A rich and challenging life of diversity and inclusion – profiling Smitha Mandre-Jackson

Speaking five languages is very impressive and probably something we would all like to do.
Smitha Mandre-Jackson, who works as Diversity and Inclusion Lead at QUT, is someone who can say she is multilingual with confidence. She speaks, reads and writes English, Hindi, Kannada and Marathi, as well as speaking Tamil.


Smitha Mandre Jackson

Ms Mandre-Jackson said diversity and inclusion had always been a normal part of her professional and personal life.

“My diversity and inclusion journey started at a very young age. My mother is a social worker in India, where she fundraises for many initiatives like getting toilets built in slums, supplying food to orphanages, organising health camps and organising cataract operations for those who live in extreme poverty,” Ms Mandre-Jackson said.

“I remember tagging along with her when I was very young and helping her, she is one of my first and favourite role models.

Calling out bad behaviour

“For me, my commitment to diversity and inclusion is through my ‘head, heart and hands’, I stick to my values and ethical standards and I am not at all afraid of calling out bad behaviour.”

This conviction is played out and lived with gusto in all aspects of her life including her studies over the years. But in reality her diverse and inclusive life journey was apparent from the start.

As well as her mother’s influence, her grandfather also made his mark.

As Vice-Chancellor of a huge commerce university in Bangalore, India, he encouraged his children and grandchildren – regardless of their gender – to study whatever disciplines they chose.

“There was no gender stereotyping in my family in India. I had many positive role models and studying STEMM was normalised for everyone in my family.

From international travel to diversity and inclusion

“My grandfather was extremely intelligent and very encouraging.

“My mother and aunts studied science degrees in the 1960s and my father had multiple accounting and law undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications,” she said.

“Cousins and other family members also completed studies in a diverse range of subjects from medicine to architecture, engineering to accounting, to name a few.

“So I suppose it’s not surprising I’ve ended up studying subjects from STEMM and economics at school, to a Bachelor of Arts majoring in organisational psychology, English literature and journalism, a Master of Education majoring in career guidance and other postgraduate studies in data science and leadership and management studies.”

Ms Mandre-Jackson said all her qualifications had been useful in different aspects of her work roles.

“This is true for all my studies, even a Diploma in International Travel that I did helped me to learn great communication, organisation and problem-solving skills – even though I didn’t work in the travel industry for very long,” she said.

More westernised

Ms Mandre-Jackson came to Australia as a migrant in early 1999.

“I think I must have applied for more than 500 jobs over the first six months I was here.

“I wasn’t really selective about the industry I applied to, as a migrant from a visible minority group in the 1990s I didn’t have the privilege of being selective. It was just a matter of getting a job,” she said.

Even though she had two tertiary qualifications with high grades, she didn’t get shortlisted for any positions over the six months, which really affected her confidence as she had always worked.

“Unfortunately, I’m not too sure if this has really changed much in Australia in 2019, which is sad,” she said.

A recruitment agent suggested that not being offered any work opportunities was probably because her name – Smitha Mandre – sounded quite foreign.

Career at QUT

“They suggested that I add my husband’s surname to my name to make it more westernised.

“This was in the late 1990s. I took their advice and added ‘Jackson’ to my surname, which seemed to change my luck,” she said.

“I got shortlisted for a positon at QUT within two weeks of this happening and took up the role of Course Advisor at the Brisbane Graduate School of Business at QUT, starting work in June 1999.”

Still at QUT 10 years later, she applied for a Senior Equity Officer (Scholarships and Projects) role in the Equity Department at the university.

The role and the department’s social justice vision really appealed to her and she is still in the same department now – working as Diversity and Inclusion Lead for QUT.

“I truly enjoy gender equity and diversity work. I’m especially interested in intersectionality, that is, the interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.”

Over nearly 20 years at QUT – including a secondment to Queensland Tertiary Admissions Centre – she has worked on many interesting and challenging ICT, research and reporting projects.

Agile and outcome oriented

“I get told that I’m good at this kind of work; that I’m truly agile and outcome-oriented. I’ve always ended up working on extra and often innovative projects at work alongside my day job,” she said.

QUT is committed to being an equal opportunity employer, promoting equality for all staff and eliminating all discrimination – including that based on gender. It was one of the 15 universities to receive the SAGE Athena SWAN Institutional Bronze Award in 2018.

“QUT has a huge commitment to gender equity, with an extensive suite of policies and strategies, as well as awards. It also has a very strong diversity and inclusion governance structure sponsored by our Vice-Chancellor, Professor Margaret Sheil AO FTSE,” she said.

Ms Mandre-Jackson’s work priority moving forward at QUT is to review diversity and inclusion throughout the university from a holistic perspective.

“I’m passionate about doing work in the intersectionality space and, in the future, I’m hoping to collect and analyse intersectionality data to see what barriers exist for intersectional groups.”

She is also pleased that SAGE will be incorporating intersectionality criteria for assessment in the upcoming Silver Award applications.

Intersectional allies

“We need intersectional allies in the education sector and we also need to raise the bar for educational institutions to act in this very important space. Social diversity goes hand in hand with cognitive diversity and it’s a no brainer that this is better for business.”

In her own career, she has found that her race rather than her gender has been the biggest and almost insurmountable barrier for her progression.

“This has been in all the organisations I’ve worked and this issue is faced by most intersectional cohorts all over the world.

“As a non-academic staff member most of the positions I apply for at QUT and externally have a majority of female applicants,” she said.

“At QUT, we currently don’t really cut data by race or other intersectional characteristics, but a very quick glance at the data shows that most of the professional senior roles go to Anglo-Celtic women, when compared to first nations or culturally and linguistically diverse women. I think that affinity bias plays a huge role in this.”

She has seen a lot of positive changes occurring at QUT over the time she has worked there though.

Positive changes and leadership commitment

“I get treated with respect the same as my male colleagues. And there have been many positive changes for women working at QUT, thanks to the university’s senior leadership commitment to gender equity,” she said.

“Successful policies, strategies, programs and initiatives have boosted recruitment and retention over the years, and we have a robust staff and student code of conduct, which is fabulous.

“But the sad fact of life is that people of colour, like me, face racial micro aggression on a daily basis, which can happen at work and in your life outside of work and which is extremely exhausting. My kids regularly face this on the sports field or at school.”

Ms Mandre-Jackson has a range of strategies to deal with this including remaining calm, giving people the benefit of the doubt, focusing on the event rather than the person, and being clear about the different strategies to use that she has learnt from her first nations’ friends, colleagues and family.

Her personal experiences of discrimination have come from the perspectives of race, ethnicity and gender.

“I am a visible minority and can’t hide my diversity characteristic even if I wanted to, which I don’t.

Diversity imperative for boards

“It has taken me years to become the assertive, strong and proud black woman I am today, and I aspire to be an effective role model for my kids as well as my work colleagues from minority groups,” she said.

Even with these chronic, difficult and deep-seated challenges – often on a daily basis – Ms Mandre-Jackson is still ambitious and wants to do and achieve more. Last year, she also became a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors – with the ultimate aim to work as a non-executive director on boards.

“I’m yet to start my director journey, but I think there is an imperative for having diversity reflected on boards and not just gender diversity.

“I’m a strategic thinker and I want to be involved in good decision-making by being part of identifying a board’s contribution to organisational performance and strategy development and execution,” she said.

The future of diversity and inclusion

Ms Mandre-Jackson’s husband is a Wiradjuri first nations man and she says she was shocked at the state of affairs of Australia’s first nations people when she moved to Australia.

“My husband inspires me. I’m extremely proud of his commitment to the mob and the work that he quietly does via social media and other avenues. He genuinely cares and advocates for his people in a very active way,” she said.

She feels very lucky to be surrounded by so many first nations role models and loves the first nations culture here in Australia, as well as gaining a lot of motivation and inspiration from the resilience of this country’s first nations people.

“My kids are Koori-Indians and embrace both cultures and, as a family, we are extremely active in the social justice space.”

Leading the change right now

This is extremely good to hear. Because without people like Smitha Mandre-Jackson – who struggle, who don’t accept the status quo, who fight, who don’t give up and who push the envelope – we don’t move forward as a society, as a nation or as the human race generally.

We need more Smitha Mandre-Jacksons globally … they are definitely the future of diversity and inclusion, as well as helping to lead the change right now.