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AT A GLANCE
- An India-qualified lawyer, Molina Asthana arrived in Australia in 2004
- Equipped with a Masters degree from Melbourne and chalking up corporate experience, she is now the Principal of Swarup Asthana Lawyers, practicing in commercial law
- A keen sportsperson who sits on many sporting boards, Molina is passionate about using sport as a means to empower migrant women in Australia
Being appointed as Vice President of the Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) is a hugely satisfying achievement for Molina Asthana.
Not only does this make her the first Indian-born woman – indeed the first Indian-born person – to be elected to this position in the 162-year history of this institution, but it also marks the culmination of a long journey of 16 years, when as a new migrant, she was told she would struggle to get a job in Australia with her Indian qualifications and experience.
Despite having worked as a lawyer in the Supreme Court of India, Molina’s degree and experience were discounted here. She took a Master of Laws degree in Melbourne with good grades, but that wasn’t enough to get her started. Even as recruiters dismissed her applications, Molina decided to make her own move.
“Meeting the partners at the big law firms, I would tell them about my experiences, my background and the value add that would bring,” Molina told Indian Link, recounting the early days of struggle. “When I got my first break, it was at the top-tier law firm Clayton Utz.”
Starting as a trainee solicitor, she climbed the ladder within months. She soon became the Principal Solicitor at the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office, a position in which she served for eleven years until two years ago.
Explaining her decision to start her own practice, Molina said, “As I went up the ranks, I realised that in spite of all my effort or skills, I would probably never reach the top, like becoming partner.”
She decided to service the migrant business population, who were clamouring for “someone who spoke their language and understood them culturally.”
As a woman of colour, she had hit what she describes as the ‘double-glazed glass ceiling’. Her own experience of the law firm clique where work culture is exclusionary is telling. “People like me feel a bit lost in the big firms where male colleagues speak of private schools they went to or the footy and state clubs they belong to and don’t make any effort to include you.”
However, Molina adapted quickly. She now sits on sporting boards like Gymnastics Australia, the AFL South East Commission and Tribunal for the Football Federation of Australia. Sport was something Molina realised could be her strength in assimilating into Australian culture.
“When I came here, I was amazed to see everyone participating in some sport, whether running, cycling, walking or organised sport like soccer or footy. I was inspired,” Molina revealed.
She now runs half-marathons.
It led her to launch a not-for-profit called Multicultural Women in Sport, using sport as a means of empowerment and to increase wellbeing and a sense of belonging. It works with large sporting organisations to help them restructure community programs to make them migrant-women-friendly.
“We also advocate for more inclusive spaces for women, such as allowing women to play in clothing they are comfortable with like the hijab or longer clothing, have women facilitators, umpires and coaches, curtains when swimming or separate timings for women who are not comfortable swimming around men.”
Molina hopes to use her year-long tenure as Vice President of LIV to make a real impact. Allegations of sexual harassment are rife in her profession. “More support for victims, awareness campaigns, and helping smaller firms set up policies to stem such behaviour, will be an area of focus,” she stated.
Diversity in the legal profession is another issue. Many law graduates come from diverse backgrounds but don’t eventually make it to the top, thinning out at mid-level. “There are barely any judges of Asian/migrant background. Visually the profession is very white,” Molina observed.
Recovery from COVID-19 is another focus for LIV. Not only lawyers, but many migrant clients have also suffered. “Going online has benefits but when everything is tech-based, it is the most vulnerable that suffer, ending up being marginalised even further.”
Her own practice, which also runs an office in India, specialises in commercial law. Cross-border work is Molina’s passion. She speaks at legal conferences in India and has been consulted on laws drafted there, relating to financial consumer protection and privacy. She is also trying to make it easier for overseas lawyers like herself who struggle to get their prior learning and experiences recognised when they migrate.
To hear Molina in her own words and literally walk in her shoes, head to Sydney Maritime Museum, where she is featured as part of ‘A mile in my shoes’ event. Inside a giant shoebox, visitors are provided with a stranger’s pair of shoes and an audio recording and are encouraged to walk a mile to understand where that person came from and what has shaped their migration story. A free exhibition, it is on until 30 April 2021.
Molina’s advice to women in her profession is to equip themselves with knowledge and imbibe good things from the culture of their adopted country while being true to their own heritage.
“I encourage all women, in particular migrant women, to put their hands up for leadership positions. You have to make yourself heard,” says Molina who has walked this talk and continues to, tirelessly.