Breaking up the bamboo ceiling: Making Asian-background Australians less invisible in business

Fiona Smith Columnist

Breaking up the bamboo ceiling: Making Asian-background Australians less invisible in business

Published 23 October 2013 07:15, Updated 23 October 2013 08:39

The director of a household-name company was pleased with himself as he expanded on the promotion of business leaders with an Asian background. “We’ve got one banana and three eggs on our board,” he informed BRW. What he meant was that there is one director with Asian heritage, who has spent much of their career working for Western organisations, and three Anglo-Australians accustomed to dealing with Asian businesses and state-owned enterprises. Despite the lack of political correctness in the delivery, at least this director was conscious of the benefits of capitalising on the talents and experience of Asian-Australians. The CEO of Diversity Council Australia (DCA), Nareen Young, says employers are starting to have conversations about the “bamboo ceiling” – the Asian equivalent of the invisible glass ceiling that has kept women out of positions of power for so long.

6da1435a-3b56-11e3-85ad-f423b978d243_DCA Capitalising on Culture Summary HR“I think it is being talked about and thought about,” she says.

“There’s loads of stuff going on about getting people Asia-literate. Why aren’t we using Asian-Australians to deal with this?”

A new report from DCA, Capitalising on Culture , looks at the cultural origins of Australia’s business leaders from ASX 200 companies and finds the country’s history as an immigration nation is having an influence – but the proportion of leaders with an Asian background is unacceptably low.

Only 1.9 per cent of executive managers and 4.15 per cent of directors have Asian cultural origins, compared with 9.6 per cent in the general community.

Double disadvantage

Asian women get hit with the double whammy – being disadvantaged by both gender and culture.

The report (which is based on the analysis of executives’ names) suggests there are no female directors with South-East Asian cultural origins. This is compared with 0.9 per cent male directors. There were also no female senior executives reported from that region.

Only 2 per cent of directorships and 3 per cent of executive positions are held by women from a combined region of North East Asia, South Asia, Middle East, Central Asia, Africa, and the Pacific Islands. This compares with men from this region holding 3 per cent of directorships and 2 per cent of executive positions.

Young says she was pleasantly surprised at the breadth of the diversity that has emerged among business leaders, with leaders’ family histories spreading all over the globe.

“But I am not surprised at the [low] levels,” she says.

The research finds 32.2 per cent of Australians are from culturally diverse (non-Anglo-Celtic) backgrounds, compared with:

22.2 per cent of directors

21.9 per cent of CEOs

19.9 per cent of senior executives

13.5 per cent of chairs

However, if the definition of culturally diverse also excludes people with North West European cultural origins, the picture looks more bleak:

11.3 per cent of directors

11.4 per cent of CEOs

9.7 of senior executives

7.0 per cent of chairs

Compared with 24.3 per cent in the general community

Young says organisations should act against cultural bias and discrimination by introducing policies and procedures – just as they do with their gender equality programs.

There is a growing competition for this kind of talent among the major banks and consultancy firms, which want to strengthen their business ties beyond Australia’s borders.

Diversity pays off

According to the report, publicly traded companies in the top quartile of executive and board diversity have returns on equity that are, on average, 53 per cent higher than companies in the bottom quartile.

They are also reported to be more innovative and have higher sales revenue.

Managing director of IBM Australia and New Zealand, Andrew Stevens, says his company operates across nine time zones in 170 countries, where more than 70 languages are spoken.

“Cultural diversity is one of our greatest strengths. A culturally diverse workforce, at all levels from graduate hires through to executives, fosters creativity and innovation, which is essential to any company’s ongoing success,” he says.

KPMG told the Australian Financial Review this week that although it didn’t have fixed targets in mind, it has a plan to increase the number of its Asian partners.

People of Asian descent account for about 31 per cent of entry-level staff, falling to 28 per cent at assistant manager grade. Then, it plummets.

The KPMG plan involves offering more secondments in Asia.

In the report, companies were judged to have a “critical mass” of culturally diverse leadership when they reached 28 per cent of leaders or above.

One third of ASX 200 companies achieved critical mass of culturally diverse business leaders, while 14 per cent achieved 40 per cent or more culturally diverse directorships.

A similar proportion of companies (32 per cent) had a critical mass of culturally diverse senior executives and 14 per cent had reached a threshold of 40 per cent or more.

The DCA research was a joint initiative with the Australian Multicultural Council, PwC Australia, the Australian Government and IBM Australia.



About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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