The ‘bamboo ceiling’ harming Australia’s public sector workforce

By Harley Dennett

Monday September 22, 2014

The Diversity Council Australia has heard all the excuses for the homogenous leadership in the public sector and isn’t buying it.

Its latest report, Cracking the Cultural Ceiling, takes Australia’s largest organisations to task for, in particular, perpetuating a “bamboo ceiling” where merit promotion for positions dealing with the Asian community is rejected on highly specious grounds. DCA’s chief executive Lisa Annese presented the results of that research to a selection of public sector agencies in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne last week.

Annese told The Mandarin that the bamboo ceiling, while an uncomfortable term for many unfamiliar with using it, was the preferred description from their cultural advisors as it was well understood in the Asian community to indicate where people from Asian backgrounds were highly represented in entry-level to mid-level but under-represented at top leadership.

Research found a person was more likely to get a promotion to a senior role dealing with the Asian community if they were not from an Asian background. Annese says it may be the result of well-meaning but unintentionally harmful beliefs.

“That was mind-boggling,” Annese said of the findings. “People were so frightened to be seen to be doing the wrong thing.

“There were two reasons given. First, if they make appointments [of minorities], it could be viewed as tokenistic. Our research says there’s no evidence to support that. The second reason was stereotype; there’s a stereotype of what an Australian leader is. If you deviate there’s backlash. Women have a stereotype of lacking ambition. In fact, we’ve found as many who conform to stereotypes as those who don’t.”

DCA surveyed over 300 leaders and emerging leaders from Asian cultural backgrounds working in Australia, to collect insights into perceived barriers and enablers of their careers. The research found:

  • Around 9% of the Australian labour force is Asian born, but only 4.9% make it to senior executive level;
  • Asian talent report that organisations and leaders are commonly not aware about their lack of cultural capability;
  • Asian talent regularly experience cultural stereotyping — about their cultural identity, leadership capability, English proficiency and age; and
  • The selection criterion “cultural fit” is viewed as culturally biased, as it results in existing (Anglo-Celtic) leaders falling into the trap of “unconsciously promoting in their own image”.

DCA holds regular meetings with public sector organisations, including federal and state departments, who seek advice on diversity issues. Annese said the public sector has a responsibility to understand and represent the diversity of the Australian population: “If you’re creating policies for all Australian citizens, you need to reflect the background of the people you’re serving.”

“We need to be conscious of stereotyping and victim blaming. If you want to value diversity you have to value what people bring.”

Some departments and agency have created internal diversity councils or employee networks for Asians, women, parents and sexuality diverse groups. Annese says that can be helpful for individuals who are feeling isolated, but it doesn’t do much in terms of leadership of an organisation. For example, if a women’s committee are only talking about women in the workplace, and not the role of men at home, then equity will be elusive.

“Sometimes people think they’re ticking boxes but it isn’t enough. People do still get discriminated. That’s a base-line. A bare minimum,” she said. “We need to be conscious of stereotyping and victim blaming. If you want to value diversity you have to value what people bring.”

Public sector agencies can fall back on the belief that promotions on merit have become an in-built culture. Annese disagreed: “Promotion on merit is a bit of a furphy. If that was the only criteria, we’d see more diversity and we aren’t.”

It’s also not acceptable to “victim blame” groups for not speaking up more, particularly as not all individuals will want to identify with a particular group.

Leadership is a much bigger issue that requires active action, Annese says, and one that requires leaders to take responsibility rather than delegating to diversity officials or internal groups.

“In terms of statistics, we’ve still got a really homogenous leadership group at the top,” she said. “Even if you look at the make-up of the government. Even though there’s more discussion, we don’t see results.

“Time alone not sufficient or an appropriate strategy to fix this. It requires action.”

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