Is there a bamboo ceiling in Australia?

An important and hard question we face is why Australians of Asian descent are under-represented in leadership positions, whether in politics or business.

Much ink and column space has been spent arguing for a greater role for women in politics as well as in business. Some of the country’s most senior political and business leaders have taken up the female diversity cause. However, few people seem to be interested in talking about another important diversity issue -- the lack of Asian Australians in leadership positions.

Australians of Asian cultural backgrounds account for nearly 10 per cent of the country’s population but they only account for 1.9 per cent of executive managers, 4.15 per cent of directors and 1.3 per cent of federal parliamentarians. 

If women are doing it tough in politics or the workplace, Asian Australians are doing it even tougher; at least that's what the statistics tell us. At ANZ, arguably Australia’s most international bank with a strong Asia Pacific presence, there is not a single Asian executive in its most senior management team. There is one Asian on the company’s board who just so happens to be the younger brother of the Singaporean Prime Minister and the son of Lee Kuan Yew.

Some business leaders think this poor state of affairs is not good for Australia, especially at a time when the country and business community talk about the urgency of building Asia capability.  Professional services firm PwC announced last year it would increase the number of partners with an Asian cultural background to 5 per cent by 2016.

However the most important and hard question is why Australians of Asian descent are under-represented in leadership positions, whether in politics or business.  Race discrimination commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane believes the existence of a bamboo ceiling is partly to blame for the situation.

Like the glass ceiling for women, the bamboo ceiling is the invisible barrier to the professional advancement of Australians of an Asian cultural background. “Recognising that such barriers exist -- and I believe they do exist --can be the most difficult part of starting a conversation about diversity and unconscious bias,” Soutphommasane told a gathering of Asian Australian lawyers in Melbourne this week.

Put simply, it is a question about whether there is wide-spread racial bias or stereotyping in society that is holding back the career advancement of Asian Australians. There is evidence to suggest racial discrimination does exist.  Economists from the Australian National University found in 2010 that job applicants with Asian and Middle Eastern family names needed to submit 60 per cent more applications to get the same number of interviews when compared with people with Anglo-Saxon family names.

Apart from outright discrimination, the most important barrier is perhaps racial stereotyping. In the United States, and to a lesser extent Australia, there is a popular theory of the model minority, which is used largely to describe hard-working, law abiding and studious East Asians.

Though some people are happy to wear this model as a badge of honour, it also projects a far more negative image. “What one person may regard as the laudable qualities of being inoffensive, diligent, and productive can, for another person, sound a lot like passivity, acquiescence and subservience,” explains Soutphommasane.

It is easy to illustrate this point in real life. Asians are typically seen as maths or IT nerds with good quantitative skills. So often they end up as quants at banks or in R&D roles at technology companies. These perceptions can be career limiting for Asians who aspire to leadership positions. People see Asian deference to elders as a sign of their unwillingness to challenge authority and hence their lack of leadership potential.

By way of comparison, Asian Americans are also struggling with racial stereotypes but the United States has a far more open and inclusive corporate and business culture.  There are many Asian Americans who are serving or have served as senior cabinet ministers in the Obama and Bush administrations.

Washington’s last ambassador to Beijing, Gary Locke, is Chinese American and was a secretary of commerce as well as the governor of Washington.  Eric Shinseki, a highly-decorated Japanese-American, served as the chief of staff in the US army, something that was scarcely imaginable a few decades ago considering the legacy of Pearl Harbour.

First generation Indian migrants are running some of the largest and most quintessentially American companies like Microsoft, Citigroup and Pepsi. Even Deutsche Bank, a bastion of German conservatism, has an Indian as its co-chairman and co-chief executive officer.

An Asian-Australian executive who has worked for both Australian and American companies told Business Spectator the Americans were far more open-minded in promoting and hiring Asians including to top positions.

Australia has a proud record as a tolerant multi-cultural society. But we cannot shy away from talking about the uncomfortable fact that a sizable portion of Australia's population is under-represented in politics and business and almost invisible from our mainstream media. Racial discrimination and stereotypes are certainly part of the problem. 

PwC has taken the right step to highlight the issue. Senator Penny Wong is the first Asian-born member of an Australian cabinet. David Jones also recently replaced Miranda Kerr with Jessica Gomes, a part Singaporean model, as its ambassador to better reflect the demographics of the retailer. But business and political leaders need to do more to battle and challenge racial stereotypes and poke holes in our bamboo ceiling. 

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