Celebrating Multicultural Women in Leadership

Congratulations to Mary Patetsos

A Well-Deserved Recipient of the Order of Australia, honouring her outstanding achievements and service

 “I feel a strong responsibility to contribute back to society and ensure the most vulnerable are not left behind. It’s not just about personal benefits, but also holding the door open for others”  

It is with great pleasure that we extend our warmest congratulations to Mary Patetsos who was recently awarded an Order of Australia. This honour is a testament to the outstanding achievements and dedicated service of a remarkable woman who has made significant contributions to her community, profession, and society. 

Mary is a professional non-Executive Board Director with a passion for social justice, diversity and equity. She has a rare blend of academic qualifications, knowledge and expertise, and strong national and global networks. Mary’s commitment to fiscal responsibility, effective corporate governance and human rights is evident in all her endeavours. She has experience in financial management, administration and risk, governance, delivery of major projects, and the socio-economic determinants of health and well-being. Mary’s skills in negotiation, conflict resolution and leadership enable her to perform at a high standard with professional and personal integrity. 

We recently spoke with Mary to get her perspective on leadership for women from diverse backgrounds. Here is what she had to say: 

What does leadership today as a woman from diverse background mean to you and which women would you say have inspired you?  

Leadership is all about taking matters of importance forward and progress. It is never a goal on its own but rather a tool used for the betterment of individuals and of organisations, and of social structures. My philosophy is that leadership also carries with it responsibility, in particular in what you choose to do as a leader. My position is always trying to do good, or at the very least, to minimise harm. As a woman from a migrant background, I strongly feel a responsibility to participate fully, contribute back to the best of your ability and ensure that the most vulnerable are not left behind. As I have said many times, the point is not to enjoy the personal benefits of the door being open but to ensure that you hold the door open for others. 

What are some of the unseen barriers for women from diverse backgrounds aspiring in leadership roles? 

There are always barriers, for women and men. Access to power and influence is not gender specific. It is however acutely experienced by women in a more real and poignant way. Women struggle to be taken seriously and struggle to form the networks needed to allow them real access. This is why it is so important to make improving access for other women your KPI if you have the opportunity. The point is that strong leadership is now entirely evident in women in executive and non-executive roles. How do we break down the stereotypes and enforcement walls that keep capable women from achieving their best? Go for it always is my advice, you don’t always need to be loved! 

What advice would you give to young women joining the workforce from diverse backgrounds? 

Lead from the front, action your plans and stay focused. The world needs its best and brightest to lead, so it is your responsibility to not downplay what you have to offer. Take the shackles off yourself, and onwards. 

Elizabeth Lee 

Overcoming racial barriers and stereotypes in politics 

“I am hopeful. Because whilst it is hard being the “first” of anything, I know that it will be easier for the next person” 

Elizabeth Lee is the current Leader of the Opposition in the ACT Legislative Assembly and holds several positions including Member for Kurrajong, Shadow Treasurer, Shadow Minister for Climate Action, Energy and Emissions Reduction, Shadow Minister for Economic Development, Tourism and Major Projects, and Shadow Minister for Housing Affordability and Choice. She was the first federal candidate from a Korean background in 2013, and in 2016 she became the first Korean-Australian member of an Australian State/Territory parliament. In 2020, she became the first leader of a major party in Australia from an Asian background. 

Elizabeth shares how she has been subjected to racist comments and stereotypes throughout her public career. She shares a recent incident when a stranger made racist comments about her pregnancy. How she was walking from a carpark to the café with her three-year-old daughter.  

A man stops me and asks where the pharmacy is. “I’m sorry, I don’t live here, I’m not sure but the main street is that way”, I replied, he looks me up and down and takes in my heavily pregnant belly. With a smirk, he says, “I can see what you’ve been up to “.  In a mocking Asian accent and a laugh, he added “as my Chinese friends would say, ‘good ruck”. You would be forgiven for thinking that this interaction occurred in a country town in the 1950s. The reality is this interaction happened in February 2023 in a town less than half an hour outside of our nation’s capital. 

I migrated to Australia in 1986 and our family settled in Western Sydney. I was one of less than a handful of Asian students in my class. I didn’t know the language, I didn’t know the pop culture, and I didn’t look like everyone else. 

Whilst there were moments that every migrant child experiences – like desperately wanting to be blonde, blue-eyed and bringing Vegemite sandwiches for lunch, I mostly remember the kindness of those around me. Any comments made about me being “different” were mostly out of curiosity, not out of fear or malice. 

When I started to get more engaged in public life, people would ask whether I felt I was treated differently because of my Asian heritage. And sometimes I would say, tongue in cheek, I’ve never been anything but an Asian-Australian, so I guess I don’t really know. But the reality is yes, of course, I am treated differently. 

We are a very multicultural society with Australians from all over the world calling our beautiful country home, but the professional sectors that I have pursued have meant that I was always in a minority and a very stark minority at that. Whilst there were a lot of Asian faces at law school when I entered government practice a face that looked like mine was very much the odd one out. Even in private practice, I still didn’t see many Asian faces in the courthouse. There are countless Asian-Australian academics working in faculties at our universities but most of them work in the Asian Studies faculty, not in the law school. And I don’t think I need to state the obvious when I say that Australian politics is still a bit of a foreign place for Asian-Australians.

The 2022 federal election did see a boost in more diversity entering our parliament across all parties, but we still have a long way to go. 

When I was preselected and endorsed as the federal candidate for the Liberal Party for the seat of Fraser (now Fenner) in 2013, I was the first federal candidate of any party from a Korean background. When I was elected into the ACT Legislative in 2016 as the Liberal member for Kurrajong, I became the first Korean-Australian member of an Australian State/Territory parliament. And when I was elected leader of the Canberra Liberals in 2020, I became the first leader of a major party in Australia from an Asian background. 

For a country that is home to the longest continuous living culture; a country that prides itself on our rich multiculturalism, it is somewhat surprising that it was 2020 before we saw a leader of a major party from an Asian heritage. 

During my campaigns (and I’ve had several) I would staunchly try to ignore the racist comments that were directed at me and my volunteers. Comments ranging from hyper-sexual (jokes about mail-order brides) through to subtle, unconscious biases (“I love your shoes, did you get them in China?”) through to blatant and overt racist comments (“I’d never vote for her, she’s a Chinese spy”) were not common but definitely present in my campaigns. 

A few days after my interaction with the man who wished me “good ruck”, I had the fortune of being invited to dinner with some visiting scholars from Korea and Japan. They were very excited that an Asian woman was leading one of the major political parties in Australia. And one of the scholars commented, “Wow, maybe you’ll be the first Asian Prime Minister of Australia one day!” It is a comment I have heard before and I used to think, why not? Perhaps one day. This time, I hesitated and responded with a bit of a sad, wry smile, “I don’t know that Australia’s ready for that.” 

Public life is challenging and even though most of the time, it is enormously rewarding to be an advocate and a representative for my community, it has also exposed me to the very real and very present biases and stereotypes out there that are aimed at people from culturally diverse backgrounds. Whether it’s my political foes constantly beating the drum that I am some kind of puppet or mouthpiece for middle-aged white men in my party or whether it’s constituents who won’t vote for me because they think I might have some links to the Chinese Communist Party (wrong on so many levels, but that’s another story), I know that racism still exists in our community and that it is real. 

But I am hopeful. Because whilst it is hard being the “first” of anything, I know that it will be easier for the next person. Just like it will be easier for the next female Prime Minister after Julia Gillard, I know that it will be easier for the next leader of a major party of Asian descent. Because step by step; bit by bit, seeing diverse faces in public leadership roles in Australia will become the norm, not an achievement or a milestone. 

And I hope that by the time my daughters (one yet born) are entering the workforce, Australia will be ready…for whatever they choose to be.

Dr Marlene Kanga

AO FTSE Hon.FIE (Aust) Hon. FIChemE FIS, Multicultural Women in STEM Leadership 

 “I was paid less than the boss’s secretary. I excelled and eventually I got a job with Esso Australia, only the second woman engineer they had hired in Australia”

Dr Marlene Kanga 

In 2017-19 Dr Marlene Kanga was President of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations (WFEO), the body for professional engineering institutions with members from 100+ countries, representing 30+ million engineers. A chemical engineer, she was the 2013 National President of Engineers Australia. Dr Kanga is a board member of some of the largest organisations in Australia. She has been listed among the Top 100 Women of Influence and one of the Top 10 women engineers in Australia. She was awarded an Officer of the Order of Australia for distinguished service to engineering, particularly as a global leader.   

Humble beginnings 

I am always surprised when I see photos of myself among a group of colleagues, usually all men, and mainly Anglo-Saxon. I am a small person and everyone else towers above me. Yet my own self-image is that I am somehow bigger or taller, I have big ideas and visions and the confidence to achieve these goals. My legacies in engineering have been significant, including my success in getting UNESCO and its members to unanimously declare 4 March as World Engineering Day and the recognition of the importance of engineering to advance the UN Sustainable Development Goals.   


My sense of purpose is also closely linked to a sense of duty. It stems from my values and a culture of service that I learned from my parents:  my mother, a teacher, and my father, one of India’s first engineers, qualifying just before India became independent. My upbringing in a small village in Goa where my family were significant landowners, also informed my thinking, although I didn’t realise this until many years later. We owned large tracts of property and tenanted farmers lived there for life and worked for the family in the (paddy) fields. Everyone had a job, but my family went beyond that, providing social counselling, helping pay off debts, providing support in bad times and celebrating good times. This was a model of leadership of purpose and service that I have followed all my life.  

Becoming an engineer was a natural transition for me. No one told me that girls don’t do engineering. I excelled at mathematics and science, and engineering gave me a sense of purpose. Making positive change through engineering was the reason I decided to follow a specialisation of socially responsible engineering in environmental management and eventually system safety engineering.  

For example, I have led the development of process safety engineering in hazardous industries. My work has informed regulations across Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. My work has kept thousands of people safe, and although it’s not visible, it’s very important. 

Migrant journey  

When I applied to migrate to Australia, I received zero points for being an engineer, despite degrees from two top universities. The interviewer at Australia House in London rudely said, “I don’t know why you want to go to Australia, you will never get a job”. I arrived in Australia as a trailing spouse with about $100, no job and nowhere to stay. Engineering jobs were advertised under “men and boys”. Although anti-discrimination legislation had been passed a few years previously, this was ignored by many employers. When I went to the local government employment bureau and said I had an MSc, the person interviewing me asked, “Yes but have you done your HSC?”  

I applied to all the companies involving chemicals and listed them in the Yellow Pages, sending more than 200 applications. I eventually got a job in a small company.  I was paid less than the boss’s secretary. I excelled and eventually, I got a job with Esso Australia, only the second woman engineer they had hired in Australia.   

I continued to face many barriers. I had to argue my case to get onto engineering sites. Being a migrant did not help, additional reasons were given to prevent me from getting the same access as my male colleagues. Eventually, I travelled to various remote areas where I was curiosity, people had never actually seen a woman engineer until I arrived. I had to set the terms of engagement, in particular, to visit sites that involved my work, to ensure that I could get my tasks done, always to a very high standard. Making a mistake was never an option. I even had to argue the case for the most basic facilities such as toilets for women in remote worksites and for childcare close to work.  

A quiet leader  

The difficulties I faced eventually led to my advocacy for greater diversity and inclusion in science, and engineering sectors and this continues today. I am a quiet leader, but I am determined and tenacious. My leadership roles led to my being elected the first Asian Australian National President of Engineers Australia.  

I went on to be elected President of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations (WFEO). I discovered that my migrant background was a unique advantage. I could speak as an Australian, but I understood Asia and forged close connections with the Asian engineering community. I am, for example, the first Australian, to become a Foreign Fellow of the ASEAN Academy of Technology and Engineering (AAET). As a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE), I facilitated a Memorandum of Understanding between the two Academies and am forging closer relationships and joint activities.  

I also hosted the inaugural meeting of the International Network for Women Engineers and Scientists (INWES) Asia Pacific Nation Network (APNN) meeting in Adelaide in 2011. This resulted in nine new women in engineering networks being established within a year and a thriving network with 16 member organisations across Asia today.  

As President of WFEO, my sense of purpose and service also led me to declare the vision of the importance of engineering in advancing the UN Sustainable Development Goals and to build the capacity building in engineering where it is needed most, in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The vision and message have resonated across the engineering community globally. The work is progressing very well under my leadership and has already had impressive results.   I consider it a privilege to be able to serve Australia, engineering and the community. I continue to be a quiet achiever. For me, it’s always the outcome and the legacy that counts.  

Officer of the Order of Australia and the future 

Being recognised as an Officer of the Order of Australia, “for distinguished service to engineering, particularly as a global leader and role model to women, to professional organisations and to business”, is an extraordinary accolade. It shows the changes that have occurred over the last few decades and the increasing acceptance of the contribution that migrants can make to Australia. This recognition will enable me to have a bigger voice in Australia and to make a contribution that benefits everyone.  My journey continues. 

Charishma Kaliyanda 

Multicultural Women Leaders Excel in Building Connections and Communities 

“To me leadership is about listening and understanding” 

Charishma is a councillor on Liverpool City Council and a registered occupational therapist who works in the youth mental health sector. She is active in her community, volunteering as part of the Friends of India Australia Health Professionals Network and is the Secretary of the Wattle Grove Lions Club. Charishma is a Strategic Advisory Committee member of the National Growth Areas Alliance and is passionate about ensuring the delivery of resources and infrastructure to meet the needs of residents in our fast-growing outer-suburban areas. Charishma migrated from India with her family as a young girl and Liverpool has been her home ever since. She speaks 5 languages and is a keen amateur football player who is still working towards winning the season champion’s jersey! 

What is leadership to you? 

To me leadership is about listening and understanding. It is about taking on what people have told you about their challenges, hopes and aspirations to empower them to act. Leadership is understanding that people are diverse and bring a range of skills and capacities to the table, so we are stronger and work better as a collective. Working together to achieve change or an outcome is often used in communities and not-for-profit- organisations and is based very much on strengthening relationships. When this occurs, everyone in the collective shares responsibility, accountability and engagement. It also means that qualities like trust, respect, shared learning and transparent/effective communication are vital to ensuring we achieve a meaningful and sustainable outcome. 

What do you think are some of the strengths of multicultural women leaders? 

I think multicultural women fundamentally understand how to build connection and community, often out of sheer necessity. Most multicultural women leaders have had to climb over obstacles and respond to challenges without any sort of instruction manual, so they have had to rely on their instincts and a process of trial and error to do so. 

I believe this gives multicultural women leaders a level of resilience and perseverance that is truly admirable. 

What encouragement and support would help multicultural women leaders?  

Despite their many strengths, many multicultural women leaders may lack confidence because they have no instruction manual to follow or role model to connect with. I hope they know (and we should probably tell them more often!) that they are the trailblazers who will be the change for future generations. 

I also think it’s so necessary for organisations and institutions to think about the experiences of those who come from diverse and non-traditional backgrounds when forming processes and acknowledging achievements.