Australia

Asians most likely to report being discriminated against in Australia

Four out of five Asian Australians say they have experienced discrimination. Source: Getty

A new survey has found Asians are the most likely ethnic group to report experiencing discrimination in Australia.

Businesses are being urged to reconsider the “western norm” of leadership as a new survey reveals four out of five Asian-Australians say they have experienced discrimination in Australia.

The national survey of 2,000 people found Asians were the most likely ethnic group to report experiencing discrimination in Australia.

Eighty-two per cent of Asians surveyed said they had experienced discrimination in the workplace or as a consumer in Australia, compared to 81 per cent of those with Middle Eastern heritage and 71 per cent of Indigenous Australians.

Workers with clipboard and laptop in rug warehouse
Asian-Australians make up just 3 per cent of top roles in corporations, institutions and community organisations.
Getty

A shop or restaurant was the most common setting for discrimination.

The survey was conducted for this month’s Asian-Australian Leadership Summit,  exploring why Asian-Australians are under-represented in senior corporate and community roles.

Survey co-author and ANU's Melbourne office manager Jieh-Yung Lo, who helped organise the two-day summit, said the survey was evidence of the “bamboo ceiling” that limits 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," he said.

While the term glass ceiling is often used to describe gender discrimination in the workplace, there's growing awareness about the so-called bamboo ceiling, although some consider the term too narrow as bamboo is most associated with China. 

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 said it was worrying that half of those who had experienced discrimination reported changing their behaviour as a result to become less outspoken at work.

Greenwoods & Herbert Smith Freehills director Sue Ann Khoo was able to do the opposite, and became more outspoken to overcome barriers that arose due to cultural stereotypes.

Sue Ann Khoo was named as one of the 40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian-Australians.
Sue Ann Khoo was named as one of the 40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian-Australians.
Supplied

When the Malaysian-born corporate tax lawyer was in more junior roles, she was constantly told that she lacked “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 confident as I did not challenge my superiors and as a result of that I wasn’t given the opportunities such as working on larger transactions or being nominated in leadership positions or leadership programs," she said.

Once she realised why she was missing out on opportunities, she started asking more questions in meetings and asked for what she wanted in terms of work opportunities.

She was named one the “40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian-Australians” at the Asian Australian Leadership Summit.

Ms Khoo, who hopes to run a law firm in the future, began her career at a top professional services firm in Malaysia where the partners 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.”

Gladys Liu making it harder for Asian Australians

Mr Lo hoped the survey would spark debate about the case for diversity targets, better training and mentoring, and a rethink of our 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," he said.

“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 case is not helped when prominent Asian Australians got attention for all the wrong reasons.

Liberal member for Chisholm Gladys Liu wipes away tears during Question Time in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra.
Liberal member for Chisholm Gladys Liu wipes away tears during Question Time in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra.
AAP

He cited federal politician Gladys Liu, who has 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," he said.

“It is really really difficult for us to push for greater diversity when our own leaders who are already there are not stepping up.”  

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