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The bamboo ceiling 2021: The ‘double whammy’ Asian women face in their careers

·12-min read
Shemara Wikramanayake, Ming Long, Katrina Rathie, Jessica Yustantio
Clockwise: King and Wood Mallesons Sydney office partner-in-charge Katrina Rathie; UNSW academic Jessica Yustantio; Macquarie Bank CEO Shemara Wikramanayake; and AMP Capital Funds Management chair Ming Long. (Source: Supplied)

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Ming Long has a formidable CV. She’s the chair of AMP Capital Funds Management and sits on the board of six other organisations, including as deputy chair of Diversity Council Australia. Before that, she was joint managing director of Investa Property Group and CEO of Investa Office Fund, which made her the first Asian-Australian woman to lead an ASX200 company. For her life’s work in finance, real estate, and diversity, she’s been recognised as a Member of the Order of Australia.

But Long says it wasn’t easy. “Don’t assume just because of where I am now that the obstacles don’t exist,” she said. “They’ll continue to exist for the rest of my career.”

Long is talking about the ‘bamboo ceiling’, a phrase first coined in 2005 by executive coach and leadership strategist Jane Hyun who wrote a seminal book about it. The concept refers to a phenomenon faced by those with Asian heritage in which individual, cultural and organisational barriers prevent them from being appointed to leadership positions.

These barriers have been recognised in Australia. A report released by Diversity Council Australia in 2014 found that workers from Asian backgrounds are well-represented in entry- and mid-level jobs, but are under-represented in leadership roles in what was described as “an enormous waste of talent”.

The report identified four primary barriers that are locking out Asian talent within Australian organisations: cultural bias and stereotyping in the workplace; Westernised leadership models that value self-promotion and assertive, direct communication; lack of relationship capital by way of mentors, professional networks or even workplace social activities; and cultural diversity not being utilised to its fullest potential.

These barriers were true for Long who says her success was hard-won, and achieved despite the invisible obstacles she faced. “If you walk into a room with investors or bankers or whatever, you’re walking in as an Asian woman, and you have opinions and you’re loud and you have a voice in that meeting – that’s not necessarily the stereotype they have in their mind,” she told Yahoo Finance.

AMP Capital Funds Management chair Ming Long. (Source: Supplied)
AMP Capital Funds Management chair Ming Long. (Source: Supplied)

“Because Asian women are subservient, meek, are quiet, and take notes. I'm not going into a meeting to take notes,” she said. “I’m going to express my opinion, share and argue points. Some people are not used to seeing women do that, especially Asian women doing that.”

The chairwoman describes herself as a natural introvert, but admits she doesn’t come across that way. “None of my colleagues ever believe me. They think I’m an extrovert,” she says. “I had to become one.”

In Australia, leaders are expected to be extroverted, she explains. “You have to become that for them to see leadership potential.” Diversity Council Australia’s 2014 report finds that 61 per cent of Asian Australians felt pressure to conform to ‘Anglo’ leadership styles of assertiveness, and that reservedness, deference and respect for authority was under-valued.

“You think about leadership in Australia – it is very white Anglo man. Six foot two, maybe they play rugby. I fit none of those things.”

Ming Long says she had to become an extrovert in order to climb the corporate ladder in Australia. (Source: Supplied)
Ming Long says she had to become an extrovert in order to climb the corporate ladder in Australia. (Source: Supplied)

Long speaks with a broad Australian accent, and is hyper-aware that this works to her advantage. “It makes Aussies feel more comfortable because ‘I’m just like them’. And if you’re ‘just like’ [them], you’re seen as less risky. They trust you more.”

The danger here is the risk of losing yourself in the process. “The whole point about diversity is the value of the difference you bring,” she said.

The magic is in how well you can walk on a ‘tightrope’. “You have to start weaving in a lot of the elements of how you think differently into conversations. But it has to start from a position where they at least trust you.”

Jessica Yustantio is a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales who has conducted years of research into the bamboo ceiling and the under-representation of East-Asians in senior leadership positions within Western organisations.

But even defining who is more affected by the bamboo ceiling can be tricky business. Yustantio points to examples of Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi and Microsoft chief Satya Nadella, as well as Macquarie Bank CEO Shemara Wikramanayake. So while there’s been some progress, it appears to be in some places and not others.

“I think what we’re looking at here for the bamboo ceiling specifically is Asians who are of East Asian descent – so from China, Japan, Korea, South-East Asia as well – Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnamese. I think we don’t see Asians of that particular subculture,” she said.

Why the bamboo ceiling is lower for women

While the phrase itself applies to both Asian men and women, Yustantio says her research on the topic has revealed Asian women encounter a ‘double whammy’. “Not only are you a woman, you’re also of a minority cultural background,” she told Yahoo Finance.

University of New South Wales academic Jessica Yustantio. (Source: Supplied)
University of New South Wales academic Jessica Yustantio. (Source: Supplied)

It’s well-known that women’s careers tend to take a back seat when they have a child, but Yustantio points out that Asian cultures place a great amount of stock in the value of filial piety, a Confucian virtue of respecting one’s elders and ancestors. As the mother of a new baby, it’s something she struggles with herself. “My husband is the same age as me, he’s also busy at work – but I feel like for some reason I’m called to take a step back and work part-time and look after the baby instead of my husband,” she said.

“It’s just kind of enforced upon me; I see that through my mum, my sister who's a full time housewife and let go of her bachelor degree.

“I think when you’re of an Asian cultural background, there is an expectation.”

The ‘double whammy’ phrase comes up again in conversation with Katrina Rathie, partner-in-charge of multinational law firm King & Wood Mallesons’ Sydney office and a member of Chief Executive Women. Rathie has researched and spoken extensively on this topic – including meeting Jane Hyun in New York, working with Race Discrimination Commissioners, Diversity Council Australia, the Asian Leadership Project, the Australia China Business Council, Asialink, and even Masterchef judge Melissa Leong – to understand the depth of this problem.

“Australian-Chinese now make up 1.2 million of the Australian population. Yet all of the studies … say that Asian women experience a double-whammy effect.”

DCA’s 2014 report points out that more than 9 per cent of the Australian workforce have Asian heritage, but among ASX200 companies, only 1.9 per cent of executives have Asian origins.

And when you home in on Australia’s legal sector, the heart of Rathie’s area of expertise, there isn’t a single Asian judge in the High Court or Federal Supreme Court, she tells me, bar a magistrate who has half Sri Lankan heritage and another woman who is a quarter Filipino.

Overall, the numbers are very low. “So anecdotally you've got an absence of Asian-Australians in the top levels of the C-suite, in the board rooms or the court rooms around Australia.

“Of the Australian workplace, very few make it to the top.”

What does leadership look like?

Rathie says she didn’t encounter the bamboo ceiling in her own career. Like Long, she grew up in Australia and speaks with an Australian accent. Her family, with its migrant work ethic, encouraged her and her aunties to make something of herself, and they all did: they went on to become paediatricians, economists, or teachers. “We were brought up in an environment [where] we were taught to really be the best of ourselves,” she said.

King & Wood Mallesons Sydney partner-in-charge Katrina Rathie. (Source: Supplied)
King & Wood Mallesons Sydney partner-in-charge Katrina Rathie. (Source: Supplied)

This message was reinforced at high school. Rathie (who was Katrina Yee at the time) attended the prestigious Ascham School in Sydney’s eastern suburb of Edgecliff. The first friend she made there, at the age of 12, was someone who would go on to lead one of the biggest investment banks in Australia: Shemara Wikramanayake, Macquarie Bank’s current CEO.

“She and I were the only two Asian girls in the whole school. The rest were all Anglo-Saxon,” she said. The pair would go on to study commerce and law at the University of New South Wales, and entered the workforce at the same time. “She was a genius at maths. I was better at English,” Rathie laughs.

“Our school told us that we as girls had no limitations, and that we could be best we could be too, that we needed to use our brains. We were taught more of the Western ways of being outspoken and promoting yourself,” she said.

But that doesn’t mean they fit Western blueprint for leadership. “We’re both only 5 foot 3 – if that … We were always kind of smaller, so we didn’t conform to Western image of leadership.”

Rathie recognises that it’s those who don’t have the cultural background who will struggle more, such as international students or those from Asian-language countries who find work in Australian workplaces. “You come from a background where you’re meant to be seen and not heard, [where] you’re told to respect your elders – that’s very much the Asian way.”

Seen and not heard: that’s the common refrain I hear from the women I interviewed. ‘The loudest duck gets shot,’ they quote at me.

Rathie says it’s the way white male colleagues might be better at ‘schmoozing’ their boss, better at making small-talk, who wind up getting promoted. “You get promoted based on how loud you are in the room, I think a lot of the others don’t have that,” she said. “There’s also this undercurrent of bias and that's where I think the racial piece fits in.”

She points to a Lowy Institute report released last week that found one in three Asian-Australians had experienced some form of discrimination in the last 12 months.

“All the studies say that if I was Katrina Yee instead of Katrina Rathie, I'd have to send in three times more applications to get hired than a Jessica Smith, or someone with an obviously Anglo name.”

How do we smash the bamboo ceiling?

Part of the solution lies in the way we use technology. When King & Wood Mallesons needs to hire someone new, the IT system is set up so that certain identifying features of an applicant – such as their name or where they were educated – are hidden in the initial stages of the recruitment process. “This strips bias from the application process,” Rathie explains. “Once the applications are read and they decide who’s going to be interviewed, obviously at the interview you show up – but that means the first cull of maybe 750 resumes to 150 isn't based on any kind of inherent bias factors.”

“People have bias, whether they know it or not.”

More importantly, Rathie says that senior executives and leaders need to ask themselves some tough questions. “If we could ask the white males to really think about the cultural diversities in their team – think beyond gender, think to culture as well. Have I got a culturally diverse person on my team?” she said.

“When I’m … asking the recruiters to compile the list, can I have a culturally diverse person? If there are 10 people on the list, five men and five women, can we have at least one, if not two culturally diverse people?”

“Use their position to call out racism and bias when they see it.”

Yustantio recommends finding a mentor, if you can. “If you can find someone who has been through challenges or some kind of discrimination in their career and gone through it and succeeded in passing it – that’s very valuable for young Asians who are starting their career to learn from them,” she said.

The mentors don’t necessarily have to be from the same cultural heritage as the mentee, either, and could be from any race, she says. “I think it’s definitely finding that mentor for them and providing a platform to have these informal conversations. That's very valuable.”

Mentors also build social capital for Asians, who may not have been born into a world where small-talk comes easy or cultural references or social activities are shared, she adds.

“We had to find the capital ourselves and raise it ourselves instead of it being given to us.”

On the whole, Yustantio says she has a very positive outlook about the representation of Asians in Australian leadership positions. “We have to work twice as hard now, but it will get better. It’s through building awareness, developing networks, and mentorship,” she said.

Yustantio hopes there comes a day where her research will no longer be relevant.

“I hope we’ve smashed it by the time our kids grow up. But there’s still a lot of work to do.”

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