Is there a glass ceiling for non-native English speakers? Part two of Vinay Kolhatkar’s investigation into subtle prejudice. This essay is best enjoyed after reading part one.
By Vinay Kolhatkar
At a shopping center â€” buried in the labyrinth of my own mind, unsure, and even uncaring of whether my outward appearance is discerning enough for public space, I run into some long-lost acquaintances, Shashi and Sulabha Dandekar. My mood lifts. They are the proud parents of three daughters, and as we reminisce, our talk moves to their children.
It is within this conversation that I hear some interesting anecdotal evidence about reverse migration. Shibani, Anusha and Apeksha Dandekar, the three sisters in question, were raised in the English-speaking West by their Indian immigrant parents. For all three, the entertainment business beckoned.
The White Australia policy was fully dismantled  by 1973, the commercial channels Seven, Nine and Ten must have never got the memo. The state-owned ABCÂ (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) palmed it off to the multicultural state-owned station, SBS (Special Broadcasting Service).
“Aussiewood” movie makers got it, but ignored it by repeatedly, as Carlos says, â€˜painting a picture of a historic, rural Australia that wasnâ€™t even true back then, let alone nowâ€™. In that kind of picture, you canâ€™t cast a modern ethnic identity.
Shibaniâ€™s big break came as the show host to an Indian show introducing Bollywood stars to the US, while Anushaâ€™s came via a major Bollywood movie role opposite superstar Amitabh Bachchan. The three sisters also started a band called DMajor â€” they sing in English, Hindi and Marathi. The two elder sisters continue to find work in TV/internet show anchoring, acting, modelling and VJ appearances. All three now reside in Mumbai.
â€œShibani says our USP is our accent,â€ Shashi beams as he says this, like itâ€™s a revelation. â€œUnique selling proposition,â€ he repeats.
In 2005, a professor of law at Macquarie University, Canadian-born Andrew Fraser, rang this alarm bell in Sydney  â€” â€œLook at the annual HSC results â€” the consequence of which is that Oz is creating a new heavily Asian managerial-professional ruling class that will feel no hesitation… in promoting the narrow interests of their co-ethnics at the expense of white Australians.”
Yet, for this community, the “glass gates” can close inadvertently. A coalition of sixty-four community associations of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani and Korean organisations alleges in a lawsuit against Harvard University  that:
‘Harvard University is racist. They use race as a criteria to deny admission to many deserving Asian Americans.’
The Court documents filed November 17, 2014 assert that the university is â€œengaging in a campaign of invidious discrimination by strictly limiting the number of Asian Americans it will admit each year and by engaging in racial balancing year after year.â€Â
When the US Supreme Court blessed minority affirmative action programs for university admissions by allowing institutions to take race into account, it didnâ€™t count on one thing â€” if a minority outperforms the dominant majority on merit criteria, quotas will hurt them.
The recent CEO honour roll  of Australian multinational corporations â€” BHP Billiton, Westpac, Qantas, CBA and AGL â€” bears witness to immigrants on “glass escalators”, discovered exclusively in the Anglophone world after an ostensibly â€œglobalâ€ search.
In Asia alone, there live 4.4 billion of the worldâ€™s 7.3 billion people. But when top-notch recruitment firms in the West claim they found a new multimillion pay-packet CEO after a â€œglobalâ€ search, just how globalÂ was it? I asked this question of several executives at leading headhunting firms by email, and I have yet to receive a single reply. Is this guilt admitted by omission? Anecdotal evidence suggests the following score: Let’s shine a spotlight on executives with extensive work experience in the English-speaking West and you see many of the same faces; Asia/Middle East/ South America, the light doesn’t reach there â€” itâ€™s rather dark.
Little wonder then, in contrast to Dr Fraser, the Dean of the Sydney University Business School, Professor Greg WhitwellÂ said in 2015,Â â€œIn Australia, as in the USA, a ‘bamboo ceiling’ or ‘cultural ceiling’ exists. The council reports that while 9.3 per cent of the Australian labor force is Asian born,â€ while â€œIn S&P/ASX 200 companies, a mere 1.9 per cent of executives have Asian cultural origins.â€  A disjointed statistic, when considering the excellence in academe that had Andrew Fraser fearing a takeover of the managerial ranks.
The day is 4 March 2015. On the eastern side of Sydneyâ€™s Macquarie Street is a long, two-storey building of Georgian architecture, flanked by two unconnected structures with dome-like, Gothic roofs. Itâ€™s a faÃ§ade â€” lurking behind the heritage is modernityÂ â€” a new building that houses the State Parliament, overlooking a sloping green called the Domain.
Inside the New South Wales Parliament House, Minoti Apte â€” a hint of modernity herself, she is a young-looking fifty something, ethnic woman with short hair â€” stands on a stage, a mixed bag of emotions â€” pride, a quiet satisfaction in her achievements, a few nerves. Also on stage, the newly-elected NSW Premier Mike Baird is about to open an envelope. The moment reminds Minoti of the Oscars. She is on a shortlist with three other women. They stand with her, all in a line, as the Premier has the microphone.
The audience is on edge. Baird tears open the envelope and reads out, â€œAnd the winner is â€¦ Minoti Apte.â€ A thunderous applause follows.
Dr Minoti Apte, OAM (Order of Australia) 2014, a distinguished researcher in pancreatic cancer at UNSW (University of New South Wales), has just won the NSW Woman of the Year award. UNSW has also named a new back-to-medical-research-for-working-mothers scholarshipÂ  after her.
Minoti attended an English-language convent school in India and became a medical doctor, immigrating to Australia in 1982 with her husband. She fell into research by accident, and ended up finding her calling. She says neither she nor her husband ever suffered a single adverse reaction to their ethnicity.
â€œI guess my skill set is insular. Itâ€™s technical and intellectual. I appreciate that immigrants who aspire to sales or managerial positions may be in a different position. Academia was very multinational even back then,â€ Minoti cautions.
â€œNot only do professionally qualified Indians speak English fluently, I think we write well; I write a lot better than native English speakers in Australia,â€ she adds, assertively.
Minoti stresses local qualifications, language and collaboration, but indignation rises in her the minute I suggest “name changing”Â as an additional strategy.
â€œWhat about only a nickname, not a name change by deed poll, to make a difficult name easier?â€ I have hit a raw nerve. I am back-pedalling to be congenial again.
â€œOnly if the name is unusually difficult. I make it a point to learn how to say my Chinese studentsâ€™ names. Some people make no effort at all. We should not be that subservient.â€
Charu had jumped feverishly at the same thing â€” â€œI would draw the line at name changing.Â That would be tantamount to the well-known, misguided attempts to â€˜breed out the colourâ€™ from the First Australians.â€ I noticed Charu doesnâ€™t say “indigenous” or â€œAboriginal” people.
But Ragda Ali could wait no more. She had two years of experience in sales and a vocational qualification in marketing. After many applications, even for jobs requiring no experience, never earned a call back, she changed her name legally to Gabriella Hannah, applied for the same jobs, and got a call 30 minutes later. Sales job, sexy name â€” you figure it out.
Montreal-based Veena Gokhale, who worked as a journalist with an English-language daily in Bombay, India, immigrated to Canada over twenty years ago, only to be told that â€œgetting into media for a first-generation immigrant was an impossibility,â€ notwithstanding that immigrants who move within the Anglophone world (the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, NZ and South Africa) routinely find their experience, and often enough even their qualifications, upheld as valid by those who matter â€” the recruiters, not the politically correct government bureaucrats or university officials selling more fee-paying courses.
â€œSystemic racism when it comes to finding work here,â€ was Veenaâ€™s response when asked to describe her experience, â€œwas the most shocking thing I have experienced as an immigrant.â€
â€œI have met many disillusioned and â€˜rejectedâ€™ professionals though who came here armed with degrees and good, professional experience but could not get work at all, or got short-term contracts only, or had to change their field completely, or go back to school and do another degree, â€ Veena said.
It was in Silicon Valley that immigrants truly cracked the glass ceiling . Four of the largest technology firms in the world â€” Google, Microsoft, Nokia and Adobe Systems, appointed Asian-born, overseas-educated immigrants as their CEOs . Many others have become successful entrepreneurs. Silicon Valley innovates, in more ways than one.
And Fortune favours the resilient.
Rejected by the German company, Charu found his career niche in the NSW public sector, where â€œthere are good procedures to address discrimination.â€ He succeeded in being promoted to the NSW Public Sector Senior Executive Service from the lowest grade (twelve grades in all) within five years â€” this, despite his ethnic name, appearance, accent and age (starting at the ripe old age of thirty-nine).
Veena ended up as an English-language author of a fictional work published by a Toronto-based literary press, fulfilling a long-cherished dream she had held since age eight, when she wrote her first short story.
New Jersey, 1989
George Taber was the name on the scribble. George had worked for TIME Magazine for 23 years, most recently as world editor, and later launched a local business paper. His phone rang. It was some just-arrived-in-America journalist called Mukul Pandya. Following his principle that any journalist deserved at least one shot at writing a story, George asked Mukul to write about New Jerseyâ€™s largest thrift, which had just declared a loss.
Mukul didnâ€™t know anything about thrifts or S&Ls, the American names for building societies. Mukul called a professor of real estate and finance, who guided him through why S&Ls were in deep trouble. Still weak from his bout with typhoid, Mukul took seven hours to write a 1,000-word story. But George liked it â€” and sponsored him for a work visa. Mukul was hired. Soon, the freelancer became staff writer.
New to America, Mukul didnâ€™t even know how to drive â€” for two months, George drove by his house to pick him up, even gave him some driving lessons, co-signed a bank loan so that Mukul and Hema could buy their first car, and took Mukul to his first baseball game.
In 1998, when Mukul was offered a position at Wharton, he was paralysed by loyalty, until George told him to take the job.
Mukul, now the Editor-in-chief of the business journal for the prestigious Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, invites George, now a full-time author, to speak at the journalâ€™s board meeting about his latest book, Chasing Gold.
Mukul, his voice breaking, delivers a long, heartfelt tribute â€” â€œa mentor who impacts the course of your life profoundly,â€ and â€œthe reason I am here is because twenty-five years ago, George Taber took a chance on an unknown â€¦â€
Mukul hugs George. A few tears are shed. The crowd brings down the house.
Let it be said once more â€” Fortune favours the resilient.
Vinay KolhatkarÂ averaged High Distinction in his Master of Journalism and CommunicationÂ course at UNSW (Sydney, Australia) and this was his final project. He is also a Columnist at Savvy Street, and a novelist (The Frankenstein Candidate, published by Leadstart Publishers). He just completed a manuscript for a second novel.
Bibliography and Endnotes
In the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts Boston Division Students for Fair Admissions, Inc., Plaintiff, v. President and Fellows of Havard College (Harvard Corporation); and the Honorable and Reverend the Board of Overseers, Defendants
 In the last twenty years, Westpac hired South African-born Gail Kelly â€” cracking the glass ceiling for women, they had previously hired American Bob Joss, Qantas brought in Irish-born â€œopenly gayâ€ Alan Joyce (piercing the glass another way), AMPâ€™s Craig Meller has U.K. experience, and previously they had American George Trumbull, CBA hired New Zealanders Ralph Norris and Ian Narev in succession, AGL hired Paul Anthony (NZ and U.K. experience), ANZâ€™s Mike Smith is British. At BHP Billiton, Marius Kloppers was South African, his successor Andrew Mackenzie is Scottish-born (Source: Company Annual Reports, various media outlets).
 Madhok, Diksha,Â ‘Three India-born CEOs now lead companies with combined revenue exceeding the GDP of most countries’;Â Quartz India, 11 Aug 2015.
 Chadha, Sunainaa, ‘More than just Pichai and Nadella: Indians now the biggest power players in silicon valley’;Â First Post Business, 11 Aug 2015.