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Adult male in a suit and an adult female in a traditional sari dress

What happens after we feel uncomfortable?

Microsoft ANZ holds space for employees to have authentic conversations on racism and racial discrimination in the workplace

“I had lots of emotions and nervousness was right up there.” Isaac Morunga reflected. As a Sales Excellence Manager for Microsoft Australia and New Zealand, Isaac is used to being in front of leaders across the business daily, but this felt different.

He’d been asked to do what an increasing number of employers are asking of their employees – bring your whole authentic self to work. No issue there. Isaac believes that’s what inclusion is all about. Be accepted. Embraced. Encouraged. All for who you are.

Isaac Morunga, adult male, dressed in a brown blazer, white shirt and black pants
Isaac Morunga, Sales Excellence Manager, Microsoft ANZ (Photo by Paul Suesse)

A big part of who Isaac is, is Māori. He credits Microsoft for encouraging him to embrace that every day: “Microsoft has given me a platform where I can explore my identity, where I can uphold and encourage other Indigenous cultures, and walk alongside colleagues who are on their own journey of unpacking their Indigenous heritage – all in my role as Global Chapter Lead for the Indigenous at Microsoft Employee Resource Group.”

So why did this request feel harder to do?

The invitation was to co-host a Microsoft ANZ bi-annual event diversity and inclusion event called inclusive. It’s designed to shine a light on critical aspects of diversity and inclusion – in this instance, racism, racial discrimination and cultural intelligence. The goal of the event series and subsequent team discussions is to empower Microsoft ANZ employees to play their part in making all feel heard, all feel valued, all feel respected.

No wonder the nerves. It’s one thing to be yourself at work, but something else entirely to be vulnerable in front of thousands of your colleagues about something as layered as your cultural identity, and feelings on racism and racial discrimination.

Isaac has a lifetime of learning that showing up as yourself has consequences: “When you grow up in a community where the starting line is further back than others, you start running a race, looking to the left and right and thinking why am I not where I’m supposed to be? Racial stereotype rhetoric locks people out with a deficit lens. I often tried to not acknowledge my identity. I started trying to control everything and overcompensating. I concentrated on language and vernacular, dressing in a certain way, distancing myself from other Māori and our traditional practices, and refraining from expressing ideas and opinions – all to make myself more consumable for western culture.”

Isaac’s experiences speak to the power of symbols, systems, and language that can inform people’s worldview of what is acceptable, or more accurately, not acceptable within western cultural norms. And the pressures to assimilate to succeed in a career.

“When you show up as yourself, you won’t always be received well. People put you in a box. You’re restricted from opportunity in that box. It’s difficult for me to say out loud, but I felt I had to shed layers of myself to have the best chance at opportunity.”

Like Isaac, Sneha Rao, Cloud Solution Architect Microsoft ANZ based in Sydney, also felt nervous about co-hosting inclusive. “To be asked to share my story in front of this audience was a little bit daunting! I’m nervous about how it will be received and very conscious about being respectful to everyone. The opportunity to create change and deliver a message I am so deeply passionate about is amazing.”

In Sneha’s mind, diversity can only go so far without inclusion:

Diversity is like having a ticket to the dance. Inclusion is being asked to the dance.

Sneha Rao, adult female, in a sari dress
Sneha Rao, Cloud Solution Architect, Microsoft ANZ (Photo by Paul Suesse)

As it happens, Sneha is an Indian classical dancer, so the analogy feels serendipitous. It also opens a door to the impact of covering in her own family.

“My children also do Indian classical dance, and after these events, they would see me get dressed in western clothes and always describe our participation in general terms. Someone might ask me: ‘What did you do on the weekend?’ and I would say: ‘Oh, we went to a cultural celebration.’ Only three years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamt of blurring the lines. Now my children see me work at home in my Indian dance clothes and then go straight to dance. They were seeing different versions of me and now that’s changing, it’s helping them blur the lines too. They used to call me ‘Mama’ at the shops, and ‘Amma’ at home, and now it’s changing to ‘Amma’ everywhere.”

Both Isaac and Sneha’s reflections remind us to consider the human impact of a non-inclusive culture through the eyes of children.

As Isaac shared, growing up he believed he had to sacrifice parts of himself to get ahead. This was noticed. Not as a problem. As something to be celebrated. As a teenager, a classmate said to him: “You’re not like other Māori Isaac, you’re one of the good ones.” The enormity of this statement stayed with Isaac as a reminder that to create lasting change the narrative needs to change.

“I look at my nephew and I know he knows he can be himself. I graduated university online and when I received my degrees in the mail and shared this achievement with my family, one of the most profound things my nephew said to me was: ‘Uncle Isaac, one day I want to be a scientist.’ I wouldn’t even have considered pathways like that at his age as I wouldn’t have seen it as accessible.

It’s about embracing all facets of your identity. That you can be Māori, speak our native language and go out into the world with the confidence that it will not be a disadvantage, but an amplification of who you are and what you’re capable of.

Two years ago, Sneha’s five-year-old daughter refused to go to school in metropolitan Sydney. “She was beside herself crying. I didn’t know what to do. She wouldn’t get ready, wouldn’t have breakfast. After lots of hugging and cajoling, she said: ‘Amma, if I scrub myself really hard, will I be white like you?’” Sneha has a fairer skin tone than her daughters, so they see her as white. It turned out that a child in the kindergarten class had been saying: “Brown kids are not allowed here.”

Reflecting on how she felt in that moment, Sneha boiled it down to one emotion – anger: “’ I went back 27 years to when I migrated here as a 14-year-old and how I was so often judged for the colour of my skin and my accent. Kids from my school would even bang on my window. I was so scared.”

It was a moment of activation for Sneha. It led to her forming the Asians at Microsoft employee resource group with tremendous support from the Microsoft ANZ leadership team. Sneha still co-leads the group today, as a space to celebrate Asian culture.

“I decided to use my difference to make a difference.”

It was at this time that Sneha started to remove the distinctions between her cultural background and work persona. She credits this as helping to normalise cultural conversations at work: “The more I have become my true self, the more authentic my conversations have been.” Even Sneha wearing a sari to co-host inclusive, is a symbol of that change as an “Australian Indian”: “Three years ago, I would not have dreamt of doing that.”

Shireen Chua, Director Third Culture Solutions is a cultural intelligence expert who helps people bridge that gap to authenticity and acceptance in the workplace. Shireen’s advice for exercising cultural intelligence is to: “understand that when one party is more comfortable, the other is left carrying most of the uncomfortableness.” She believes a great approach is to take little steps and focus on the people who are most resistant to change. Notice behaviours and assess the energy exchange between yourself and others by considering if you are doing right by them, honouring them, and being empowering. Shireen also suggests consciously seeking difference in your choices and decisions, as we are often drawn to people who are like us.

Isaac has seen how sharing lived experiences brings people out of their bubble: “It sparks a reflection on the lifestyle and opportunities they’ve been afforded and, hopefully, a realisation that their experience is not common for most people.”

Adult male in a suit and an adult female in a traditional sari dress
Isaac (left) and Sneha (right) were invited to co-host Microsoft ANZ’s bi-annual diversity and inclusion event called: inclusive (Photo by Paul Suesse)

The statistics catapult us out of the bubble as well. The Australian Human Rights Commission reports that one in five Australians experience racism, and two in five New Zealanders report a rise in racism since the start of the pandemic. Take that through to the workplace and one in three working Australians have experienced racism, and 39% of workers in New Zealand have been racially harassed at work in the last five years.

Sneha and Isaac also see leadership and role modelling as a critical factor in making progress against racism and racial discrimination across Australia and New Zealand.

And yet, leadership demographics don’t reflect the demographic reality in either country. In New Zealand, 27% of the population was born overseas and in Australia 51.5% of the population has one parent who was born overseas. However less than 5% of the most senior posts in Australia are filled by people with a non-European background, and that drops to 0.4% with an indigenous background. And from an industry perspective, only 4% of tech workers are Māori and 2.8% Pasifika.

“I want my kids to see more people like them in leadership roles. India and China have the highest number of migrants to Australia, and yet how many Indian/Asian CEOs do I see in Australia? Not many.” says Sneha.

When asked what they hope inclusive will achieve for Microsoft ANZ, Sneha and Isaac both agree that there is work to do in converting a moment to momentum.

“What happens after we feel uncomfortable?” asks Sneha. “I don’t want this to be a moment that is then forgotten. I hope it creates momentum in driving change. It starts with the simple things. How do I pronounce your name? Check-in about what people are comfortable with if you’re not sure. And be curious if there are things that cross-over from personal to the workplace like cultural festivals.”

Isaac believes it’s critical to invite conversations, learning, advocacy and action: “Microsoft is making holding space a priority.

All organisations can create these spaces for people to show up authentically. It’s not taking away from your day job. It’s adding.

inclusive posed this question to Microsoft employees about racism and racial discrimination: ‘What can each of US do to be more inclusive?’

The answer lies in the courage of the people who speak up and share their lived experiences. People like Isaac and Sneha. It’s their stories and that of countless others that help us better understand what it means to listen, learn, and act for more diverse and inclusive workplaces, communities, and countries.