JOHN MENADUE. Australian business in Asia – ‘pale, male and stale’. (Repost from 8 August 2016)

Aug 7, 2017

A recent report on ‘Australia’s Diaspora Advantage: Realising the potential for building transnational business networks with Asia’  reveals that social class and racism, either conscious or unconscious, still excludes many Australians of Asian origin from many Australian institutions and particularly business institutions. The bamboo ceiling is still in place. It limits opportunities for people in Australia with Asian ‘talent’. It also limits the effectiveness of Australian business in Asia.

This report was prepared for the prestigious. Australian Council of Learned Academies. ACOLA’s members are the Australian Academy of the Humanities, the Australian Academy of Science, the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering.

That report on page 86 reveals how Anglo Celtic some institutions and particularly business companies still are. The figures show as follows:

  • 9.6% of the Australian community is of Asian origin yet
  • Only 4.7% of Australians of Asian origin, are on the boards of our top ASX 200 companies and
  • Only 1.9% of Australians of Asian origin are senior executives of those top ASX 200 companies.

The figures are striking. People of Asian descent are unlikely to be included in the top echelons of Australian business. This is despite the evidence that students of Asian origin in our schools and universities have been ahead of the field for decades and in large numbers.

The report commented

  • ‘On numerous occasions interviewers observed how pale, male and stale Australian boards and leadership appears to be.’
  • ‘While law and medicine continued to attract enrolment of Chinese and Indian students (both international students and local born diaspora) they are under represented in practice.’
  • ‘Under representation also extends to senior academic and leadership roles within higher education. Given the significant and growing number of international students from the region, the low number of Asian diaspora among senior leadership at universities is particularly striking.’

In this blog, I have posted many articles on our failure to equip and prepare ourselves with the skills and knowledge to work effectively in our region – see links to two earlier articles.

John Menadue. The smoko continues.
John Menadue. Bamboo ceiling and the old boys club.

We have been on ‘smoko’ for decades. We have had numerous reports from the Garnaut Report in 1989 ‘Australia and the North East Asian Ascendancy’ to the 2012 Henry Report on the ‘Asian Century’. We talk about our future in Asia and the need to develop expertise to take advantage of those opportunities, but the follow through falls well short.

For thirty years our best public schools have been dominating secondary school results in NSW and elsewhere. Most come from Asian backgrounds. University results show a similar trend. But despite this our business sector in particular still remains a largely closed Anglo Celtic and male shop.

I have been dealing with business executives for decades, but I have yet to learn of a single chairperson or CEO of any of our major companies who can speak fluently in a language of our own region.

A major failing has been at the top levels of business. The attitude and behaviour of board directors and CEOs is reflected in the attitudes and behaviour of their organisation. Consciously or perhaps in some cases unconsciously, they reflect social class and race. With little diversity and narrow experience they select and appoint people like themselves.

One would expect that with the outstanding results from students of Asian origin, that that would show up in senior positions across all our institutions. But it doesn’t.

One reason for this serious under representation of people of Asian background in our major institutions is that whilst private and particularly ‘independent’ schools may have relatively mediocre educational results compared with some public schools with many students of Asian origin, the graduates from those private schools nevertheless succeed in accessing senior positions in many institutions. Parents pay very high private school fees which in effect buys access to ruling social groups. They pay money to get their children into a social network that will favour them against children from public schools like James Ruse in NSW that have quite remarkable results. Social connection often counts more than ability.

Social class has a way of perpetuating itself.

We should stop pretending that social class is not an important feature in Australia and particularly in some of our key institutions. The problem is particularly rampant at senior business levels. The Business Council of Australia ignores it. It is also true in the professions, academic and political institutions.

The figures from this recent report by the Australian Council of Learned Academies highlight the difficulty of people in Australia of Asian origin obtaining equal opportunities in many of our institutions. It is also a national loss.

We have a large resource in our Australians of Asian origin. But they encounter a bamboo ceiling in many of or institutions and particularly our major companies.

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