“I lost part of my identity to fit in”: Women fight to change workwear standards in Australia | australian fashion

When Ruwangi Fernando came to Australia from Sri Lanka to undertake her PhD, she was struck by the obstacles faced by migrants and women of color working in science, engineering, technology and science. mathematics.

“I discovered that a lot of people, even those with a doctorate, were not able to enter the workforce,” says Fernando. “It made me wonder why.

“They find that their qualifications are not enough. Many of them change their names to appear more Western, just to submit their CVs or get a job interview.

Dr Ruwangi Fernando, founder of Stem Sisters. Photography: Danielle Allison

The statistics back up his claims. The unemployment rate for foreign-born and educated Stem women who arrived in Australia after 2006 is 14.1%, compared to just 3.3% for Australian-born and educated Stem women, according to the Australian Stem Workforce Report published in 2020 by the Office of the Chief Scientist of Australia.

“Gender and racial prejudice play a critical role in this inequality and are barriers to the growth of women of color in Stem,” says Fernando, who studies at the Institute for Sustainable Industries and Liveable Cities at Victoria University.

“Many of these women lack confidence in their appearance and perception. “

In 2017, Fernando created Stem Sisters to support and celebrate international students and migrant women working at Stem. She now leads a multitude of initiatives ranging from mentoring programs and workshops to an online community and magazine.

The latest is Dress to impress, a digital panel discussion on Saturday as part of Melbourne Fashion Week. Its aim is to challenge the fashion standards that migrants and women of color should follow in male-dominated Stem industries.

Right now, pants, long sleeves, dark colors, and minimalist embellishments are standard dress codes that Stem women are expected to adhere to. “People try not to wear skirts or bright colors, and usually dress in black or office suits, so they don’t draw attention to themselves anymore,” Fernando explains.

“As a migrant or woman of color at Stem, you are already highlighted because you are that person in the boardroom, so in your personal style you don’t want to stand out any more. We try to restore confidence in women to express their true self, because when you feel confident… you don’t have to transform yourself into someone else. “

For some women, fitting in means giving up traditional cultural clothing, as environmental engineer Najah Onn did when she arrived in Australia from Malaysia.

“I’m a Muslim but I don’t wear the hijab anymore because when I got here daddy said to me, ‘If you’re going to college, you have to take it off,’” Onn said. “I understood why he asked me to do this, but I lost part of my identity to fit in.”

Environmental engineer Najah Onn at work
Environmental engineer Najah Onn at work

For women arriving from India, saris and bindis are another issue to negotiate. “Some people don’t want to give up wearing a bindi and a sari, so how do you make them more confident and comfortable doing it? Ask a chemical engineer, Priya Subramanian.

Bella To, a stylist who speaks on the Dress to Impress panel, says the nationwide lockdowns have solved this problem.

“Working from home during Covid-19 definitely inspires people to embrace their personal styles more, especially for women of color, as we no longer have to comply with the usual office dress code,” To said.

“Since returning to the office, I have felt that many women want to put more effort into showing their unique personality without compromising. I definitely found myself adopting bolder, more courageous styles with a more individual sense of fashion.

Fernando says that acquiring the right wardrobe for the office can be a big hurdle for some women. “They… have a hard time finding clothes for their first job or interview because they feel they need to be even more presentable because they are women of color, and they don’t necessarily have the means to buy a lot. new clothes. “

For this, it will also launch a workwear exchange program, Trade with Stem Sis.

During the Dress to Impress panel, Fernando hopes to build on this newfound confidence for lasting change. “Together we can strengthen each other,” she says.

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