SYDNEY – 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 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, because while Australia does extremely well in social mobility for immigrants, including those from Asia, equality of opportunity isn’t enjoyed in equal measure in all spheres” said the commissioner, a first-generation Australian with Chinese and Lao roots. “We may boast about education and employment, but our efforts in opening the doors of power to all who knock are more questionable. Our cultural diversity is far from proportionately represented in positions of leadership.”
As an example, Soutphommasane said that while around 1 in 10 Australians had an Asian background, there were only four people with Asian origins in the national parliament. There are also two Aborigines, but the rest have European ancestry. “In percentage terms, only 1.7 percent 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 far 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 percent of executive managers and 4.2 percent 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?” he asked.
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,” he said. “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, while admonishing the mass media for giving people of Asian heritage “a distinctly ‘exoticised’ character.”