The Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner says a 'bamboo ceiling' is keeping Asian workers from acquiring leadership positions in the country.
In a speech in Perth on Thursday, Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane suggested that Asian Australians have a tougher time gaining leadership positions – more so than other workers of different backgrounds.
"Is there a bamboo ceiling that exists in the same way that a glass ceiling exists for women?" he said.
Dr Soutphommasane said that although children of migrant parents tend to excel, more so than children of Australian-born parents, their success didn’t translate to positions of leadership.
"Equality of opportunity isn't enjoyed in equal measure in all spheres," Dr Soutphommasane said. "We may boast about education and employment, but our efforts in opening the doors of power to all who knock are more questionable," he said.
As an example, Soutphommasane said that while around one 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 per cent 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.
Dr Soutphommasane said that perhaps the reason for the lack of Asian leaders is that immigration from Asia to Australia only began on a large scale in the 1970s.
He said this did not, however, account for the lack of cultural representation of Asian Australians, citing the minimal Asian faces on television mostly confined to hosting cooking shows.
"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".
Dr Soutphommasane said Australia ran the risk of creating a new class of "well-educated, ostensibly over-achieving Asian-Australians, who may nonetheless be permanently locked out from the ranks of their society’s leadership."
He said Australia needed to think about the ways it could tackle and embrace multiculturalism and re-examine issues surrounding race and national identity.