What has changed in cafes in our major cities? The hats might be gone and the smoking is no longer public but in cafes and restaurants popular with executives for conducting business meetings, the tables are still largely occupied by a white, male clientele. Last week I was meeting with David Olsson (recently returned from six years in Beijing) in a Collins Street cafe in Melbourne. As we looked about, we noted how white and male the patrons were. I was the only female and there was no one of Asian-heritage in sight.
Asian graduates not staying in business
People interviewed for Stepping Up offered their impressions about why so few non-Caucasians have risen to the top of business or society in Australia despite over 200 years of immigrants arriving from all over the world.
Here is an extract from Chapter 10 of the book that helps us understand what is happening.
"Anglo-Saxons rule a multicultural nation
Another interesting phenomenon of Australian culture is that despite the arrival of many non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants since the early 1880s and more particularly after WWII, the ruling class is still largely Anglo-Saxon and the English language dominates the affairs of government, business and all main aspects of society.... (see page 244 for detail of immigration history)
One in four Australians living here today was born overseas and almost another one in four has one parent born overseas. Every decade another 1 million immigrants arrive (average since the 1950s). There is no doubt that Australia is a multicultural society in one sense, yet people of Anglo-Saxon and European heritage still largely hold the majority of power and influence.
People from other ethnic backgrounds have not made their way to the top of corporate Australia, despite the fact that many businesses report that their graduate recruitment intake is 50 per cent native Australians and 50 per cent from a variety of Asian nations. What could be the reasons for their departure? Why are they opting-out?
Executives interviewed indicated that the main reasons were cultural and included:
• that the organisation culture is not tolerant of their ways or accepting of their difference, which makes them feel uncomfortable and unappreciated;
• that Western managers don’t feel as comfortable working with or delegating to people of non-Western origin as they feel there are communication barriers to getting a good delegation which impacts on their ability to do a job (so the managers tend to go to employees with cultural backgrounds they better understand);
• that there are no Asian role models at senior management, executive management or on the board;
• that they hit their head on the metaphorical ‘bamboo ceiling’ finding it difficult to get recognition or meritocratic promotion.
There could be other reasons for their departure. They may have been homesick and returned to their homeland. They may have preferred to change industry sectors or to take a self-employment option. However, the pattern that emerges of the majority of Asians by their mid-career is similar to the profile of females leaving the corporate sector.
How can we call ourselves a multicultural society if we have only one main language and permit only one cultural group to control the power and influence? The effect is that one homogenous group makes all the economic, political and social decisions for people of all races and ethnic backgrounds. Why is it that in 201 leaders of other ethnic and racial groups are not given equal right to share in the decision-making?
The big question is: do the people in power care about the waste? Do they even see the waste? Is it a cost they are prepared to accept to keep the status quo?"
Closed minds, limited vision
When I interviewed people for Stepping Up, I asked a Chairman of an ASX-listed company, 'Why do you not have any people of Asian-heritage on your board?' His reply was, 'It would be too far for them to come to attend meetings.'
I wondered why he hadn't considered appointing people of Asian origin who were in the Australian business community, to his board; those who were first- or second-generation Australians, or Asian nationals here on temporary visa's as skilled foreign executives?
Next I wondered why he thought that Asian executives living in South East Asia would find a monthly trip to Sydney or Melbourne onerous when Australian executives travel to Asian cities for meetings every month as part of their day jobs.
In mid-2013 BOSS magazine released a survey of ASX100 companies showing that they had only 3% Asian-born members on their boards despite the fact that about 50% of all new graduates are of Asian heritage.
Blinkers narrow our potentialI concluded that too many of us have blinkers on. There are talented people of Asian heritage all around us, especially in the major cities of Australia, but they don't get the same access to the top jobs of business, government or society as do people of Anglo-Saxon heritage.
If we could encourage people to remove the blinkers and provide career paths to Asians who have graduated with a top degree and joined our organisations to realise their
dreams, we would be much better off as a nation. Too many Asian
graduates hired by Australian business disappear from company ranks around mid-level, as do young women.
Organisations in Australia still favour those white men at the cafe. As a nation that promotes its multicultural status based on the large number of races that make up its population, should we not let go of the 'yesteryear' image that so clearly portrays attitudes and behaviours that keep Australia white at the top?
More effective trade with Asian nations
If we value the opportunity to work more closely with Asian nations and take advantage of the high growth rates there, Australian businesses must improve their cross-cultural capability and understanding of Asian values and behaviours.
Our trade performance would be significantly improved by having greater cultural diversity at the top of Australian business and Government: trade missions to China, India, South Korea and Indonesia would be much more successful if Australians with heritage from these and other Asian nations were part of the business development teams.
Appearances are everything
I asked people living in Asia how the Australian expat appears to the locals. Here are some quotes taken from Stepping Up:
'Australians have more trouble integrating [in China] than continental Europeans. Germans and French are more culturally sensitive because of their experience in cross-cultural situations. Germans are very structured like Chinese so there is a natural fit. The Italians are loved here and the Russians are also well received. When it comes to Australians, we are a long way behind the Europeans in terms of cultural appreciation. People from the USA and UK don’t do better than Australians at this.
Joanne Wood, Chairman, Capital Eight, Shanghai, China
Our advice to Australian companies would be to do a cultural assessment to check a person’s interest in being culturally assimilated. Technical skills are no longer a differentiator; you need to ‘fit in’ culturally to have value to us.
Australians may accept minorities well, but they are not good at being a minority themselves. It could be that they need to study outside their own country to develop cross-cultural awareness, understanding and skills. One- third of my team of 40 employees has studied in an Australian university so they don’t respond well to being told by expats that the world revolves around all things Australian.
Christopher Lim, Senior Manager, Ernst & Young Global, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Sometimes we see Western managers working here hiring people in their own image: they just want blokes who will enjoy drinking with them after work and they tend not to hire women. One third of the people who come to Hong Kong or China from overseas don’t make it as people work longer and harder here.
Andrew Macintosh, Chief Executive Officer, Hanhong Private Equity, Hong Kong, China
Opportunity is all around us and Australian's have goodwill in Asia. However, we are considered by some to be lazy because we don't bother to learn Asian languages or understand their cultures. While we continue to send all white male teams to Asia, we are limiting our potential.
To read how we can change the behaviours that limit our performance, see Stepping Up.
Author: Pamela Young