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Visible Women #5: Associate Professor Sukhmani Khorana, School of Arts and Media, UNSW

Visible Women #5: Associate Professor Sukhmani Khorana, School of Arts and Media, UNSW

Monday, August 07, 2023

Welcome to the fifth interview in our series of Visible Women interviews, where we profile women from all stages of leadership. In this edition, we have the pleasure of speaking with Associate Professor Sukhmani Khorana, whose research delves into the fascinating areas of media diversity, multi-platform refugee narratives, and the politics of empathy. 

Sukhmani has contributed significantly to her field whilst actively acting as a mentor and champion for women, particularly women of colour, who face unique challenges in their professional journeys. Join us as we delve into Sukhmani's thoughts on the power of mentorship and how universities should be leading the way for diversity and inclusion. 


Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your career?

My research focuses on media diversity, multi-platform refugee narratives, and the politics of empathy. As well as my academic publications, I have also ventured into creative non-fiction and poetry. I have a particular strength in collaborative research as demonstrated through two successful ARC Linkage grants and multiple partnerships with organisations in the media, arts, refugee and migration sectors. I am regularly invited to contribute to public fora and media outlets such as the ABC and ‘The Conversation’.

I am passionate about facilitating the agency of marginalised communities to tell their own stories, harnessing emotions for social change, and building solidarities between differently disadvantaged groups. My research, experience, and creative work are a testament to the power of communities of care and ethical practice that can exist at all levels of academia if there is willingness and institutional support.

Throughout my career, I have taken the lead in establishing research networks focused on women, migration, and media, striving to empower and support younger scholars, particularly those of colour who may face significant barriers due to familial or structural limitations. The capacity-building of women-identifying colleagues and students has become a true passion of mine.


What challenges have you overcome to get to where you are today? 

As a first-generation migrant woman who came to Australia as an international student and has lived here for over 20 years, I have had to overcome many implicit perceptions about my race and gender. For instance, colleagues in new settings have often underestimated my abilities and assumed I was a PhD student or an early career researcher when I was already 10 years post-PhD, with significant leadership experience, international collaborations, and a media profile.

I have also resisted the easier route for racialised humanities and social sciences scholars, which is only to represent and research the culture you come from. While it is vital to have lived experience or consult extensively when researching marginalised communities, I have found it much more productive to strive towards the next stage of establishing solidarities across distinct social movements. For this reason, my work on refugees crosses platforms, genres and national communities. In many professional circles, however, I am expected to answer queries about being South Asian rather than on my extensive expertise in refugee media.

I attempt to turn these barriers into opportunities by questioning assumptions where it is safe to do so, and by offering to assist junior colleagues facing similar challenges. A critical mass of women and women of colour in leadership positions is vital to changing perceptions.


What role would you like to play in helping future female leaders?

I haven't had a linear journey myself, and have often had to accept contracts or go down a level when changing institutions. At UNSW, I feel supported through the Scientia Fellowship, which enables me to build on my research momentum and contribute to diversifying my School's curriculum. I am passionate about capacity-building women of colour so they can create impactful, caring collectives and work towards institutional change.

In addition to leading diversity and decolonisation initiatives in my school and university, I want to champion equity and inclusion in the public sphere in sectors like the media, creative arts and politics. It is important for young people of colour growing up in Australia to see themselves in the national narratives and for these cultural and political institutions to be welcoming, culturally safe workplaces to work. My vision is for universities to lead on this front, which, unfortunately, has not been the case so far.


In your experience, what are some of the unique challenges that women, especially women of colour, face in their careers?

Women, especially women of colour, often face implicit biases and stereotypes that can limit their opportunities for growth and advancement.

It would really help to have women mentors and leaders who champion other women in the early stages of their careers and provide them with leadership opportunities required for growth. I have been fortunate to be mentored by senior colleagues of all genders who were genuinely interested in my professional development and saw me as more than a representative of a certain community. Having respectful relationships at all stages is key to encouraging more women of colour to enter and stay in academia.

It is also important to find new models of leadership itself that account for and respect caring responsibilities rather than seeing these as impediments to professional growth.


How do you envision universities taking a leading role in promoting equity and inclusion?

Universities have a responsibility to foster environments where diversity and inclusion are not just buzzwords but integral parts of the institution's fabric. This can be achieved through targeted initiatives, policies, and support systems that address the unique challenges faced by women, particularly women of colour. Most universities have a great deal of goodwill about being inclusive, but this has seldom translated into actionable plans. Therefore, universities need more serious self-reflection and shouldering of responsibility for championing inclusion and anti-racism.

By creating a culture of mentorship, providing leadership opportunities, and actively dismantling systemic barriers, universities can lead the way in building a more inclusive society.


What advice do you have for aspiring women leaders who may be navigating similar career challenges?

I would advise seeking mentors and allies who can provide guidance and support. Connect with other women who have overcome similar challenges and learn from their experiences. Don't be afraid to take up leadership opportunities, even if they may seem daunting at first. It is vital that women leaders make all their labour visible to their colleagues and institutions, as emotional work is often expected of us without being appropriately recognised. 

Also, it is more important than ever to surround yourself with a strong support network and remember that your voice and perspectives matter. Most importantly, never underestimate your own abilities and the positive impact you can make. 


Connect with Sukhmani