Why the bamboo ceiling is holding back corporate Australia

For Australian organisations operating in today’s Asian Century, focusing on Asian talent and Asia capability is now a strategic business and talent management issue. So why are there so few people of Asian background in leadership positions in Australia today? This is what Diversity Council Australia wanted to find out through its latest research project, Cracking the Cultural Ceiling.

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Statistics show while 9.3 per cent of the Australian labour force is Asian born, only 4.9 per cent make it to senior executive level in leading diversity employers. The figure is even lower in ASX 200 companies, with only 1.9 per cent of executives having Asian cultural origins. We surveyed over 300 leaders and emerging leaders from Asian cultural backgrounds who are working in Australia to collect their career insights. The findings show a “bamboo ceiling” is blocking the rise of Asian talent and employers really need to address the barriers.

Retaining this Asian talent is going to be a big challenge for business with 30 per cent likely to leave their employer in the next year.

Our research found these people are ambitious, motivated and capable but negative cultural diversity-related career experiences are making Asian talent think twice about staying with their employer, as well as in Australia.

Some 84 per cent plan to advance to a very senior role, 91 per cent said challenging work is very important in their next career move and 97 per cent have Asia capabilities. But only 17 per cent strongly agree their organisation uses their Asia capabilities very well, only one in five is very satisfied with career progress and opportunities, and just 22 per cent strongly agree they have worked in organisations that value cultural diversity.

Four key barriers are locking out Asian talent in Australian organisations.

  • Cultural bias and stereotyping is the biggest barrier, according to the Asian talent we surveyed. Only 18 per cent of Asian talent feel their workplaces are free of cultural diversity biases and stereotypes. Many regularly experience bias and stereotyping, including about their cultural identity, leadership capability, English proficiency and age. Women from Asian backgrounds experience a double disadvantage.
  • The predominance of a “Westernised” leadership model is the second biggest barrier - 61 per cent of people feel pressure to conform to existing leadership styles that are inherently “Anglo”. For example, by over-valuing self-promotion and assertive direct communication while undervaluing and misinterpreting quiet reserve, deference and respect for seniority.
  • Lack of relationship capital is also a barrier for Asian talent. Only one in four has access to mentors or professional networks and even less has access to sponsors; similarly low levels feel included in workplace social activities.
  • The business case for culture is still not understood. Only 15 per cent of people we surveyed strongly agree their organisation leverages its workforce cultural diversity to better service clients. Organisations often failed to fully grasp the strategic value of Asian markets, capabilities and talent for Australian organisations operating in the Asian Century. This is despite the fact that international research shows that people with overseas immersion experiences and multiple cultural identities display more creativity and are better problem solvers and more likely to create new businesses and products. Other Australian research has found that the higher the proportion of senior leaders who are Asia capable the more likely business performance will exceed expectations.

What can be done?

The good news is Australian organisations can better attract, retain and engage Asian talent by rethinking their approach to business strategy and talent management.

  • The first step is to build cultural capability. This means building your leaders’ ability to respond to workforce issues and to undertake trade and commerce in the Asian Century. It also means educating your leaders about the complexity of cultural identity and about cultural bias – both conscious and unconscious, when it can occur (e.g. sourcing, promoting, allocating clients etc.) - and actions to navigate and minimise this.
  • The second step is to recraft the leadership model by promoting and valuing a broader view of what it means to be ‘an effective leader’ – one that recognises different types of leaders, skill sets and demeanours can be of organisational value. One way to do this is to critically review your leadership models and succession planning criteria and assessment to ensure these do not unintentionally filter out Asian talent. Another is to educate decision makers and recruiters about avoiding cultural bias and the importance of valuing skills and experience gained in Asian regions.
  • The third step is to boost the relationship capital of Asian talent. This means making it clear from early career stages that relationship capital is important for career progression. It also means ensuring Asian representation is on your key promotion interview/assessment panels to enable championing of Asian emerging leaders as well as present an Asian perspective. Encouraging work socialisation that involves eating and not just drinking alcohol is also important!
  • And the final step is to ensure you create a compelling businesscase for culture. This means identifying ways to utilise your workforce’s Asia capabilities strategically – culturally diverse and capable leaders can assist organisations broaden their strategic perspective, identify and enter new local and global markets, and achieve business goals in diverse business settings. It also means investing in analytics to measure and benchmark (Asian) cultural diversity in your workforce and markets, as well as workforce Asia capability.

In this Asian Century, it is critical for Australian organisations to ‘crack the cultural ceiling’ and harness the promise and potential of Asian talent, particularly if they want to be active in trade and investment in the region. Now that we understand the barriers and how to address them, there is really no excuse for doing nothing.

Diversity Council Australia Limited (DCA) is the independent, not-for-profit workplace diversity advisor to business in Australia. For more information, visit

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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