Asians hitting ‘bamboo ceiling’ in Australia, discrimination commissioner says

Commissioner points to lack of diversity at top, notes Europeans still dominate in Parliament

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 July, 2014, 9:48pm
UPDATED : Friday, 11 July, 2014, 9:48pm


A "bamboo ceiling" exists in Australia for Asians entering positions of power in business, education and politics, the country's race discrimination commissioner has suggested.

Tim Soutphommasane said that while Australia's cultural diversity was to be welcomed, equality of opportunity in the top echelons was lacking.

In a speech entitled "The Asianisation of Australia?" delivered late on Thursday, he said children of Australians from migrant backgrounds outperformed native-born Australians in education and employment.

"Progress, though, is never complete. Our achievement is not quite perfect," said the commissioner, a first-generation Australian with Chinese and Laotian roots.

"Our cultural diversity is far from proportionately represented in positions of leadership."

As an example, Soutphommasane said that while about one in 10 Australians had an Asian background, there were only four people with Asian origins in Parliament. There are also two Aborigines, but the rest had European ancestry.

"In percentage terms, only 1.7 per cent of those who sit in the federal Parliament bear an Asian cultural background," he said.

It was a similar scenario in senior leadership at Australia's educational institutions, with only two people of Asian background among the 49 senior executives at the top eight universities, his speech to the Asian Studies Association of Australia said.

"The private sector doesn't fare much better," he added, pointing to a Diversity Council Australia study last year that showed very low representation of corporate leaders with an Asian background.

It showed that only 1.9 per cent of executive managers and 4.2 per cent of directors had Asian origins.

"There is a question to be asked. Is there a bamboo ceiling that exists in the same way that a glass ceiling exists for women?"

Soutphommasane suggested an optimistic view was that the under-representation was due to large-scale Asian immigration not starting until the 1970s, and Asian-Australian leaders were still in the "pipeline".

"Then again, people were saying that 10 or 20 years ago.

"If we were to adopt a more critical view, we could ask whether unconscious bias might be contributing to the pattern of representation.

"The poor level of Asian Australians in leadership positions appears to replicate a pattern of invisibility that exists within Australian culture," he added.