‘Bamboo ceiling’ preventing Asian Australians becoming public sector leaders

By Anna Macdonald

June 21, 2022

Jieh-Yung Lo
ANU Centre for Asian-Australian Leadership director Jieh-Yung Lo. (Supplied)

Leadership barriers for Asian-Australians have been described as a ‘bamboo ceiling’, with culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) efforts treated as the ‘poor cousin’ of other diversity initiatives. 

“There’s very little focus and emphasis on increasing ethnic and cultural diversity as a priority diversity area,” director of the ANU Centre for Asian-Australian Leadership Jieh-Yung Lo told The Mandarin.

Lo said public sector workers of Asian descent are frustrated by the lack of pathways to leadership positions, particularly into senior executive service positions. 

“[Asian-Australians] feel like once they spend a certain amount of years in the public service through the system they have hit a roadblock,” Lo said.

“For them, they feel like their skills and attributes and experience are not appropriately recognised yet they have a desire to serve the Australian community and work in the public service because of these barriers. They are forced to look at other career prospects elsewhere.”

A key issue, said Lo, is the lack of data on the number of CALD people, including those with Asian heritage.

“Without that data, it’s very hard to set targets,” Lo said. “At the moment, we don’t have an accurate understanding of what the data is… They ask very sort of generic questions around cultural diversity – where you were born and languages spoken at home. 

“For example, from those of a mixed-race heritage, and lots of others like me who now speak English at home and not Chinese or another language and who are also born in Australia, those particular questions don’t reflect my circumstances,” the director commented. 

The federal government has announced it will begin to collect ethnicity data, with the minister for immigration, citizenship, migrant services and multicultural affairs Andrew Giles saying Australia does not measure diversity effectively.

“I looked at the sort of countries that we often compare ourselves to … and we weren’t compiling data that enables us to understand the representation of different population groups,” Giles said, as reported by the ABC

Lo expressed a concern that Asian-Australians are pigeonholed into certain roles, such as those in technology and finance, and are underrepresented in policy roles. Without that data being recorded, this is not certain.  

With a more diverse government elected, including an increase in the number of Asian-Australians, Lo said there was some cautious optimism that future CALD issues will become more mainstream.

“Now that we have the most culturally diverse parliament in the history of Australia, dare I say,” Lo commented, “especially with an increase of Asian-Australian MPs in both chambers, it’s legitimised and mainstreamed the issue a bit more.”

On avoiding tokenism, Lo acknowledged the handful of Asian-Australians within leadership positions in the APS face pressure to act as role models.

“The problem is not a talent issue,” he said. “It’s about creating those pathways to enable [Asian-Australians] to actually step into those roles.

“Certainly, because there are not many Asian-Australians in senior roles within the public service, the ones that are – there is only a handful of them – what they face is enormous pressure.” 

Lo offered several solutions. One is a whole-of-government strategy for cultural diversity in line with other areas of diversity such as gender, instead of leaving strategies to individual agencies.

He also suggested the introduction of cultural data legislation to require both public sector employers and private sector corporate organisations to report data on cultural and ethnic diversity, which would allow for a greater understanding of the ethnic and cultural composition of Australian organisations. 

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