Australian companies can boost productivity and growth by removing the bamboo ceiling

Pamela Young

Pamela Young

Australian companies need to act in the new financial year to broaden the diversity of their workforces and remove the ‘bamboo ceiling’ by including Asian Australians in senior positions, according to Pamela Young, author of Stepping Up and Managing Director at growthcurv.

Young, a global specialist in growth strategies and cultural change, says having a more diverse workforce can help Australian businesses expand into Asian markets, which represent a great opportunity for the local economy.

“Greater diversity in Australian workforces will contribute to building cross-cultural awareness, Asia capability and long-term profitable relationships with Asian nations. But as a first step, we are not adapting our business cultures or processes to keep Asians in the workforce at home.

“A bamboo ceiling exists for Asian Australians in the same way that a glass ceiling exists for women. Just as females walk away from male-oriented cultures, so do Asians walk away from work cultures that favour Caucasian people at the top,” said Young.

“A number of people know they don’t get short-listed for jobs, especially at senior levels, because their name looks too long or too difficult to say, or they don’t look the right way, so often they end up leaving their employment. They don’t have the Anglo-Saxon background which is too often a prerequisite for career advancement,” Young said.

“One in four Australians living here today was born overseas and almost another one in four has one parent born overseas. Despite this, people of Anglo-Saxon and European heritage still largely hold the majority of power and influence.”

Young is calling on corporate and political leaders to step up and remove this bamboo ceiling.

“We promote our multicultural society to the world, but when it comes to recognising and accepting leadership talent we favour those who look like us. In a globalising world, there are serious growth limitations to this.

“It is time for change now. With the new financial year having started, it’s important that companies look at the way they engage with, manage and promote their staff and remove any racial bias which stops Asian Australians and others with the right skills from rising through the ranks,” she said.

“Many businesses report that their graduate recruitment intake is 50 per cent Australians and 50 per cent from a variety of Asian nations. Yet migrants, or children of migrants, are opting-out of the corporate world at an alarming rate.”

Young said with more diverse leadership teams that included Asians, Australian businesses would develop greater competitiveness and competency when selling their goods and services to our fast growing neighbours.

“The first step to building Asia capability is to engage with the people who work for us here.  We need to learn about their cultures, listen to them, respect their views, promote those who have leadership skills to the top and allow them to help us break into Asian markets.

“Removing the bamboo ceiling will allow Asian employees to have more progressive careers and build skills in our top teams. We need this capability to expand as a nation and promote our own prosperity, productivity and growth.

“With just 23.5 million people, we are a tiny market and with growth rates hovering between 2% to 3%, we are not enjoying the good life as we did in the 1990s. However, opportunity is knocking at the door.

“Our closest neighbours in Asia represent almost half the world’s population and their economies are growing at rates between 4% to 8%.  We must increase our efforts to get a larger slice of the action. We must engage better with our Asian neighbours, including China, with almost 1.4 billion people and GDP growing at 7.6%. While it is a challenging market to enter, as it takes time to build relationships and learn its languages and culture, we must make a greater effort as the opportunities for growth are huge.

“It’s time for Australian businesses and political leaders to step up and make this happen. Let’s not live through another decade relying on our resources sector to carry the load,” said Young.

“There are just a few hurdles we have to get over and they are mostly attitudinal. We need to want to do business with Asian people. We have to be open to learning their culture and language. In addition, we have to acknowledge that ‘our way is not the only way’. When you take your services and solutions to another market, one that is so culturally different, you need to be able to adapt.

“The first step is easy: better integrate Asian people living in Australia and ensure there are no barriers to their succession to the top of your organisation. If you act now, the benefits will come,” Young said.

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