Chopping down the bamboo ceiling

Fifteen years after the term ‘bamboo ceiling’ was originally coined, Asian-Australians are still facing many barriers in the professional arena – including stereotypes and assumptions.

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The alarming lack of cultural diversity in many parts of Australia’s business sector and the need for change has finally been getting the coverage it deserves in recent years.

" In many organisations, a western leadership model continues to dominate how companies recruit and promote talent.”Activism has also stepped up on several fronts, backed by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and more recently by former Australian Senator Gareth Evans. There has also been industry action, with major law firms uniting on a cultural diversity pledge to gather data and share ideas on how to increase diversity in leadership roles.

As a Chinese-Cambodian-Australian woman with a career in human resources and diversity, I have often faced these problems myself. It’s also apparent that in many organisations, a western leadership model continues to dominate how companies recruit and promote talent.

To try encourage change, the Asian Leadership Project was launched with the aim to fast-track diverse Asian talent into leadership roles by:

  • Increasing the visibility of Asian leaders through cultivating future board directors, CEOs and c-suite executives.
  • Building a strong networking community where Asian talent can belong, are connected and supported via ongoing professional and career development opportunities.
  • Supporting organisations to achieve business growth through culturally sensitive inclusion and diversity practices.

The project brings together culturally diverse talent from all sectors and industries and offers tools for career building in a safe nurturing environment.

A powerful "ally" network has also helped grow the project and reflects increasing awareness of the bamboo ceiling that still exists across Australian organisations.

According to former Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Tim Soutphommasane, “cultural diversity is the smart thing to do. There is a payoff for organisations that harness their cultural diversity; it’s better for decision-making in the long run”.

Soutphommasane says the richer the backgrounds represented in executive teams or on boards, the sounder a company’s decision-making will be: “This is about opening up people’s horizons, examining all options, ensuring the organisation doesn’t have any blind spots and that you can ask the right questions.”

But this message needs to be more actively disseminated.

Recently a business manager commented their organisation was not interested in developing Asian talent – only Asian business. Such a narrow view is not only old fashioned but holding business back.

In fact, now is the time for Australian organisations to collectively approach cultural diversity from an internal talent perspective, while reflecting customer and supplier diversity.

The project has helped develop talented individuals who have been gone on to be tapped on the shoulder to join boards, while others have established new long-term clients that have enhanced their career and market profile. This is the power of sponsorship.

But we need more. There is currently no independent peak body dedicated to supporting organisations on cultural diversity.

A practical way forward is to establish an equivalent of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) for cultural diversity. This agency would be preceded and bound by a relevantly named Act to collaborate with employers to provide advice, practical tools and education to improve cultural diversity performance including benchmark industry data and offer a citation option as well.

The next step would be the introduction of cultural diversity targets across ASX companies in addition to existing gender diversity targets.

A recent international study of gender and ethnic diversity by McKinsey & Company found companies with the most ethnically diverse executive teams are 33 per cent more likely to outperform their peers on profitability.

There is every reason to be optimistic about the future.

The Asian Leadership Project is launching a new initiative at their inaugural national conference - Australia’s first Asian Talent Agency.

The agency will be the gateway for corporate members of the project to recruit diverse Asian talent across every organisational level, industry and sector.

Julie Chai has over 15 years’ experience in private, public and not-for-profit sectors working in Diversity and Inclusion, Organisational Development and Human Resources.

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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