This panel discussion on Cultural Diversity in the Legal Profession was held at the Law Institute of Victoria on 17 May 2017 as a collaboration between AALA, Tarwirri Indigenous Law Students and Lawyers Association of Victoria and Hellenic Australia Lawyers Association for Law Week.
The guest panellists were:
- Kareena Gay, President of Tarwirri Indigenous Law Students and Lawyers Association of Victoria,
- Tuanh Nguyen, President of Asian Australian Lawyers Association; and
- Maria Barbayannis, Vice President and Victorian Chapter Chair of Hellenic Australian Lawyers Association.
Maneka Siva Nathan from Arnold Bloch Leibler acted as moderator.
The panel shared their experiences of entering the legal profession and explored the current challenges to increasing cultural diversity in the legal profession.
The panel speakers held, at times, contrasting perspectives which reflected their experience from different cultural backgrounds - Indigenous Australian, Vietnamese Australian and Greek Australian.
Kareena spoke of previously feeling guilty for being offered a place at law school as an Indigenous Australian when other students from a non-Indigenous background lost out. She later made peace with this, realising that it was simply the way the system worked to increase the attendance at university of Indigenous Australians.
Tuanh spoke about her experience of having to work harder to overcome the initial preconceptions that people have of you because you look of an Asian background or have a non-Anglo name. Tuanh also referred to research whereby people with a non-Anglo name are less likely be hired by a potential employer in comparison to someone with an Anglo name who otherwise have the same skills and experience.
Maria said that her family had changed their name so that it sounded more Anglo when they migrated to Australia in about the 1940s. She has since changed her name back. She felt that the discrimination experienced by European migrants was probably not as strong or harsh as that experienced by non-European migrants and was somewhat surprised to hear of the discrimination against job applicants with non-Anglo names since this was not her experience.
Kareena said that Indigenous people had come a very long way, the first ever Indigenous person having been appointed to the judiciary about 1 to 1.5 years ago. She noted that this year would be 50 years since the 1967 referendum to amend the Australian Constitution, which gave the Commonwealth the power to make laws for Indigenous Australians and recognise them in the national census.
Tuanh referred to research findings contained in the AALA Cultural Diversity Report that of a pool of 1,057 judges in Australia, only 8 were of an Asian Australian background. This is clearly not representative of the general population nor the community. Maria said that she did not think the Greek community faced the same problem as there are already a number of members of the judiciary being of Greek heritage. Maria commented that this may be due to the fact that significant Greek immigration to Australia occurred earlier in time and it would take some time before the judiciary would have more people of Asian Australian background.
There was a strong discussion about whether affirmative action was a good or bad model to undertake within the legal profession. Tuanh opined that it can be detrimental, especially where a person is put into a position not due to their merits but in order meet a quota. Kareena agreed and said that we need to adopt meaningful ways of achieving cultural diversity.