Breaking the bamboo ceiling

Breaking the bamboo ceiling

People of Asian background have had a strong cultural influence on Australia since the 1970s, writes TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE, but they remain far from proportionately represented in positions of leadership.

The much-publicised racist incident on a Sydney train, where a woman abused another passenger of Asian background, voices an anxiety that has often accompanied the Asianisation of Australia. Time and again, the Asian presence in Australia has revealed both Australians’ hopes and fears; both the kind of society it is and the kind that it aspires to be.

To what extent can we say there has been an Asianisation of Australia? The numbers tell a good part of the story. Nearly 50 per cent of our population were either born overseas or have a parent who was born overseas. It is estimated that close to 10 per cent of the Australian population have Asian cultural origins or ancestry. Of the top 10 overseas birthplaces of Australians, five are countries in Asia: China, India, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. China and India now represent the two largest source countries for immigrants to Australia. Of the 4 million people who speak a language other than English at home, close to 1.3 million speak an Asian language—including more than 650 000 who speak Chinese.

There has been an increasing orientation of economic activity towards Asia. China and Japan are our two largest two-way trading partners. Looking at the region more broadly, it is striking that of Australia’s top 10 two-way trading partners, seven are part of the Asia–Pacific region. Only one of the top five—the United States—isn’t an Asian nation.

Shift in mindset

Beyond the numbers, there has also been a shift in mindset. Australians understand that we can’t divorce our society from the fate of Asia. The Asianisation of Australia has occurred, for the most part, with public acceptance. But there have been occasional periods of dissent, such as the challenge, exactly 30 years ago, in 1984, by the historian Geoffrey Blainey to Australia’s non-racially discriminatory immigration policy.

Blainey would provide a template for subsequent panics about Asianisation. There would be the debate about Asian immigration in the late 1980s sparked by the intervention of the then opposition leader John Howard. In much of the rhetoric of Hansonism, during the 1990s, there would also be rehearsals of the themes, which Blainey first presented. As Pauline Hanson put it in her maiden speech to parliament, Australia was ‘in danger of being swamped by Asians’, who ‘have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate’.

Debates about Asian immigration reflect a contest over Australian national identity. For some, immigration has meant a repudiation of Australia’s British cultural heritage—a rejection of all that was, in their eyes, traditionally Australian. For such people, Asia—to be more precise, immigration from Asia in significant numbers—was a source of cultural corruption or degradation.

Multiculturalism a threat

As demonstrated by periodic anxieties, a proportion of the Australian population has regarded multiculturalism as a threat to social unity. In more recent times, the concern about multiculturalism has been shaped by social convulsions in Europe. Governments in Germany, France, Britain and The Netherlands have sounded a retreat from official multiculturalism. Many here in Australia are saying the same thing. Multiculturalism in Europe has failed. Therefore, it is argued, multiculturalism is bound to fail here as well.

Australian multiculturalism hasn’t only endured, it has succeeded—and it has done so, with all the Asian inflections that it has taken on since the 1970s. On any measure of integration, those Australians of Asian background have proved in every way capable of participating in the life of the nation. They have excelled when it comes to educational attainment or economic participation. Suburbs such as Cabramatta in southwest Sydney, or Springvale in eastern Melbourne—once regarded as ethnic ghettos—are now thriving communities.

There has, then, been an Asianisation of Australia, and it has been part of multiculturalism’s emphatic success. Even so, an honest appraisal would say that the cultural impact of Asian immigrants on Australian national identity remains open to debate.

Even with all that has happened since the 1970s, it would be premature to proclaim that waves of Asian immigration have seen a comprehensive Asianisation of Australia. Asianisation seems a misnomer if we are merely referring to something like 10 per cent of the population.

If there have been areas where Asian cultural influence is palpable, they would be the arts. Chinese–Australian artists such as Guan Wei, Zhou Xiaoping and the brothers Ah Xian and Liu Xiao Xian have enjoyed enormous influence and critical success. Australian writing has taken an exciting cosmopolitan turn through young writers such as Nam Le (pictured), Alice Pung and Benjamin Law.

However, our cultural diversity is far from proportionately represented in positions of leadership. For example, in the current federal parliament, there are only a handful of MPs and senators who have non-European ancestry. In percentage terms, only 1.7 percent of those who sit in the federal parliament bear an Asian cultural background.

It is similar when it comes to the federal government bureaucracy. Of the 17 heads of departments only one comes from an Asian cultural background. Of the 64 deputy secretaries, only two have Asian origins. So, of the 81 departmental secretaries and deputy secretaries, there is a total of three (3.8 per cent).

Consider as well the senior leadership of Australian universities. I did a quick informal audit of the Group of 8 at the vice-chancellor, provost, deputy vice-chancellor and pro-vice chancellor levels. Of the 49 senior executives, only two are of Asian cultural background (3 per cent).

The private sector doesn’t fare much better. Last year Diversity Council Australia found a very low representation of leaders with an Asian background. Compared to 9.6 per cent of the Australian community with an Asian background, only 1.9 per cent of executive managers and 4.2 percent of directors have Asian cultural origins.

Asian backgrounds under-represented

To be fair, the issue of representation and power isn’t confined to Australians of Asian background. There is something much broader at play. CEOs of major Australian companies who happen to have visible or obvious markers of cultural difference aren’t always given a fair go. Turning specifically to those of Asian backgrounds, however, 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?

A charitable view would be that any under-representation of Asian backgrounds in leadership positions simply reflects a time lag. Diverse leaders are still in the ‘pipeline’. We should be confident that time will take care of the issue.

There is some cause for optimism. Look at how second – or third – generation Australians of Italian, Greek or Lebanese background have emerged as figures in government and business. In time, you could say, there will be second- or third-generation Australians of Asian background who will likewise emerge.

Asians still assume a distinctly exoticised character—or at least one that is quarantined to carefully designated realms.

Then again, people were saying that 10 or 20 years ago. If we were to adopt a more critical view, we could ask whether unconscious bias is 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.

Consider the gulf between the reality of Australian society and the image of Australian society presented in the Australian media. In our major cities and suburbs the Asian presence is, by now, familiar. In our media, Asians still assume a distinctly exoticised character—or at least one that is quarantined to carefully designated realms. For the most part, Asian faces are confined to presenting programs about the culinary delights of modern Australian fusion food. We see few Asian faces reading or reporting the news, particularly on our commercial channels. We see few Asian faces intruding upon spheres that we may describe as the domains of mainstream Australia. I see few Asian faces on the Block or House rules, on Neighbours or Home and away.

Such invisibility may point to some persistent cultural assumptions and stereotypes about people of Asian background. In particular, the apparently positive ‘model minority’ stereotype of Asians—that of law-abiding, hardworking and studious Asians—can disguise a more negative stereotype. Those seemingly laudable qualities of being inoffensive, diligent and prodigious can sound a bit like the qualities of passivity, acquiescence and subservience. These are the sort of qualities that map nicely on to the state of invisibility.

Any unconscious bias against Asians may have long antecedents. With such cultural form, we shouldn’t be all that surprised to hear some people say that people of Asian background may not be in positions of leadership because it may not be something to which they aspire.

There is one thing that we must avoid. We must avoid the creation of a new class: a class of professional Asian-Australian coolies in the 21st century. A class of well-educated, ostensibly overachieving Asian-Australians who may, nonetheless, be permanently locked out from the ranks of their society’s leadership.

Dr Tim Soutphommasane is Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner. This is an edited version of his keynote speech, The Asianisation of Australia? to the Asian Studies Association of Australia Annual Conference, AsiaScapes: contesting borders on 10 July 2014. Read the full speech.

Stock photos. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

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