GARETH EVANS. Breaking through the bamboo ceiling: Asian-Australians in the Asian Century.

Jul 2, 2019

Asian-Australians are an underappreciated and underutilized national resource as we face  the challenges and opportunities of the Asian century.  The 2012 White Paper, and everyone else, agrees that we dramatically need to lift our ‘Asian capability’ – defined by the Diversity Council of Australia as meaning ‘individuals’ ability to interact effectively in Asian countries and cultures, and with people from Asian cultural backgrounds, to achieve work goals.’

Although seven out of Australia’s top ten export markets are in Asia, and constitute 66 per cent of our total export market – and although more than 50 per cent of the world’s population lives in Asia, with a consumer demand potential to match – our Asian capability is much lower than it should be. The Diversity Council in 2015 estimated that while one in ten of all Australian workers have excellent Asia capability, one third have none or very little. Close to two-thirds of workers have no, or very little, working knowledge of how to effectively manage in Asian business contexts.

The obvious groups on which to focus in further building that capability are Australian workers who have an Asian cultural identity, those who can read, write and/or speak an Asian language to at least basic proficiency level, and those who have lived and worked in Asia – in other words, overwhelmingly, members of the Asian-Australian community.  These  now constitute – based on Census data on place of birth, languages spoken at home and self-identified ancestry – 12 per cent of our population.

We constantly agonise about the insufficiency of Asian-language teaching and learning in our schools and universities, but do so without recognizing – this is an extraordinary omission in the 2012 White Paper – that we already have right in our midst a massive pool of native Asian-language speakers. There are more than 900,000 fluent now in Chinese dialects alone, and a million more speaking other Asian languages and Arabic.  And a great many of them are highly trained professionals, from whom we can draw all the linguistically-skilled and culturally sensitive talent we need.

 At the institutional leadership level there are some areas of our national life where the penny does seem to have dropped: one of them is the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade where Asian-Australians have been increasingly visible in leadership and ambassadorial positions. But the story is nothing like as good elsewhere in government and the wider community.  The evidence does seem undeniable –that we do have a ‘bamboo ceiling’ in this country, just as pervasive but not generating anything like the remedial attention that, properly, the long-recognised ‘glass ceiling’ experienced by women has now long been getting.

The best statistical, as distinct from anecdotal, evidence we have of the under-representation of Asian-Australians in leadership positions comes from the AHRC Cultural Diversity Leadership Blueprint, updated in April 2018. Examining first the cultural backgrounds of chief executive officers of ASX200 companies, federal government ministers, heads of federal and state government departments and vice-chancellors of universities, the Commission found that just 1.6 per cent of them were Asian-Australians.

And even when the enquiry was broadened out to cover leadership positions one level below this – group executives of ASX companies, elected members of the Commonwealth  Parliament, deputy heads of government departments and deputy vice-chancellors – the proportion of Asian-Australians is just 3.3 per cent.  Which is a long way below the 12 per cent that their numbers in the broader community would suggest should be the norm.  Only Indigenous Australians fare worse, occupying just 0.4 per cent of senior leadership positions against their share of the total population of 3 per cent.

Moving beyond just the senior leadership level, there is reason to believe that in the Australian workforce at large we are still also under-appreciating and underutilising Asian-Australians, although here the evidence is more impressionistic and anecdotal. The 2014 Diversity Council of Australia report, Cracking the Cultural Ceiling, found that only 17 per cent of those surveyed strongly agreed that their organisation used their Asia capabilities very well; only one in five were very satisfied with career progress and opportunities; and only 22 per cent strongly agreed that they have worked in organisations that value cultural diversity.

There are a number of possible explanations for all this. While outright racial prejudice seems much less a factor than it might once have been, there is certainly a great deal of instinctive stereotyping about the qualities, or lack of them, that Asian-Australians bring to leadership roles. A related possible answer is that there may genuinely be an element of cultural inhibition, particularly in Confucian cultures, which does make it more psychologically difficult for many Asian-Australians to actively pursue and achieve more senior roles. The point is made by the Asian-American Jane Hyun in her seminal book on Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling. In highly individualistic societies, she says, those who speak or shout the loudest get noticed the most or rewarded: ‘The squeaky wheel gets the grease’. Yet, within Asian cultures, a different norm may prevail: ‘The loudest duck gets shot.’

A distressing new explanation on the scene relates specifically to one group of Asian=Australians.  In the current environment of hyper-anxiety about baleful Chinese, and particularly Chinese Communist Party, influence in Australian business, politics and universities, there is an increasingly well-founded fear among Chinese Austrlians that they are going to find it even more difficult than they do at the moment to aspire to leadership positions, or indeed any positions at all in fields that are seen as even remotely security sensitive.

The remaining factor may simply be one of bandwidth: the belief, well-founded or not, in businesses, professional partnerships and public institutions that they don’t have the time, energy or resources necessary to address the issue.

It’s time to tackle head-on these various obstacles to the under-representation of Asian-Australians in leadership positions, and their underutilisation more generally,

 The first need is to better understand the scale of the problem, which means better and more accessible data on the ethnic and cultural composition of our population as a whole – which at the moment has to be painfully laboriously compiled from less than complete Census data – and of all our public companies and institutions. There are always understandable sensitivities about gathering information on race or ethnicity, but good policy at both the macro and micro level has to be evidence driven, and policymakers at both levels simply don’t have all the readily available data they need.

The second need is to use that data to set realistic targets and timelines, countrywide, sector by sector, institution by institution. Some consensus needs to be reached on the familiar debate about quotas, targets and tokenism which always flares up around any effort to redress apparent inequity in the context of gender, race, ethnicity or anything else. Given the very early stages of debate about cultural diversity, any talk of formal quotas would seem counterproductive, but carefully thought out targets can be operationally very useful.

A third need is to identify the kind of detailed strategies and programs that are going to be necessary to actually change mindsets and get any targets implemented. What will help organizational leaders recognise they simply have to find the bandwidth to address lack of cultural diversity: that not doing so is as unconscionable, and as big a lost opportunity, as not getting it about gender equity? Would the functional equivalent of Male Champions of Change add any value here? What kind of training programs could be introduced to help employers recognise their stereotyped perceptions for what they are, and help encourage Asian-Australians to overcome such diffidence they might have about doing what it takes to climb the leadership ladder? Couldn’t we do much more along the lines of the mentoring program for aspiring female company directors run by the Australian Institute of Company Directors?

 I don’t have the answers now to all the questions I have raised and the challenges I have sought to identify. But I strongly believe it’s time for us as a nation to get moving on finding them, and a tremendously important vehicle for doing so will be the Asian-Australian Leadership Summit (AALS), to be held here in Melbourne, at the State Library of Victoria from12-13 September 2019, jointly co-convened by The Australian National University (ANU), PwC Australia and Asialink, with a wide group of additional supporters.

Multiculturalism has given Australia not just a new outlook on the world, but new resources and capacity, a whole new human skill-base, with which to deal with it. For the future of Australia there is simply no more important a contributor to that human skill-base than our growing Asian-Australian community. It’s time for policymakers at all levels to recognise that reality, and act accordingly.


This article is extracted from the 2019 Asian Australian Foundation Oration delivered in Melbourne on 19 June 2019. The full text is available at


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