Capitalising the bamboo from the bamboo ceiling: Incorporating Asian experiences and talents into Australian leadership

Published  22/11/2015

The bamboo ceiling is an uneasy term used to describe the career progression barriers for people of Asian descent who are working and living in Western countries. What is happening in Australia is similar to the United States where the term bamboo ceiling was originally used by Jane Hyun, an Asian-American in her book, Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians .

While 17 per cent of working Australians identify themselves as having an Asian cultural background, Asian representation in Australian senior leadership roles barely makes the radar. For example, out of Australia’s top 200 companies, 1.9 per cent of executive managers and 4.15 per cent of directors have Asian cultural origins.

The bamboo ceiling is analogous to the glass ceiling where women still battle discrimination and unconscious bias to get to the top of the professional ladder in the public and private sectors.

While the word glass is used to explain the invisible barriers for women, it is interesting that the word bamboo is coined for Asians.

The bamboo ceiling is seen as a negative obstacle for Asians. But the bamboo in Asian culture, symbolism and history is rooted in positive meaning.

The bamboo has been used for centuries to teach life lessons that people aspire to.  As Bruce Lee once famously said, “Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.”

The bamboo can be symbolised to mean many ideal human characteristics such as strength, resilience, flexibility, versatility, durability and endurance. Aren’t these also qualities that we want in a leader?

Dai Le, the founder of DAWN, a professional and social network that aspires to have an inclusive Australia with culturally diverse leadership, is someone who is capitalising on the characteristics of the bamboo to help break the bamboo ceiling in Australia.

Dai was a refugee from Vietnam who arrived in Australia in 1979 when she was 11 years old. She lost her father during the last days of the Vietnam War. Despite this adversity from a young age, since living in Australia she has been an award-winning journalist, film-maker and broadcaster for the ABC, Councillor at Fairfield City Council, and last year was named as one of the Australian Financial Review-Westpac Top 100 Women of Influence. She even survived breast cancer.

Dai’s appearance last Monday night on the ABC program Q and A allowed for the issue of the bamboo ceiling to be finally discussed on national broadcast television.

“Ten per cent of the population in Australia are of Asian heritage. Being an Asian, of course I want to promote that, but I’m sure our institutions do not reflect – the leadership of our institutions do not reflect what we have – the population in our society,” she said.

This issue was also acknowledged by other Q&A panellists including the Education Minister, Simon Birmingham.

“I think you see a lot of very successful Asian people getting to senior middle management and management roles but not necessarily filling the CEO spots. And so there is something for us to make sure we do better at.”

So how do we address the bamboo ceiling? Acknowledging the favouritism and privilege that blocks merit-based leadership is one step. For an example, “look at our parliaments, a lot of the males that are in there did not get there based on merit. I can guarantee you that,” said Dai on Q&A. She has a fair point based on personal experience.

The other step is for Australian organisations and their leaders to support Asian talent to develop the skills and capabilities to lead. This is where organisations like DAWN can step in. DAWN is having the conversation with leaders in Australia’s public and private sectors to recognise diverse talent. We are also developing an Emerging Leaders Development program for people of culturally diverse backgrounds who want to build their leadership capabilities in their personal and professional journeys.

All Australians, not only Asians, should recognise that although the bamboo ceiling may be tough, it is the bamboo that can be used to break it.



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