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Despite people from Asian backgrounds being well represented in entry level and mid-level jobs – new statistics reveal a staggering under-representation of Asians in leadership roles in Australian businesses.

The issue represents an enormous waste of talent, and the Diversity Council Australia’s research paper, Cracking the Cultural Ceiling: Future Proofing Your Business in the Asian Century investigated why so few Asian leaders reach the top.

Some 9.3 per cent of the Australian labour force is Asian born, yet just 4.9 per cent make it to senior executive level. In ASX 200 companies, only 1.9 per cent of executives have Asian cultural origins, compared to 9.6 per cent of the Australian community.

Lisa Annese, DCA’s CEO said ‘the bamboo ceiling’ urgently needs to be addressed.

“It is inconceivable that in a country where nearly 10 per cent of the population is born in Asia or identify as having an Asian background that they should have such a low rate of representation in Australian corporate leadership,” Ms Annese said.

Australia’s two-way trade in goods and services totaled more than A$600 billion or 41 per cent of GPD in 2012, and eight out of ten of Australia’s ten largest trading partners are in Asia.

Closer to home, Australia’s ‘multicultural market’ has an estimated purchasing power of over A$75 billion per year, with a higher than average disposal income. “Clearly it is in all our interests to adopt a culturally responsive approach to business strategy and therefore talent management – indeed the benefits of doing so for corporate performance, innovation and access to new markets are well established,” Ms Annese added.

Giam Swiegers, CEO of research co-sponsor Deloitte said representation of Asian talent in senior leadership is a strategic business issue.

“By understanding, appreciating, and leveraging the cultural diversity Australia has to offer we will collectively advance local and global business opportunities for Australian businesses in the Asian Century,” Mr Swiegers said.

Key barriers locking out Asian talent in Australian organisations were identified in the DCA research, and include:

1) Cultural bias and stereotyping: Only 18 per cent of Asian talent feel their workplace is free of cultural diversity biases and stereotypes. Many regularly experience bias and stereotyping, including about their cultural identity, leadership capability, English proficiency, and age. Women from Asian backgrounds experience a ‘double disadvantage’.

2) Westernised leadership models: 61 per cent feel pressure to conform to existing leadership styles that are inherently ‘Anglo’, e.g. over-valuing self-promotion and assertive direct communication, while undervaluing and misinterpreting quiet reserve, deference and respect for seniority.

3) Lack of relationship capital: Only one in four has access to mentors or professional networks and even less has access to sponsors; similarly low levels feel included in workplace social activities.

4) The case for culture not understood: Only 15 per cent strongly agreed that their organisation leverages its workforce cultural diversity to better service clients. Organisations often fail to fully grasp the strategic value of Asian markets, capabilities and talent for Australian organisations operating in the Asian Century.