diversity audit and internally publishing the results. The reason for such an audit would be to understand the diversity within your organisation and what focus areas for inclusion are needed;
- consider scholarship opportunities for students from a refugee background to study law at university; and
- celebrating days of significant cultural importance like Diwali, Lunar New Year or Eid and considering inviting clients along.
- get me Liz Cambage’s autograph!