Asian-Australians hold fewer than 3% of leadership positions in Australia but make up 15% of the population. How can ambitious, culturally diverse chartered accountants (CAs) break the biases that trap them beneath a bamboo ceiling?

In brief

  • Karen Loon FCA looks back on her career and shares how aspiring culturally diverse leaders can crack the bamboo ceiling.
  • Loon will publish the book “Fostering Culturally Diverse Leadership in Organisations” with learned lessons such as understand yourself, build a secure base of supporters, balance tensions and experiment.
  • “Many Asian migrant accountants had a downward career move on coming to Australia,” says Karen Loon FCA.

 

When I started as a graduate accountant in the early 1990s, I was energetic and enthusiastic. I enjoyed my work and the camaraderie of my colleagues at a Big Four firm in Sydney. I put in long hours and gained an early promotion. But my progress slowed after I became a senior accountant. My manager told me I was strong on the technical side, but I needed to improve my soft skills and speak up more in meetings.

At the time, I was aware of the barriers women faced in the profession. In the early ’90s, few women made it to manager in a Big Four firm, let alone partner. But something else was going on. Despite being a fourth-generation Asian-Australian, I had started pressing into the bamboo ceiling.

What is the bamboo ceiling?

Asian-American career coach and author Jane Hyun coined the term “bamboo ceiling” in 2005 to describe the barrier to Asians getting top leadership positions in corporate America.

It’s a subtle and complex form of discrimination. Asian-Americans are labelled as quiet, hardworking, family oriented, high-achieving in maths and science, passive, non confrontational, submissive and not social. While those attributes could be a plus in junior roles they could also impede an individual’s career in the long term.

MIT academic Jackson Lu published research in 2020 that showed East Asians (eg, Chinese, Korean, Japanese) in the US were more likely to experience the bamboo ceiling than South Asians (eg, Indians, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis).

Lu found that East Asians were perceived as less assertive than the norm for leaders in the US and that bias applied to both international Asians and Asian-Americans.

Of course, if enough people tell you you’re not the right fit for leadership, you may start to internalise that belief. Dealing with this sort of bias can deflate an individual’s motivation. For some Asian employees, this increases their perception that they are not suitable for leadership positions.

The bamboo ceiling in Australia

I was fortunate; I made partner in Singapore and am ethnically Chinese, so I did not face a bamboo ceiling. And when I was promoted in 2002, there were already a number of female partners in my firm. But when I returned to Australia on a secondment in 2011, I saw quickly how the bamboo ceiling challenged my Asian-Australian colleagues.

Back in Sydney, I soon realised I was one of only a few female Asian-Australian partners in my firm at the time. Jane*, a highly motivated Asian-Australian, approached me for coffee and advice. I was surprised to find that she had no female role models in her business unit to speak to – let alone anyone of an Asian background.

I also spoke with Vivek*, a qualified accountant who had migrated to Australia after working in Big Four firms in Bahrain and Singapore. He told me he was unlikely to stay in his accounting firm in the longer term. He said while he enjoyed his work, he didn’t feel like he fully belonged.

In addition, he felt his firm hadn’t really valued his skills and attributes. He subsequently joined a financial institution.

Research by the Diversity Council of Australia in 2014 found that Asian-Australians considered themselves talented, ambitious, motivated and capable, but believed their skills were undervalued by their organisations, especially when it came to their Asian knowledge. Asian-Australian women faced a double jeopardy: as well as dealing with masculine leadership models that they said worked against them, these women reported a lack of relationship capital (such as access to mentors, professional networks and work social activities) needed for career success.

This view has been supported by academics. One study published in 2008 found that many Asian migrant accountants had a downward career move on coming to Australia. Other research points to biases in recruiting Asian accountants because it was believed they lacked Australian work experience, knowledge of the Australian culture and Australian English.

Australia’s leaders are blindingly white

Some senior leaders in Australia recognise the bamboo ceiling exists and that it’s holding back not only individual careers but also Australia’s business growth into Asia.

“The ‘bamboo ceiling’ in Australia is real…[Asian-Australians] have been an under-appreciated and under-utilised national resource for far too long,” wrote Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister, in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2019.

It’s true that some Australian organisations have implemented cultural diversity targets and initiatives, but progress towards culturally diverse leadership is slow.

In 2018, the Australian Human Rights Commission found that Asian-Australians held a mere 3% of leadership positions (in business, politics, government and higher education) despite being close to 15% of Australia’s population. In 2021, just 10% of ASX 300 board members were from a non-Anglo-Celtic background, according to research by Watermark Search International and the Governance Institute of Australia.

Lessons from Asian-Australian leaders

Nevertheless, Asian-Australian leaders do make it into leadership positions, albeit in small numbers. So, did they face barriers on their way to leadership? And if they did, how did they overcome them? What can we learn?

Unfortunately, most of what’s written about cultural diversity in leadership examines why people don’t make it. But I was curious. I delved into these questions as research for my book Fostering Culturally Diverse Leadership in Organisations. I interviewed 30 current or former Big Four firm partners in Australia and this is what I learned.

1. Identity transitions involve a dynamic negotiation process

Any identity transition that we undertake – such as adopting a professional identity at work – involves a negotiation process. We’re influenced by our role models, experiment with our provisional selves and re-evaluate ourselves.

Family background, too, can influence what careers we choose, the types of roles we take on and the sort of organisations we prefer to work in.

Identity transitions can be more challenging for people with culturally diverse backgrounds. They may need to adapt to and balance their behaviour between sometimes conflicting systems of culture, such as what’s expected in the family home and what’s encouraged at school.

2. Successful leaders experiment and learn, with support

In my research I found that successful Asian-Australian leaders continuously experiment and learn throughout their careers. They are open to starting new roles or joining new groups, trying new things and taking risks. They learn to be agile, managing multiple tasks and stakeholders. In addition to working on their business skills, they will build, enhance and maintain relationships with stakeholders and others.

As individuals, most of these leaders have experienced some tensions and anxieties about conforming to their organisations’ collective pressures. Successful leaders have learned how to adapt to these tensions, reflect on the experience, and use that knowledge in their future efforts.

The way they react to anxieties, though, is more varied, influencing their paths. (Often, when people are anxious, they unconsciously default to behaviours that helped protect them when they were children.)

However, if I have to identify one critical enabler of success for culturally diverse leaders, it’s being able to access secure and safe bases. This includes leveraging sponsors, mentors and coaches, and leadership development programs.

 

How can you crack the bamboo ceiling?

To accelerate your career, Karen Loon FCA suggests aspiring culturally diverse leaders focus on four aspects.

1. Understand yourself

It’s essential to understand your strengths and weaknesses and be aware of your blind spots. Other people sometimes see and sense aspects of your personality that you don’t. Be open to getting feedback from others through 360-degree feedback and learn more about how you behave under stress. Also look at what formal and informal roles you prefer taking on and reflect on why you prefer these roles over others.

2. Build a secure base of supporters

Having supporters at work can make or break your journey to leadership. Indeed, it can be a critical factor for success. Some of my early career sponsors are people I still ask for help and advice today.

When looking for sponsors, start early in your career. Nurture these connections for the longer term and remember that any relationship must be two-way. Also remember that it’s essential to have some sponsors who are not just like you.

Finally, build a strong network of mentors and coaches you can turn to for advice. Ensure, too, that you can leverage your family for support outside of work.

3. Balance tensions

Today, many situations we face at work are paradoxical and involve an inherent tension. Take, for instance, work and family, or profitability and ESG (environmental, social and governance issues). You need to recognise that it isn’t possible to make an either/or decision in some of these cases.

To manage these tensions, learn to become more comfortable with discomfort. Take the time to reflect rather than acting impulsively or jumping to conclusions. You can gain that mental space by journaling, going for a walk or run, or meditating.

4. Experiment, learn and reflect

Your education doesn’t end once you finish your professional exams. Many things will change throughout your career.

Remember to stretch yourself and try new things regularly. Embrace lifelong learning and ensure that you invest in ‘me’ time.

 

*Names changed to protect identity.

 

Original article published by Acuity magazine on 2 June 2022.