A third-generation Asian Australian’s money is ruled ‘foreign’. An Adelaide-born MP of Asian appearance is asked ‘Where are you from?’. Underrepresented in boardrooms and politics, overlooked despite achievements, Asian Australians are looking for answers – and changes.

Words by Malcolm Knox
Photography by Tim Bauer

“Nerd Appeal, Not Sex Appeal.” Kingsley Liu’s billboard, as a Greens candidate for the western Sydney seat of Lindsay at the recent federal election, is more than a cheeky dig at the then Liberal incumbent Fiona Scott.

Liu’s challenge speaks from cultural despair: why, despite their comprising an estimated 17 per cent of the population – and dominating results in schools and universities, in a country that sits on the edge of Asia – does a ‘bamboo ceiling’ relegate Asian Australians to the status of nerds, not leaders?

Liu knows his challenge was a long shot. (The voters of Lindsay rejected both nerd and sex appeal, voting in the Labor candidate Emma Husar. The voters of Queensland, meanwhile, sent Pauline Hanson to the Senate.)

But for Liu, the result is less important than continuing a struggle that began in 1988 when, as a third-generation Australian stockbroker, his application to take over an existing firm was rejected by the Australian Stock Exchange because his voting shares were designated ‘foreign’. He eventually succeeded – “I danced on the bamboo ceiling” – and went on to co-found a law firm, The People’s Solicitors, as well as lobby group the Asian Australian Alliance.

“The mantra of the so-called model minority,” Liu says, “was to work hard and get a pat on the head. But I realised that working hard alone wouldn’t get me far. Rene Rivkin said I was entitled to lie, cheat and steal. I told him I believed more in strategic positioning.”

“Walking into the lobby doesn’t mean you can get the elevator to the top floor.”

A lifetime of strategic positioning has led to Liu’s campaign to highlight a widespread deficit: there are just three Asian Australians in the new federal parliament, and fewer than 4 per cent of Senate and House of Representatives candidates have Asian heritage.

A new Human Rights Commission study has elaborated on this picture: Australia’s political, corporate, educational, legal and governmental establishments are as monocultural as ever. The ‘Asian Century’ is not visible in our leadership.

The study found that 5 per cent of ASX200 chief executives have a non-European cultural background, with declining percentages in parliament and the top levels of the public service and tertiary education. Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, the co-author, says: “There isn’t an issue with people getting a start in Australian organisations, but walking into the lobby doesn’t mean you can get the elevator to the top floor.”

Angela Kwan: “I don’t agree with defining success or leadership as wanting to be a CEO or political leader."

The term ‘bamboo ceiling’ was coined (and trademarked) by American executive coach Jane Hyun in her 2005 book Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians. Hyun defined the ceiling as “a combination of individual, cultural and organisational factors that impede Asians’ career progress inside organisations”.

Hyun’s aim was to provide solutions for a 12 million-strong demographic, 44 per cent of it college-educated, grossly under-represented in American leadership. And yet, compared with Australia, Hyun’s United States was a paradise of diversity. Two members of the then federal cabinet, several state governors and legislators, and hundreds in the judiciary are Asian-American. Fortune 500 companies with Asian-American CEOs have included PepsiCo, Avon, Johnson & Johnson, Citigroup and Microsoft, while Silicon Valley has produced a wave of Asian-American-founded businesses such as YouTube, Hotmail, Yahoo!, WebEx and many more with Asian leaders.

By the time Soutphommasane ignited debate by referring to Australia’s bamboo ceiling in a speech in 2014, the distance Australia had fallen behind was being measured. Diversity Council Australia (DCA) has conducted several studies, finding that only 1.9 per cent of executives in ASX200 companies and 4.9 per cent of senior executives nationwide were of Asian Australian background. Five per cent of ASX200 companies had Asian Australian CEOs, and 6.1 per cent had Asian Australian chairs. These were well below the nearly 10 per cent of our population who are either Australian-born with Asian parents or have moved here during their lifetimes, and a further 7 per cent with Asian cultural identity.

61 per cent felt pressure to conform to ‘Anglo’ leadership styles in order to progress.

Based on educational statistics, Asian Australians are over-represented among high-achieving university graduates but under-represented in workforce leadership. Respondents to DCA surveys were overwhelmingly frustrated: only 18 per cent felt their workplaces were free of negative cultural bias and stereotyping, 61 per cent felt pressure to conform to ‘Anglo’ leadership styles in order to progress, and just 15 per cent felt that their employers were making the most of their Asian talent. David Morrison, Australian of the Year and chairman of DCA, announced that helping to break down the bamboo ceiling was one of his priorities for 2016.

DCA’s studies have been supplemented by others. In 2010, an Australian National University economics survey found that job applicants with Asian and Middle Eastern family names needed to submit 60 per cent more applications to get the same number of interviews as people with Anglo-Saxon family names. The Asian Australian Lawyers’ Association found in 2015 that only 94 of Australia’s 6160 barristers (1.6 per cent), 0.8 per cent of the judiciary and 3.1 per cent of partners in law firms had Asian backgrounds.

Even with this wealth of evidence, precise measurements are hard to come by. Lisa Annese, the chief executive of DCA, says the picture is clouded by the fact that internally companies measure gender but not cultural diversity. ‘There is no agency in place to apply that sort of scrutiny,’ she says.

While the measurements are imprecise, proxy studies and personal experiences suggest that Australia’s bamboo ceiling is real and, if anything, even tougher to crack than the data suggest.

Growing up in Australia, Brad Chan “was sent to a Chinese school to learn Chinese”.

Kingsley Liu’s experiences prompted him to activism. With Erin Chew, an Australian-born activist of Chinese and Malaysian parentage, Liu started the Asian Australian Association in 2013 to challenge the bamboo ceiling.

“We wondered about the lack of Asian promotions into key areas such as the judiciary, politics, media, arts, corporations and not-for-profits,” Chew says. “We realised there was a problem for people who had done well at school and university then not advancing into senior roles.”

As she became more outspoken on the issue, Chew encountered pushback from the Asian Australian community. “Everyone applauds David Morrison for speaking about the bamboo ceiling, but when Asian Australians talk about it we are criticised by our own,” she says. “We are still seen as the model minority: aiming to own our house, have a family, have a good profession, not pushing the boundaries. Asians as a cultural value are not really pushers, it’s more ‘Let’s be satisfied with what we have. We’re doing well, we don’t want to make ourselves a target.’”

There was a deepening sense that patience would not be rewarded.

For Chew, this pushback had a personal element. Her parents had anglicised her first name from Wen-Li because they thought it would improve her prospects. When they spoke of Anglo-Australians, they called them ‘Australians’. This troubled Chew, who, though born in Australia, grew up feeling she was ‘not treated as an Australian’ by Anglo and Asian alike.

Chew belongs to a generation that will not sit back and wait for indeterminate, incremental change. In organisations such as the Diverse Australasian Women’s Network (DAWN), the Asian Australian Lawyers’ Association (AALA), and the Chinese Community Council of Australia (CCCA), younger activists began to mobilise in the past three years to create awareness and accelerate change. There was, Chew said, a deepening sense that patience would not be rewarded.

Her feeling is shared, from an almost polar-opposite perspective, by John Menadue. Having been inside the Australian corporate and political establishment since the 1970s – as the head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and as a managing director of Qantas – Menadue believes Australia has gone backwards in dismantling the bamboo ceiling and that institutional racism permeates the establishment to an almost irreversible depth.

“Despite the dominance of Asian students in high school and university results, the ASX200 companies are a closed shop: pale, male and stale, the same old names and people appointing each other to boards and senior executive positions,” Menadue says. “You would expect a lag in Asian Australians coming through, but it’s been going on for at least three decades.”

“Middle-aged Anglo males who know each other, who will cover up for each other.”

Menadue thinks the failure to promote Asian Australian individuals is bound up in an overall failure to engage with the region over those decades. Citing the coming and going of Asian economic and tourist booms, the decline in Asian language education funding, and the lack of attention to high-level reports recommending urgent engagement, Menadue says, “We went on smoko. We try a few things, then the enthusiasm wanes and nothing is done.”

He points to ‘unconsciously racist patterns’ within the leadership of Australia’s political, business, legal, media, financial and educational institutions.

“Social class has a great ability to keep reproducing itself,” says Menadue. “These are basically white men’s clubs, status-conscious, with unconsciously racist patterns of appointing people like themselves. In 1975 I was hoping we would progress further than we have. The end of the White Australia Policy was a big move, but those young people are not getting access to senior positions all this time later.”

Some will take the argument about racism further, even alleging an institutionalised race-based corruption. University of South Australia professor Ying Zhu, director of the university’s Australian Centre for Asian Business, says corporate boards are “dominated by middle-aged Anglo males who know each other, who will cover up for each other. They feel comfortable, like a boarding school boys’ club still, with its hidden racism. They are lazy or they don’t want to know Asian Australians.”

“Life is easy for these people rotating between boards. That’s the culture. But we live in a global age. This behaviour is no longer sustainable for companies to compete. We have a competitive advantage in our Asian people, but we don’t use it.”

Soutphommasane agrees that the line between unconscious racial bias and outright racism is fine.

“If institutions look the same at a certain level, what is that but institutional racism?” he says. “We can’t confine the label of racism to acts of racist violence or doctrinal belief in racial superiority. Those who are on the receiving end of discrimination know too well that the hardest form of racism to combat is the insidious racism that can exist within an institution or organisation – in its rules, its systems and practices, which are not confined to any one individual.”

“There’s a lot of passion from a young generation who are born here," says Dai Le.


Within organisations, how is the bamboo ceiling enforced? “One of the worst offenders,” Chew says, “is the Australian Labor Party. Labor likes to parade [South Australian senator] Penny Wong, and they are okay with having two or three Asian Australians, but once it gets beyond that it becomes a fear of the Asian invasion. I don’t think it means they are racist, but like a lot of institutions they will tend towards people like themselves.”

Thang Ngo, a Vietnamese-Australian, was a local councillor in Fairfield, Sydney, for ten years from 1999. An area with 31,000 Vietnamese – 16.6 per cent of the population – had just the one Vietnamese representative.

“It was such a safe Labor-held area,” Ngo says, “that people went with the established candidate and there was no need to change. Nobody in their right mind would run against one of the major parties, but the major parties wouldn’t preselect you. Get you to hand out how-to-vote cards, yes, but no more. At that time, Labor represented the area at state and federal level and didn’t even have a Vietnamese speaker in their electorate offices.”

Companies often follow the precept of ‘Same is safe, different is dangerous’.

The cause of Vietnamese representation was further hurt when Phuong Ngo (no relation), an independent councillor who switched to the Labor Party, was convicted for the murder of ALP state MP John Newman. This, according to Thang Ngo, solidified the status quo: “I would put it on the community to change, but they didn’t have the will, and the party continued to put up the same kind of candidates.”

Self-replication is an ongoing theme. Tom Verghese, a leadership consultant to Australian companies trying to broaden their activities into Asia, says that when companies are choosing leaders, they often follow the precept of ‘Same is safe, different is dangerous’.

“We worked with a multinational firm which had had trouble developing Asian leaders,” says Verghese. “We looked at their selection criteria. The ability to push back in meetings, argue a point, was valued in their organisation. But people who had grown up with Asian values of respecting titles and age found it difficult to do that.

“Technical skills are recognised at lower levels, but at the higher levels it becomes softer skills. ‘Do I trust you, do we have rapport, do we share values, how do you represent the firm?’ Then bias - conscious and unconscious - comes into play. Whenever you are part of a minority, the majority sets the rules.”

It is an almost universal lament: so-called ‘Asian values’ might help when skills are being objectively tested, but become a liability when the rules of the game change and the soft skills take over. These qualities have been codified for leadership in what is called a ‘competency library’. Large organisations refer to such libraries when seeking leaders. The competency libraries often favour qualities that are most likely possessed by a western-raised candidate. The game, for Asian Australians, might be rigged before they even start.

Brad Chan, who leads the third-generation family company Banna Property Group, worked for several organisations before discovering that “the working environment in large corporations didn’t really suit my strengths and, like other Asian Australians, I saw limited opportunities for leadership.”

“It can be hard for introverted people to get ahead.”

“I was not willing to play the game. Politics play a role in getting ahead, and merit wasn’t necessarily enough to climb the corporate ladder. The ones that were more outspoken and found ways to self-promote were the ones that got ahead. My preference was to work hard and get ahead on my own merit, but that wasn’t enough.”

There are subtle environmental ways in which competency libraries show bias. “A lot of Asian Australians are more introverted by nature,” says Chan. “If you look at the strengths of introverts, there’s the ability to focus for long periods at a time and find solutions. Small organisations can utilise that better than large organisations with layers of bureaucracy and internal politics. In large organisations, we live in an extroverts’ world. The ideal leader is an extrovert who is out there from school age, doing public speaking, being vocal. In the corporate world, the extroverted businessman is put on a pedestal. Regularly they get promoted, while introverts are passed over. Even open-plan work environments work to the extrovert’s advantage. It can be hard for introverted people to get ahead.’

Western bias in workplaces can even get down to the granular level of the design of presentation software. Jeffery Wang, a Taiwanese-born, Australian-educated sales executive with Telstra, says that the structure of PowerPoint, for instance, “simplifies information into a chronological cause-and-effect process which is a western way of thinking that produces a black-and-white narrative fallacy. An Asian way of thinking may be that things happen for a million reasons. Westerners prefer a clear narrative even if it’s not the truth.” Wang also notes training courses – such as one called Think on your Feet – which taught “a western, rationalist way of as the only way leading”.

“In an Anglo workplace, sometimes you need to claim credit in order to enjoy it.”

These examples of unconscious bias, built into workplaces as the underlying norms, extend to concepts of leadership. Dai Le, who heads the organisation DAWN, believes that it is also a part of a Confucian upbringing to respect authority and not promote oneself. She is uncomfortable with the negative connotations of the term bamboo ceiling, as it should also convey positive attributes of flexibility and pragmatism, and says that it is still the case that “South East Asians, Chinese, Koreans all grow up with Confucian ethics of respect for authority and elders, very much a South East Asian world view.”

Part of this is a reluctance to claim credit and push oneself. “Workers need to be vigilant about how their actions will be interpreted,” Soutphommasane says. “Have they been categorised as meek and submissive for not claiming credit? That’s another specific cultural behaviour. Within many Asian cultures, the boss should give you credit for good work, it’s not for you to seek or claim credit, because that would be presumptuous. In an Anglo workplace, sometimes you need to claim credit in order to enjoy it.”

Brad Chan left corporate life, as have so many Asian Australians, for private business. Asian Australian business successes, from Bing Lee and LJ Hooker (born LJ Tingyou) through to TPG Telecom’s David and Vicky Teoh and Shimao Property’s Wing Mau Hui, are conspicuous for being outside the Australian corporate ‘club’. Asian Australians are also conspicuous within the sciences and professions were ‘technical mastery’ is said to be objectively measurable. This internal migration, away from public leadership positions, is something Soutphommasane sees as a not-so-subtle exercise of establishment power, and also a convenient excuse for that establishment.

“People say, ‘Surely [the bamboo ceiling] isn’t a problem when so many of our surgeons come from an Asian background?’” says Soutphommasane, who is still sometimes asked if he works in IT or accounts at the Human Rights Commission. “I make the point that there’s a difference between being in a prestigious occupation and being in a leadership position. They might be the surgeons, but who’s running the hospital? Who is in positions of leadership and stewardship of our institutions?”

“Many well-meaning people told me about migrant doctors driving buses and that I had no hope of getting a job.”

“‘Technical mastery’ is another assumption about people from diverse backgrounds. There’s more of a hurdle in getting people to think they can be good leaders and executives. And it throws up questions about how Australian society sees power and race.”

Even in the professions, where ‘technical mastery’ is critical, the way is often blocked. Molina Swarup Asthana, a 43-year-old Melbourne lawyer, emigrated from India in 2004 with a wealth of corporate, in-house and litigation experience: technical mastery, in other words, that would foretell a promising legal career. Asthana’s dream is to become a judge. She completed a Masters degree in Australia, but “was told that I couldn’t get my degree of experience recognised at large or medium sized firms. Many well-meaning people told me about migrant doctors driving buses and that I had no hope of getting a job.”

In Victoria, Asthana saw no judges and only one magistrate from an Asian background. Across Australia, Asian-background junior lawyers are plentiful, but they are rare among senior counsel and law firm partners.

“It’s hard to progress when you are the only person speaking with an accent,” says Asthana, who practises as a government solicitor. “They get on better with their own. I didn’t grow up with the same TV shows, didn’t go out for Friday drinks. A male, Anglo-Saxon dominated legal culture looks for the same.”

“Who’s going to support you, who will be your sponsor?”

The changing of the rules at high levels is a common experience among Asian Australians in the professions. Melbourne lawyer Tuanh Nguyen believes that while “objective measures of technical competence are common at junior and mid levels, when you get to the partnership level, everyone expects that your technical skills are down pat and so it becomes political: your leadership skills, playing the partnership game, bringing in new business. That’s certainly the case in the law firms, and with barristers, it’s even more so.”

“Who’s going to support you, who will be your sponsor? When you hit that critical time when you are pushing the partnership boundaries or senior barrister boundaries, it is sponsors who help move you up. Asian Australian lawyers have never been great at networking; it’s not taught from a young age, it’s more about ‘work hard, be technically very good at what you do, don’t rock the boat, and you will be recognised’. But that doesn’t get you through to the senior ranks.”

L-R: Jeffery Wang, Thang Ngo, Dai Le, Brad Chan and Angela Kwan.


Another reason for the blockage is the comparative success of gender diversity. In the institutions where the bamboo ceiling is manifest, Australia has made progress in gender. Cultural diversity is 20 years behind gender diversity, Nguyen summarises: “I worked at the law firm Baker and McKenzie for ten years. When I first started talking about cultural diversity issues, they said there’s only so much oxygen for diversity, and it’s all being taken up by gender.’

Female membership on the boards of ASX200 companies has trebled from 8 per cent to 24 per cent since 2009. Women account for 40 per cent of corporate senior executives, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and one-third of federal parliamentarians.

Yet the slow erosion of the glass ceiling has not weakened the bamboo ceiling; in fact, it might have hardened that barrier. Dai Le, the founder of DAWN, says a representative of a banking institution recently told her, “We have kind of got on top of the gender issue, but are not even aware of the [diversity] issue.”

“They admitted they were too conservative and were at least taking steps to look at the barriers that are there,” Le says. “But that shows how far behind the issue is.”

Soutphommasane has been told by institutional leaders that gender is their ‘diversity priority’.

“There’s only so much bandwidth they can handle on diversity,” he explains. “If there’s one aspect they can deal with first, it’s gender, because that accounts for a bigger proportion of the population. The message that sends is important. If you are from a culturally diverse background… your leadership doesn’t think you are important in the organisation or your concerns must wait, and there is no guarantee that your turn will ever come.”

“It’s a double-whammy, but I think the glass ceiling is easier to break than the bamboo ceiling.”

One of the levers used to prise open the glass ceiling is enlightened self-interest. The Male Champions of Change program, spearheaded by former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Liz Broderick, asked male leaders whether they wanted their daughters to grow up in a world where they couldn’t achieve their potential.

“Many say publicly that they care about gender diversity because they worry about the future their daughters will enjoy,” Soutphommasane says. ‘They have ‘skin in the game’. It’s no accident that when I talk to leaders about cultural diversity, those with best grasp of the issues are those who are married to someone from a different cultural background, have adopted children, or have worked overseas.

“But enlightened self-interest only goes so far. What if there’s no self-interest? What if the leader is content with their current circle and can’t see the point of cultural diversity?”

And, even if it has slowed the increase of cultural diversity, gender diversity has hardly been fast-moving. Lisa Annese says that 32 years after the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act, “We are nowhere near gender equity.”

Which adds up to a double-disadvantage for talented Asian Australian women. Says Asthana: ‘It’s a double-whammy, but I think the glass ceiling is easier to break than the bamboo ceiling.’

“Some men find it an affront to have an Asian woman in a leadership position above them.”

Among those who have broken through both the bamboo and glass ceilings is finance executive Ming Long, who has held senior positions in numerous property and investment companies and at the University of Sydney. Long says that her success has been difficult: "There are definitely barriers for Asians' advancement into senior level."

"There are significant unjustified biases that hold Asians back, for example too short, too quiet, don't contribute enough, too introverted, don't seem to want advancement, don't network enough, not enough gravitas... stereotyping Asians doesn't help at all.

"I am a person who has broken through, but I am also still constrained by it. I know that any future roles or whatever I do or go for will be constrained by people's biases against me. I don't look like them and I may make people uncomfortable because I'm different, with different views or perspectives. I know that the smarter ones will recognise the difference as a strength, but some people will not be comfortable with it.

"Being visually Asian starts the biases off. If you are more 'strayan' it helps, as you fit in more with the Australian culture and they can overcome what they hear and how you behave over the Asian they see. Even if you are Australian born, some people will just assume you were not; you're an "alien" of some sort and you have to prove you belong."

Despite these obstacles, Long has overcome the 'double whammy'.

"Some men find it as an affront to have an Asian woman in a leadership position above them - as they've never had that experience before, they really don't know how to cope with it. I know the statistics show that being an Asian woman is a double negative, but I would like to think that smarter people can see it as a double asset - my differences bring strength, creativity, insight and diversity."

Jeffery Wang says training often sees “a western, rationalist way of as the only way leading”.


One of the arguments for pulling down the bamboo ceiling is that Australian corporations are sacrificing a competitive advantage. Jeffery Wang points to “our best brains going to Silicon Valley because we don’t give them enough opportunities here to advance. It’s no accident that 40 per cent of Silicon Valley is made up of Asian and Indian talents, who are allowed to feel totally at home there.”

The loss of cultural diversity can even be felt by an individual. After Brad Chan’s family moved their prosperous trading business from Papua New Guinea to Australia in the 1970s – the Chans are now among the wealthiest families in Australia, with an estimated net worth of more than $250 million – Brad “was sent to a Chinese school to learn Chinese”.

“I wish I had learnt Chinese. It would have been an advantage.”

“I rebelled against that,” he says. “I asked, ‘Why do I need to learn Chinese in Australia?’ I went to a boarding school and had some experiences of boys from the country who had not been exposed to Asians. My cultural identity was a bit uncertain. I felt Australian but didn’t quite fit in with some of my Australian friends. I tried not to label myself as a local where I live, but as an Australian with a rich cultural background that I am proud of.

“Now I wish I had learnt Chinese. It would have been an advantage.”

That missed opportunity for Asia-focused Australian businesses is measurable. Soutphommasane quotes research from McKinsey and Company on more than 360 listed companies worldwide, showing that the top quarter, ranked on the racial diversity of their senior management, were 35 per cent more likely to outperform their national average on profitability.

“The integrity of decision-making will be stronger if you have diversity represented around the table,” Soutphommasane says.

Telstra’s chief general counsel David Field, a fluent Mandarin speaker with a Chinese-born wife, has championed ‘diversity of thought’ within an organisation that has a high proportion of Asian Australian workers who remain under-represented at the highest levels. The business case, he says, is clear. On an external management course a few years ago, Field participated in an exercise which compared individual output with performance in diverse groups of strangers. Even though “the group exercises were excruciating, with misunderstandings, and significant differences of style and thought, [with us spending] a lot of time being polite, and avoiding stepping on each other's toes, trying not to be too pushy, but ultimately getting each other's noses out of joint,” every outcome “was improved through the group process”.

“Our prospects of success will be enhanced by the sometimes painful process of being challenged and confronted by people who are different from us.”

“While it might be easier and faster to work by ourselves, or with people who think just like us, our prospects of success will be enhanced by the sometimes painful process of being challenged and confronted by people who are different from us,” Field says.

The business case for diversity of thought leading to innovation must be made, says Annese. “Bigger, better resourced organisations need a business driver to make change; you never see pure altruism. Demonstrating the business case is the first step.”

“I would like to see it driven by business, because it’s good for business.”

Yet the business case has its limits, says Soutphommasane. “A problem we have with corporate Australia is the reliance on there being a business case. People say that if you can’t make the business case, you can’t expect change. They forget that there might also be a moral and civic case. Doing the right thing is the better course, because it’s the right thing to do.”

L-R: Jeffery Wang, Thang Ngo, Dai Le, Brad Chan and Angela Kwan.


When the carrot has not been enough to change behaviour, what about the stick? The question of enforceable quotas for cultural diversity divides the community sharply, but there is universal agreement on the benefits provided by visible role models.

“Role models are important because people in an organisation need to see role-models for their own success,” says Telstra’s David Field. “If I look at the most senior strata of the organisation and can't see anyone who looks or sounds like me, I'm less likely to think of myself progressing to those levels.”

How to get such role models into place? Is evolution enough, or is the swifter action of quotas necessary?

“Personally, I think quotas are good,” says Erin Chew. “Appointments in corporate Australia should be by merit, but we know they are not by merit. People are concerned that if you bring in quotas you are harming merit, but my view is that quotas can enhance merit selection. I think we should have quotas because otherwise no one’s going to care.”

Speaking as an individual, rather than for the Asian Australian Lawyers Association of which she is president, Tuanh Nguyen says, “I’m not averse to having binding targets at least in the initial stages. Having role models demonstrating that it can work will be vital. They can force decision-makers to look outside the box, shift their attitudes and behaviours to take more consideration of cultural diversity.”

“If you don’t have a level playing field, you can’t be po-faced and tell us merit exists.”

The difference between quotas and targets – binding versus non-binding – is pivotal. Soutphommasane is in favour of targets, but not quotas. “If you’re going to try and change things, you need to put a number onto it if an organisation is going to be serious about it,” he says.

“There is this notion that targets go against the idea of merit, but the idea of merit presumes a level playing field in the first place. If you don’t have that, you can’t be po-faced and tell us merit exists, particularly when leadership and promotion decisions are so subjective. Targets are a way of levelling the playing field and ensuring merit is being brought to bear in a more objective way.”

Others are firmly against both quotas and targets, or any form of perceived tokenism.

“I’m not really a fan of quotas,” says Brad Chan. “I place more emphasis on Asian Australians to change the way they are doing things to fit in and get to those positions rather than expect the rest of Australia to change its ways.

“I see it as we live in a Western country… and if we are expecting society to change, it will be a long wait.”

Lisa Annese agrees, though from a purely pragmatic perspective: “We are nowhere near quotas on cultural identity. Ticking the boxes is not real change.”

The danger in numbers is tokenism, a shadow lurking behind the whole argument. Many corporations now celebrate culturally-important feast days. Telstra, for instance, celebrates Chinese New Year, Diwali, Eid and other cultural events. Jeffery Wang says an Arab workmate “came in wearing traditional dress, and he was so happy, he said that in 25 years at Telstra it was the first time he got to come in dressed like that.”

“Bring foods that reflect everyone’s ancestry, and everyone will be happy. It’s not the case.”

Soutphommasane believes that festivities can be an easy way for companies to feel good about themselves at little cost. “There is a preoccupation with festivities. In corporations, we see many token efforts to deal with diversity: things like the pot luck lunches that are organised every Harmony Day.”

“Many HR heads believe that is all that’s needed in order to deal with a culturally diverse workforce. Bring foods that reflect everyone’s ancestry, and everyone will be happy. It’s not the case.” His point about intentions not being backed up by actions is supported by a 2015 study by the Korn Ferry Institute that found that while 96 per cent of executives understood the importance and benefits of greater diversity, only 23 per cent were held accountable financially for their diversity and inclusion results.

In the government sector, Asthana says that tokenism is rife. “The government is not being the role model it ought to be. They do talk about multiculturalism a lot, but it’s about tradition, food, festivals, language, but that’s not what diversity is about. It’s about actual partnership.”

Thang Ngo, elected as a local councillor, found "the major parties wouldn’t preselect you".


What can ‘actual partnership’ look like? Some successful Asian Australian individuals say that if they wait for Australia to accept them, they will be waiting a long time, and they must initiate change. Brad Chan says, “It has been a long wait already, but I don’t see it as massive changes Asian Australians have to make to get into those leadership positions. My personal view as an Asian Australian is that we have to build our own capabilities.”

Chan’s latest venture is the newly opened Haymarket HQ, a shared 80-desk workspace for start-ups targeting Asia opening in September; it is not an ‘Asian-only space’, but will be designed to let introverts flourish.

Jenny Taing, 33, is the daughter of a Cambodian and a Vietnamese refugee. Since graduating from Melbourne University, she has worked at the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) as a lawyer, and is currently studying leadership at Harvard, on a scholarship from the Financial Services Institute of Australasia.

“When I was nine years old, I had to review the contract of sale and act as interpreter for the purchase of the family home.”

Sitting on boards covering education, public health, journalism, and having been a member of the Victorian Multicultural Commission since she was 27, Taing might be an example of what Kingsley Liu calls ‘dancing on the bamboo ceiling’.

It started early, she says: “As the eldest in a refugee family and with parents who had limited English skills, I took on a lot of responsibility growing up. I recall when I was nine years old, I had to review the contract of sale and act as interpreter for the purchase of the family home.”

While acknowledging the broader existence of the bamboo ceiling, Taing has “been fortunate that I have not felt constrained in my career by the bamboo ceiling or the glass ceiling. I am often the youngest, one of the only females and from a culturally diverse background in the boardroom.”

“I think the key for me has been having champions, sponsors and mentors in my career… From an individual point of view, you must have mentors, sponsors and develop a strong network. From an organisational point of view, it's about recognising any unconscious bias and having leaders of the organisation set the tone from the top and champion greater diversity.”

Taing exemplifies what Mike Yang, president of the CCCA, calls the ‘two-way street’ between Asian and Anglo Australia. “It’s not only about asking for more chances,” Yang says. “We need to do more ourselves if we want to be equal partners.”

The question is, how much responsibility lies with each side?

The story of Angela Kwan could be a bellwether for how far determination and talent can bring Asian Australians up that two-way street – and also of its limitations. Born in Hong Kong to a family with Cantonese and Taiwanese heritage, Kwan came as a six-year-old to Australia, where she was brought up “culturally quite Aussie, but with some Chinese traditions at home”.

Privately educated on Sydney’s upper north shore, Kwan achieved a maximum 100 per cent score in her leaving exams, studied Arts/Law at Sydney University, then worked for the legal firm Mallesons in Sydney and Hong Kong, before gaining a Master of Laws degree from Harvard University, working for Hong Kong Mortgage Corporation and Credit Suisse, and spending three years as an in-house counsel for the American multinational firm GE (as it negotiated a $2 billion avionics deal with the Chinese government).

“I was a protected species as a woman, Asian, non-American. I was almost un-fireable!”

Poised for a glittering career in corporate or legal life, Kwan instead followed the path of many Asian Australians. “Instead of working for a corporate career,” she says, “my brother and I went out on our own,” setting up a property development, advisory and investment company, Catalyser.

Kwan didn’t hear of the term bamboo ceiling until she engaged with the Chinese-Australian community. She takes “a contrarian point of view. Being Asian hasn’t been a personal impediment for me.”

“We have a differentiation and this is a great thing. In a room, we are going to stand out. In the American corporation, I was a protected species as a woman, Asian, non-American. I was almost un-fireable unless I did something really bad!

“But Americans valued people with international experience. In Australia, I don’t think there is a bamboo ceiling so much as the nature of the Australian market: if you have certain skills and you want to work internationally, there’s no ticket back.”

“Is the bamboo ceiling institutional, or is it partly self-imposed and self-perpetuated?”

Yet Kwan’s passage from corporate life to privately-owned business is well-worn in Australia, suggesting an institutional resistance that drives Asian Australians to find success outside the ‘club’.

“I don’t agree with defining success or leadership as wanting to be a CEO or political leader,” she says. “But if you do, I can’t dispute the facts. The representation [of Asian Australians] isn’t there. Is the bamboo ceiling institutional, or is it partly self-imposed and self-perpetuated?

“In American companies, your career is very much your own to make what you can of it. It might be a tougher road, but career progression is a battle for everybody. You still have to commit to climbing the ladder and are competing against others.”

Kwan’s is also the type of story that allows Australia to celebrate Asian ‘success stories’ without making institutional change. Admirable individuals can blaze a trail. Yet all too often, that trail leads back into private business. As Brad Chan says, “A lot of Asian Australians find that large corporations are not utilising their full talents and will be more successful on their own or in small organisations.”

“They entered the jungle of corporate Australia without knowing where the predators were.”

Even those who accept the need to change find that the two-way street runs uphill. “I have to be much more Australian,” says Molina Swarup Asthana. “I have become an AFL multicultural ambassador, and I became a runner. I have tried to take the positives so I’m changing myself while also being confident in who I am. I have pride in my difference, but I am having to change.

“But still, my accent is not palatable to a lot of people. Familiarity is so important.”

Two companies are working together to try and breach the bamboo ceiling across corporate and legal sectors: Telstra and law firm Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) have begun a pilot program in which junior Asian Australian lawyers from one company are paired with senior lawyers of Anglo-European background from the other. The aim is a two-way exchange of wisdom: the senior lawyer brings mentorship, while the junior mentee brings culturally different perspectives to ‘disrupt’ the mentor’s assumptions. Still in its infancy, the Telstra-HSF program is one of several that will be closely watched in coming years.

L-R: Angela Kwan, Dai Le, Thang Ngo, Jeffery Wang and Brad Chan.


Within Asian Australian families, it has long been a source of tension: impatient youth asking why their path is blocked, and their elders telling them that change is incremental.

“I get accosted by professionals in their 20s and 30s, frustrated and disappointed that they’ve realised that they’re not going to make it and it’s too late for them,” Soutphommasane says. “They hope that their children will get a fairer hearing. In many cases, these are professionals who entered the jungle of corporate Australia without knowing where the predators were.”

Waves of Asian immigration since the 1970s have brought younger talents with higher expectations, and their unwillingness to wait several lifetimes is beginning to show. New organisations such as DAWN, the AAA and the AALA are a break from past community organisations, which tended to focus on chamber-of-commerce-style business support rather than campaigning for broader social change.

“I think we will see changes in the next five, seven, ten years: acceptance that we are Australians and we are getting somewhere by merit.”

“People in their 20s are thinking about it and aren’t prepared to wait generations,” Erin Chew says. “I think we will see changes in the next five, seven, ten years: acceptance that we are Australians and we are getting somewhere by merit.”

The bamboo ceiling has been so intractable, for so long, that nobody expects it to break quickly. But recent immigrants, with far more proficient English language than previous generations and higher expectations, will make a difference. Says the CCCA’s Mike Yang: “A lot of young people from the Chinese diaspora are showing great interest in participation. Participation in national debates is growing as the Chinese-Australian community grows, and our migrants come with better language and education, better understanding, so they can be more persuasive.”

Dai Le, who arrived with a Vietnamese refugee family in the 1970s, agrees that change is coming – and it will come from youth. “There’s a lot of passion from a young generation who are born here. They’re saying, ‘Oh my God, why are we still not having the same opportunity as those who are non-Asian?’ Whether or not rage is the right word, they are motivated to find opportunities to get ahead.”

“I researched eyelid surgery that I heard was possible to make you look more western.”

But the way out, into private enterprise, is always beckoning. “I had two young guys come to me, investment bankers, both born in Australia. They felt they had to leave their firms because there was no room to move up. I said, ‘Guys, you have got to stay in there because you can break through it and force change!’”

Kingsley Liu did not make it into Federal parliament, but in 2015 Jenny Leong, a fellow Green, became a New South Wales member of parliament for inner-city Newtown. In her maiden speech, she spoke for many Asian Australians when she said: “It is pretty unusual for someone like me to be standing in this place. I have been a feminist for many decades, but… I did not come out as a Chinese Australian until later in life.

“As a teenager, like many others, I wanted to fit in; I did not want to be different, so much so that I researched eyelid surgery that I heard was possible to make you look more western.

“When I was asked, ‘Where are you from?’ – something that still happens today, which I now handle very differently – I would get a knot in my stomach and clench; I would feel as though I did not belong in my own country and I would say defensively, ‘Adelaide’. I am now proud to be able to share my cultural heritage and my background.

“It seems that both the glass and the bamboo ceilings have cracks.”