JOHN MENADUE. Bamboo ceiling and the old boys club. Our business sector is not equiping itself for our future in Asia.

For three decade James Ruse High School in NSW and similar high schools around Australia have been dominating Higher School Certificate results. And according to the NSW Education Department 80% of these top students come from a background other than English with most coming from Asian Backgrounds

But despite this remarkable record few of these students make it to the top in business, political or academic life. They may be regarded as intelligent and hardworking but what is holding them back in mainstream organizations in Australia?

This poor record is most obvious in business. According to the Diversity Council of Australia only 1.9% of executive managers and 4.2 % of directors come from an Asian background. Yet persons of Asian descent make up 9% of our population. And we have nearly one million Asian language speakers in the country.

A survey of 1000 companies two years ago prepared by PwC found

  • Two thirds of Australian companies have no plans to change their approach to doing business in Asia despite the urging by the government and others. There is not much innovation or agility here!
  • Only 9% of Australian businesses have any sort of operation in Asia and only 12% have had any experience in Asia at all.
  • Whilst about a half of large companies are doing business in Asia, only 23% have staff on the ground ‘in market’ and for those companies with an Asian strategy, the total contribution of it to their bottom line was only 12%.
  • Australian companies are likely to invest more in New Zealand than in all of the ten countries of our South East Asian Region.

In earlier blogs, I have drawn attention to a disquieting story.

  • I have yet to learn of a single Chairperson or CEO of any of our major companies who can fluently speak any of the key Asian languages. Contrast that with business people in Europe who usually speak several languages of their neighbours. There are tens of thousands of Australian born citizens of Asian descent in our universities. But they are unlikely to break into the ‘white men’s clubs’ particularly our company boards.
  • In late 2013 the Business Alliance for Asian Literacy, which represents 400,000 businesses in Australia, found that ‘more than half of Australian businesses operating in Asia had little board and senior management experience of Asia and/or Asian skills or languages’.
  • Tourism has been booming, but we don’t get much repeat business. We skip from one new market to another, first Japan, then Korea and now China. If we are not getting repeat business it suggests there is something wrong with our product and the way we service Asian tourists.
  • Many young Australians I knew studied Asian languages in the 1980’s but could not find work with Australian companies. They drifted off to Hong Kong and other Asian cities where their skills were valued.

Only last week a forum ‘Engaging with India’ and sponsored by the Australian Financial Review and the Business Council of Australia was told of the lack of interest by Australian companies in India. The NSW Consul General for India said that he was ‘surprised how few Australian businesses had sought assistance or advice’. He added ‘I think there is more Indian interest in Australia than vice versa’. The Indian High Commissioner said that ‘Australians were behind the curve in engaging with India’ The Export Council of Australia CEO Lisa McCawley said ‘that out of 45 000 small and medium enterprises in Australia only 9 000 were involved in export’.

No wonder we have a growing current account deficit. We are just not engaging well enough with our region.

We talk endlessly about the business and other opportunities in our region, but we sit on our hands when it comes to doing anything serious on the subject.

The director’s cabal of white males with similar school, social and political backgrounds runs closed shops. The ‘head hunters’ help re inforce these closed shops. Together they set the standard for major organizations. It is then not surprising that the recruitment and promotion policies of these companies reflect the attitudes at the top.

The government takes pride in trade and investment partnerships that it has finalised with Japan, ROK and China but where are the business people to take full advantage of these new arrangements?

Our business sector just does not get it.

The bamboo ceiling is still well and truly in place.

Don’t disturb the white men’s clubs.

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