By Latika Bourke

London: Australia needs to offer migrants the chance to build their careers and make it to the very top of their professions or the country risks losing talent to countries with more inclusive societies.

That’s the view of Karen Loon who grew up in Australia but moved to Singapore to further her career at PwC, climbing the corporate ladder to become a partner at the age of 33 and more recently a non-executive director.

Australian-Asian author and former PwC partner Karen Loon says Australia needs to get serious about diversity. Credit: Flavio Brancaleone

A fourth-generation Asian-Australian whose great-grandparents migrated from China, Loon grew up in Tamworth.

She said she could not have achieved the same professional level of success in Australia, where in 2018 just 3 per cent of Asian-Australians were in leadership positions, despite comprising 15 per cent of the population.

When she joined her firm, not a single partner was either female or from an Asian-Australian background, while in Singapore, women raising children had already achieved the level of partner.

“Australians have stereotypical views of who a leader is. The typical profile of an Australian leader tends to be male, of Anglo-Celtic background and a bit of a maverick; a risk-taker who values egalitarianism and Australia’s corporate cultures often align with these values,” she said.


Loon says many Australians have a stereotypical view of what makes a leader.Credit: Flavio Brancaleone

“Many people from diverse backgrounds don’t physically look like that stereotypical view of an Australian leader and face challenges,” she said, pointing to her own youthful and physically smaller appearance that she said often led to her being judged.

She said Australia needed to remember that the world had changed. In 2020, there were more than 7.6 million migrants living in Australia, with nearly 30 per cent of the population born overseas, Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows.

After England, India and China produced the second and third-largest number of migrants, reflecting shifting patterns of immigration.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily a racist thing, but I do feel for the country to progress and grow there’s a need for it to bring in different people and embrace them,” Loon said in an interview from Sydney via Zoom.

Having worked on improving PwC’s cultural diversity, she said returning home to Sydney a decade ago made her realise just how far behind her native country was in harnessing and promoting talented business people from non-European backgrounds.

She said the conversation on diversity had been live in the UK for a decade and was also advanced in the United States, compared to Australia.

That prompted her, at 53, to write her debut book published by Routledge this month, Fostering Culturally Diverse Leadership in Organisations, in which she interviewed prominent leaders from Asian-Australian backgrounds who have “smashed the bamboo ceiling”.

“I felt that if I understood how leaders made it that would actually help me advise or help companies on what they could do to improve the situation in Australia,” she said.

She warned that Australia, and particularly the business sector, would pay a price if it didn’t rapidly improve, in an environment of heightened global demand for labour following the pandemic.

“Skilled migrants have lots of opportunities, the UK wants people, Singapore wants people for particular industries, you just can’t say ‘come to Australia for the lifestyle’,” she said.

The federal government is set to back an increase to Australia’s skilled migrant intake as it prepares to host this week’s jobs summit.

Australia’s unemployment rate is at a historic low of 3.3 per cent but businesses say that they are struggling to find workers to fill jobs, largely because of the pandemic restrictions, when Australia closed its doors to all foreigners and at times its own citizens for two years, as part of its efforts to rid COVID-19 from its shores.

She said improving cultural diversity was not an inevitability despite the growing Asian face of Australian society, because of people’s preference to work and collaborate with others who are like themselves.

She said there was a need to build “psychological safety” into workplaces where sensitive topics like race and ethnicity can be openly discussed without fear or trepidation.


Published by the Sydney Morning Herald on 28 August 2022.