Redesigning the ‘Bamboo Ceiling’

JFK Quote

JFK got it right when he spoke those immortalised words, signifying that diversity should be a way of celebrating similarities and using cultural differences to build a brighter future for the global community. Of course he was talking about banning nuclear weapons, but the sentiment is one that translates well into our contemporary setting. Diversity is now more than ever, an important rhetoric to shape the way that Australians do business now and in the future.

A new report released by the Diversity Council of Australia (DCA)  states that people of Asian descent are not being represented fairly or equally in the workplace. The Australian Bureau of Statistics Index of Australian Social Trends records that 9.6% of the Australian population comes from East, Central or Southern Asia; the DCA’s new Cracking the Cultural Ceiling Report launched yesterday in Sydney reveals that whilst ‘9.3 per cent of the Australian labour force is Asian born, only 4.9 per cent make it to senior executive level‘. This equates to only 52,779 out of 1.07 million Asian born workers in Australia reaching senior executive levels during their careers.

This may seem a relatively benign statistic, however with the Australian economy becoming more and more dependent upon Asian economic development, organisations with an Asia-Pacific regional focus are looking to engage a more culturally relevant workforce. Melbourne ‘Rich-Lister’ Peter Scanlon is one leader pushing this view. In a recent interview with BRW, he explains that it is “important for bosses to understand the stories of their employees, not just to build affinity but also to understand the untapped talent within an organisation“.

In 2012 the Gillard Government released its Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, which announced the need for Australia to become ‘a more Asia-literate and Asia-capable nation‘. Although the Liberal Government has consigned this policy document to the dusty shelves of the National Archives and refer to it as a ‘good reference point for more effective governance’, emergence of Asia’s myriad economies ensures that Gillard’s policies will come back in one form or another. Whilst Labour and Liberal leaders haggle out semantics in the halls of power, it is important that business leaders and companies prepare for the opportunities that will arise from Asian-Australian relations in the next 10 years.

Cultural Diversity in this setting is not just about diffusing stereotypes and personal bias towards Asian people; A recent Forbes.com study supports existing research that ‘cultural diversity and inclusion are a key driver of internal innovation and business growth‘. Having a better understanding of cultural norms across Asian states enables stronger inter-organisational values alignment, not to mention more stable and robust negotiation processes. According to the DCA’s report, only 15% of Asian born employees feel that their cultural diversity is used to create economic value to their organisation, which shows that there is a massive untapped and under-utilised resource in this talent pool.

There can be no doubt that the competitive advantage of the Australian economy lies in further engagement with our Asian neighbours. To this end the DCA report is calling for a shift towards Eastern leadership principles and away from Western thought. There is however, an inherent danger in moving too far away from our current thought processes. If hiring practices focus too much on cultural factors, organisations run the risk of degrading the quality of their talent pool, as needed skills are pushed aside in favour of cultural diversity.

Australian business is moving ahead in leaps and bounds, and it is exciting to see international professional services firms like Deloitte and PwC leading the charge, with 5% of Partners being of Asian descent – compared to the 1.9% representation in senior executive positions across other ASX200 companies. Asian business needs Asian capability, and truly understanding cultural diversity requires investment in education and professional development.

It will be interesting to see how the numbers change in the next ten years – Sustaining People hopes that we can see a better representation and appreciation for all cultural groups in the workplace, which will lead to a more creative, cohesive and globally mature economy for Australia.

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