In this episode of Practical Inclusion, I spoke to Dr Jiawen Li, who is an inventor and engineer. Jiawen’s work is beyond impressive – a senior lecturer in the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Adelaide and recipient of the Superstars of STEM award, she’s developed fibre-optic probes that are reshaping the way heart disease is imaged.
And while, as a scientist, I desperately wanted to talk more about her research, the focus of this conversation was about her experiences as a woman of colour in the workplace. Listening to Jiawen share her experiences, I was struck by how important it is to be attuned to our employees’ and colleagues’ cultural contexts, which can influence the way we interact in a professional setting and potentially create barriers to participation.
In our conversation, Jiawen shared the importance of inclusive leadership – demonstrated skillfully by her colleagues and mentors – in her early career. This was especially helpful in male-dominated contexts like meetings – and there were a lot, given she’s an engineer!
Jiawen says, “In China, especially for women, we’re told to be small, serve others, be someone who helps other people to shine, rather than shining ourselves. If we go to a meeting, we’re usually the person who serves coffee or takes notes – other people will do all the speaking.”
“Since I’ve been in Australia, and when I was in the US [studying], I kept thinking: What can I add to a meeting? If I say something, people might think, ‘You don’t have the authority, you’re so young and inexperienced – why are you the one talking about this?’”
So, Jiawen was quiet in meetings, opting to listen and take notes instead of contributing her important perspectives. “Then, slowly, my colleagues, employer and mentors started noticing this and told me, ‘Why not just share your opinion?’ They started calling my name at those meetings. Initially, it was awkward, but they would suggest that I had something valuable to share and would ask me, ‘Would you like to talk about this?’” she said. This strategy helped to offer Jiawen the space and time to speak up in meetings.
If you’re aiming to increase the representation of culturally and linguistically diverse people in your organisation, it can be useful to let applicants know what you’re looking for most in an interview process, particularly if it involves a presentation. Do you want to know why your potential or promoted employees want to work for your business? Or, is it more useful to understand their unique skill set? As Jiawen points out, our backgrounds can influence the way we prepare for interviews, in addition to our presentation skills.
“I had an interview experience a few years ago […] after applying for a job in China. As I’ve been in the western culture for study and work [for a number of years], I approached the interview with the mindset that I should show them how great I am and to speak with influence.”
After the interview, Jiawen received a text message from the person who referred her for the job and who was also on the interview panel. She says, “He said, ‘You shouldn’t have said that. Please change the topic. You need to show how great the university is and that you’re eager to join the university. Play small – don’t be the one showing how shiny your current work is.’”
“So, I actually experienced a huge counter-culture shock,” Jiawen said. “When I was first in the US to study, and when I first came to Australia, [I also experienced] my Eastern culture encountering Western culture. [Ultimately] everyone has different standards about what they’re looking for in an interview and people have different ways of presenting their work. It depends on their audience, but they might not know what their audience wants. So, giving [applicants] some suggestions and telling them what you’re expecting will help a lot. If I know [an interview panel is] expecting me to talk about how good their university is and how much I really want to go there, I will talk about that instead of only showing off my work and that I’m a great candidate for the position.”
Remember, too, it’s good practice to frame and reframe any questions for your applicants in ways that are clear and easy to understand. People who are not from Australia or for whom English is a second language may not understand colloquialisms or acronyms that are specific to your organisation’s processes.
One of the most significant ways Jiawen has been supported in her career is through the work of mentors and sponsors. She says, “[Female mentors and sponsors] have made a huge difference for my career, and they tried to understand what I’d been through. They shared their experiences of being a woman and maintaining their work/life balance.”
She continues: “This is sometimes challenging for women of colour because people may not understand what we’re used to. That’s why I’m so passionate about the Superstars of STEM program because someone from my culture or other women of colour can contact us and we can talk to them and share what we think.”
For more information about Practical Inclusion, follow me on LinkedIn or subscribe to my YouTube channel for updates. You can also revisit past conversations on my Practical Inclusion playlist on YouTube.
16 August 2021
15 October 2021
13 March 2022