It was during my time in politics that I came face to face with the phenomenon known as the "bamboo ceiling".
Despite being born in Australia, some colleagues suggested I change my name to "Jeffrey" before the 2008 Victorian local government elections, saying it would make me more "electable". I refused and instead used this as motivation to work even harder to prove them wrong - and I did.
After my election as a local government councillor, I remember the challenges of navigating the internal culture of the local council when a colleague refused to acknowledge me in meetings because he couldn't pronounce my name.
But perhaps the most negative memory of the bamboo ceiling happened when I represented my local council at a statewide local government conference. As I arrived at the conference venue, a regional Victorian councillor thought I was a waiter and asked me to get her a cup of coffee. The worst part was that she didn't believe me and asked to speak to my "manager".
The start of my first term was difficult. I struggled to find my feet and insert my presence because very few people took me seriously - from councillor colleagues to members of the executive leadership team and occasionally the voters themselves. I thought to myself at the time, I can't blame them because people who looked like me do not belong in these spaces and are rarely seen in leadership positions.
I remember how inferior I felt and what it did to my confidence and sense of self-worth. As such, I vowed to make it my life's mission to address and break the bamboo ceiling. I don't want them to experience the discrimination and unconscious bias I went through. I want to do everything I can to ensure current and future generations of Asian-Australians can reach their full potential and achieve their aspirations.
I know there are many across Australia who have had similar experiences with the bamboo ceiling. Like the metaphorical glass ceiling, the bamboo ceiling refers to the invisible barriers preventing those from Asian heritage from attaining leadership positions.
Asian-Australians are some of the fastest growing ethnic and culturally diverse groups in Australia. Despite nearly one in five people in Australia having an Asian ethnic and cultural heritage, only about 3 per cent of senior management positions are held by Asian-Australians.
In my role at the Australian National University, I come into regular contact with many Asian-Australian professionals who tell me the key barriers locking them out of leadership roles include cultural bias and stereotyping; westernised leadership models; lack of relationship capital such as access to mentors, sponsors and high-powered and influential networks; and organisations and workplaces not understanding the case for cultural diversity.
Asian-Australians have indicated they have experienced significant levels of bias, discrimination and racism against them in work and non-work situations. They believe such discrimination and stereotyping, based on cultural characteristics and norms, are contributing significantly to the under-representation of Asian-Australians in leadership positions. These types of discrimination and bias are hard to combat because they are often invisible.
I have long argued the richness of Australia is not just in our minerals and resources, but the diversity of our people. However, the existence of the bamboo ceiling is preventing our workplaces, organisations and industries from fully leveraging the capabilities of our hidden gems in Asian-Australians.
It is not like we are bereft of leadership talent and potential. Australia's brightest and most ambitious Asian-Australians are being recognised this week in the 40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian-Australian Awards.
Now in its fourth year and an initiative of the ANU Centre for Asian-Australian Leadership, Asialink at the University of Melbourne and Johnson Partners, the awards aim to shine a light on the achievements of Asian-Australians and showcase their potential to take their place amongst Australia's most senior and influential leadership roles within organisations and industries.
The awards have led to the establishment of a thriving community and ecosystem where Asian-Australians can connect, communicate and collaborate with each other to support their shared ambitions and aspirations. I only wished such an initiative existed earlier because I felt very much alone when combating these biases and barriers.
For too long we Asian-Australians have been the spectators on the leadership journey. It is high time we are also given opportunities to be on the stage. Our workplaces, organisations, industries, country and society will be better off for it.
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