Asian-Australians are the most likely ethnic group in the country to report experiencing discrimination.That's according to a new study conducted as part of research into the so-called "bamboo ceiling".Researchers hope the survey will spark a rethink on Western notions of leadership and strategies to help workplaces allow Asian employees to excel.
Sue Ann Khoo is a director at law firm Greenwoods and Herbert Smith Freehills in Sydney.
But many didn't see her as leadership material when she was in junior roles.
The Malaysian-born corporate tax specialist says she was frequently told she lacked what others called "executive presence".
“That’s because I am small in size, I look young, I’m female and I tend to be quieter than my peers. I was seen not to be as confidence as I did not challenge my superiors and as a result of that I wasn’t given the opportunities such as working on larger transaction or being nominated in leadership positions or leadership programs.”
Once she realised what was happening, she decided to speak up more during meetings and be more assertive.
She now leads the law firm's Asia business section.
While Ms Khoo has overcome some hardships at work, many other Asian-Australians continue to be overlooked.
A survey from researchers at the Australian National University has found Asian-Australians are the most likely ethnic group to report experiencing discrimination.
Eighty-two per cent of Asian-Australians surveyed said they'd experienced discrimination in the workplace or as a consumer, compared to 81 per cent of those with Middle Eastern heritage and 71 per cent of Indigenous Australians.
A shop or restaurant was the most common setting for discrimination, followed by the workplace.
Australian National University researcher Jieh-Yung Lo says the survey is evidence of the so-called “bamboo ceiling” limiting the potential of Asian-Australians.
“The survey itself is sending a clear warning that workplaces and senior leaders need to respond to this urgent issue because Asian-Australians comprise approximately 12 per cent of the population and growing. It is clear that this issue will not go away.”
Asian-Australians make up 12 per cent of the population, but comprise just 3.1 per cent of senior leadership positions at companies, universities and community organisations.
Mr Lo says half of those to experience discrimination reported becoming less outspoken at work as a result.
He hopes the survey sparks debate about the case for diversity quotas, better training and mentoring, and a rethink of Australian notions of leadership.
“The one thing that I believe Australian workplaces and leaders should change is the perceptions of leadership because leadership comes in a variety of different forms and we shouldn’t be defining leadership in just the Aussie or western norm. For a lot of Asian-Australians it’s really about working from behind the scenes, putting your head down, not drawing attention to yourself and actually rely on our hard work and merit to be recognised.”
While many Asian-Australians are struggling to be noticed in the workplace, Mr Lo said their cases are not helped when prominent Asian-Australians get attention for the wrong reasons.
He cited Liberal M-P Gladys Liu, who's come under fire for changing her story about her connections to Chinese propaganda organisations.
“For a community like Asian Australians who highly value merit as a form of success, Gladys Liu is really demonstrating the opposite. It is really, really difficult for us to push for greater diversity when our own leaders who are already there are not stepping up.”
Sue Ann Khoo began her career at a top professional services firm in Malaysia where senior employees were women of different cultural backgrounds.
“Until I came to Australia, I realised there were no partners in my organisation who looked like me, or very few who looked like me.”
She says that's gradually improving in Australia and hopes to be part of the change by running her own law firm in the future.