Cultural Design

Culture provides the catalyst for Designer to create services and products that are fit for their context but also innovative and culturally sensitive.

Our role as designers hinges on integrating the socio-cultural factors that leads to the final outcome. Now more than ever, we need to be aware of the impact of culture.

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Diversity in Motion

Diversity in Motion

This article explores the current Australian Immigration landscape and the issues faced by highly skilled migrant women from NESB in Melbourne. By looking at current national policies and the lived experience of representatives from this group, we aim to showcase the need for the development of new communities of purpose to create a supportive environment at the local level.

Please see the presentation at the end of this article which explores Business and Professional Women Australia (BPW) and their members roles in shaping policy.

A blueprint for development of new communities of purpose

“Multiculturalism [sic] means we’re going to encourage people to maintain their differences and that basically we have an attitude that, well, all cultures are equal, all cultures are the same, then I don’t think people feel comfortable with that … You can’t have a nation with a federation of cultures. You can have a nation where a whole variety of cultures constantly influence and mould and change and blend in with the mainstream … The core culture of this nation is very clear, we are an outshoot of Western Civilisation.” (Howard, cited in Johnston, 2007).[1]

How migrants navigate through the myriad of challenges to integrate into a host society is outside the scope of this paper. I aim to explore the issue of employment integration of highly skilled migrant women, from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB), in Australia and possible blueprints for development of communities of purpose.[2] By conducting a preliminary focus group, it has become evident that a virtual and physical space where these women can engage and build relationships with the business community, can pave the way for a positive cultural exchange between the migrant women and the wider community.

Permanent settlement has been one of the distinguishing factors among migrants in Australia. White Australia policy has had far reaching consequences, and given its presence for the first 150 years of our history, has focused the flow of migration to the Anglo-Saxon race. This has encouraged the popularity of “an Australian race”.  For the last 3 decades, since the policy was abolished, the flow of migration has become much more diverse to include Southern Europe, Asia and Africa. During the 1990s, a major change started to take place as policy was focused to improve Australia’s role in the “emergent global economy” (Teicher, Shah & Griffin, 2002). As a result, Australian Policy was focused on economic competency within the globlised international market. This economic restructuring has led to increased levels of racism[3], especially within Australian regional centres, which were adversely affected by this shift in economic policy.

The invisible talent pool

Women Migrants and deskilling through eduaction

Given Australia’s aging workforce and declining population, there is a growing need for highly skilled employees who can fulfill the requirements of the local labour markets. Research indicates highly skilled professional migrant women from NESB, are not recognized by policy makers and local businesses. Gender stereotyping and discriminatory practices continue to bar women from full and equitable participation in the labour market. These factors exert a stronger influence in impeding migrant women in the workforce, due to “official distinctions which are made between western and non-western migrants” (Merens et al., 2010 quoted in van den Bergh & Du Plessis, Y, 2011).

Moving to another country brings a host of everyday challenges, such as the need to forge new social networks, establish a new career identity and master a new culture along with learning a new language, all of which contribute to “the identity formation and self-esteem of these formerly successful professionals” (van den Bergh & Du Plessis, Y, 2011).

Challenges facing Highly Skilled Women

“In Australia, research outcomes have highlighted the consistently inferior labour market outcomes from NESB source countries” (Hawthorne, 2005 as quoted in Jawed, 2008). What appears to be the case in the local context is the disjunction between macro level policies and the perceptions held with local communities and business sector. The domination of the ‘success story’ of skilled migrants has contributed to the difficulties women face as it simplifies the experiences of migrants regarding gendered characteristic of the labour market in Australia. Skilled NESB women migrants face inadequate resources to tackle the job market due to the burdens associated with adjusting to a new life in the host country.

NESB Womens are more likely to be employed as labourers in comparison to their mainstream sisters (13 percent compared to 7 percent) and eight times more likely to be employed as manual labourers in the manufacturing and transport sector (17 percent compared to 2.5 percent) irrespective of their level of education (Ho, Bertone, et al. as quoted in Syed & Kramar, 2009).

These factors contribute to ‘downward occupational mobility’ due to an increased domestic workload, and feminization[4] , and hinder the “re-establishment of work-care arrangement” in the domestic context which leads to non-utilisation of these women’s human capital (Ho, 2009). To further complicate matters, diversity management skills are sorely lacking in the business sector.

Design and engagement with a community of Purpose

Designing a Community of Purpose

The problems faced by Highly Skilled Migrant women are two pronged. They face pressures both within the family context to provide more care without the safety net of the extended family support and the lack of recognition of their previous work experience. The emphasis on an “Australian Experience” acts as an exclusionary factor. This is used by the business sector to discriminate against women with a degree from their home country but also women who have obtained further education in the host country. How do we bridge this gap? It seems that a collective push must be applied to the business sector to embrace and implement diversity programs that go beyond mere cosmetic and legal obligations.


“When I first started to look for work in Australia, they said I need Australian qualifications, so I did a postgraduate degree and then a Master’s. Now, I am told that I am over-qualified! Now, I work at Grilled, sometimes, I get very depressed…”

 – excerpt from interview with a Venezuelan Migrant Woman

Designing a space together and for migrant women from diverse ethnic background by utilising women’s centres around Australia would help in recording and shaping their narrative in their new adopted home. This could take the form of an online and spatial community, where their narrative can be recorded and shared with the wider community. Collaborative Design could involve a number of stakeholders including other migrant women from NES backgrounds, who undoubtedly have similar challenges to share about recreating their social networks. A space designed to share knowledge and create links to industry will provide a workable framework and foster closer relationships with the business sector.

The collaborative nature of a community of purpose, would discourage an authoritarian hierarchy. In this manner, the boundaries between leading and participating in the community would become blurred and foster an environment where individuals or business partners can lead on common projects based on their negotiated capabilities. This would allow all stakeholders a degree of influence but not the final say in every facet of the community (Lank, 2006).

Women’s organisations such as BPW Australia represent and advocate on behalf of women from diverse communities. Such an organization is in the perfect position to negotiate alliances with governing bodies of professional associations to create links and foster a community of purpose.


Design Anthropology with its humanistic focus, provides an open exploratory framework for engagement within an organizational/community context to nurture innovation.

What is sophisticated about collaborative engagement is the ability to “identify potential gaps between the ideal process and what is actually experienced” by participants (in this case our participants would be highly skilled Migrant women), revealing the potential for improvement without losing the complexity of representational issues at hand (Mindlab, 2011). In short there is a need to demonstrate how new insights can lead to real change. To that end our project needs to employ a range of mixed methods from diverse fields such as design anthropology, sociology and political science.

Any collaborative efforts in the organizational (industry/government) context are affected by our ability to effectively ‘engage in conversation about the work we do and the spaces within which we do it’. In this manner, ethnography in the organizational context will help to focus our lens on developing a ‘stronger home grown theoretical frameworks’, to establish a strong community of purpose by forming alliances with industry and women’s alliances within the dominant culture. (Flynn 2009, 53).

In reviewing innovative methodologies such as the “Ethnographic Approach” from Mindlab, our aim is to seeks and engage these women authentically and “see the world through their eyes” initiating the “change in perspective which is paramount to continued innovation”. Concurrently, we need to consult with culturally specific groups through semi-structured interviews to explore these complex issues by building on existing internal knowledge. As with all user-centred practices, we must place a strong emphasis on co-design and collaborative processes (Mindlab, 2011).

Questions and Conclusion

The project at its current stage, aims to consolidate expert and user experiences of our target audience. At its current phase (Discovery), the scope of our project will be based in Victoria. Semi-structured interviews will be conducted with both migrant women and professional associations. This will focus our design of the project and strongly inform our approach to migrant women’s attitude regarding diversity in Victoria.

Here are some important questions which will guide the next phase of the project.

  1. What are the local impediments to active participation of highly skilled migrant women in the workforce?
  2. How do our target group identify within the context of urban victoria?
  3. How can we design and provide cultural awareness training for business in Victoria?
  4. How can we encourage recognition of migrant values and cultures?
  5. How can we strengthen inter-agency partnerships with migrant women’s communities and representational bodies (who influence policy) in Victoria?
  6. How can our modes of communication be inclusive of the views and stories of future members of our community of purpose?

[1] The policies implemented during the Howard years have compounded the difficulties faced by the migrant workforce. In particular the removal of many programs which were put in place  to aid migrants in learning English and receive education assistance were dismantled in the early 2000s.

[2] “This sentiment was largely associated with the rise of a populist political party, “Pauline Hason’s One Nation Party”. This party is best known for its anti-Asian immigration vies and an unsympathetic attitude to the plight of Australia’s Aborigines, but its views included opposition to gun control, privatization, foreign investment, tariff reductions and globalization” (Teicher, Shah & Griffin, 2002).

[3] “A community of purpose is a community of people who are going through the same process or are trying to achieve similar objectives. Such communities serve a functional purpose, smoothing the path of the member for a limited period surrounding a given activity.” – Wikipedia

[4] “The term feminization is not intended to naturalise women’s domestic roles nor to endorse gendered divisions of labour which result in women’s responsibilities for household work, but rather seeks to reflect the social construction of gender roles, clearly highlighted in the dramatic changes in women’s roles and identity that are experienced with migration” (HO, 2008).

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