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Bamboo Ceiling Propped Up by Double Jeopardy

3 March 2017 at 2:55 pm
Wendy Williams
Culturally diverse women are experiencing a “double jeopardy” in ASX leadership, according to a new report which reveals the number of culturally diverse women in the leadership ranks is “extremely low”.

Wendy Williams | 3 March 2017 at 2:55 pm


Bamboo Ceiling Propped Up by Double Jeopardy
3 March 2017 at 2:55 pm

Culturally diverse women are experiencing a “double jeopardy” in ASX leadership, according to a new report which reveals the number of culturally diverse women in the leadership ranks is “extremely low”.

To mark 2017 International Women’s Day, Diversity Council Australia and Deakin University, with the support of CPA Australia, investigated the representation of culturally diverse women in leadership in all Australian listed companies between 2004 and 2015.

While the research highlighted some improvements in representation, it found Australians from Asian and other non-European backgrounds including Middle Eastern and African descent, were not being promoted into leadership roles.

DCA’s CEO Lisa Annese said it served as a “stark reminder” of a serious lack of diversity among the country’s listed companies.

“It is good news that women’s representation in ASX leadership is at an all-time high. However, it is bad news that so few of ASX directors are women from a culturally diverse background,”  Annese said.

“In addition, growth in their representation over the last decade has been glacially slow.

“From these results, it would appear that culturally diverse women are experiencing a ‘double jeopardy’ in ASX leadership; where their gender and culture combine to make it more difficult than non-culturally diverse women or even culturally diverse men to access leadership roles.”

Annese told Pro Bono News it was a significant problem.

“We know because we have done enough research in this area to tell us, that women have got quite a road ahead of them in terms of progressing through senior management, that’s because the workplace structure wasn’t designed with them in mind, so it is taking time to break down some of them barriers,” she said.

“And then if you further include cultural diversity, we know from independent research… that there are things that are holding them back, perceptions about ambition, the fact that they many not engage in the same types of activities as white anglo-celtic people, like rugby for example or drinking at the pub, that might be pathways of building relationships that further people careers.

“We know this is true for culturally diverse groups and we know this is true of the barriers to women so when you combine them the effect is pretty significant.”

Malaysian-born Ming Long, who was the first Asian female to lead an ASX 100 or 200 listed entity in Australia, said the bamboo ceiling was “completely real”.

“It’s so stark because you look around in the board rooms and you look around in leadership teams and I just never saw anyone who was remotely like me,” Long told Pro Bono News.

“They have talked about having a double jeopardy in the report, that’s exactly what’s happening. Even if you have a look at the numbers, men and women, and culturally diverse men versus women, there’s more culturally diverse men than women in leadership and that double jeopardy definitely comes in.

“So it is almost like you are trying to run a race that’s say 100 metres with the next guy but in your path there are 12 hurdles that you also have to jump over but the other person has nothing in his way.

“I can see the talent that is being left on the table, it is such a waste and it shouldn’t be that way.”

According to the report, in 2015, if ASX directors were 100 people just two would be culturally diverse women while six would be anglo-celtic women, 28 would be culturally diverse men and 64 would be anglo-celtic men.

Other key findings from the report include:

  • Women’s representation in ASX leadership is at an all-time high. In 2015, women represented 8.2 per cent of directors, 4.9 per cent of senior executives, 4.2 per cent of CEOs and 13.0 per cent of CFOs.
  • The proportion of culturally diverse female leaders has doubled. From 2004 to 2015, representation of these women in CFO roles increased from 2 per cent to 4.1 per cent, in senior executive roles from 1 per cent to 1.9 per cent, in director roles from to 1.1 per cent to 2.5 per cent and in CEO roles from 0.5 per cent to 1 per cent.
  • However the actual number of female culturally diverse ASX leaders is very small with only 15 of all 1,482 CEOs, 44 of all 2,327 senior executives, 188 of all 7,491 directors and 55 of all 1,350 CFOs.
  • Women are moving into ASX leadership roles very slowly, since 2004 the percentage has increased by 4 per cent at the most.
  • The percentage of female ASX leaders who are culturally diverse appears to have plateaued between 2013 and 2015 for almost all ASX groupings and all roles.
  • Only 2.5 per cent of all 7,491 ASX directors were culturally diverse women, compared to 5.7 per cent who were non-culturally diverse women, 27.8 per cent who were culturally diverse men and 64 per cent who were non-culturally diverse men.

Long, who halved the number of Asian CEOs in the ASX 200 when she left her role as CEO of Investa Property Group in April 2016, said her career success hadn’t stopped her experiencing bias.

“I feel like it has helped make progress, because someone can at least point to me and say look she was a leader, she clearly could do her role and other people like her can do the same thing,” she said.

“But I feel like it is just a crack, it shouldn’t be the case that there is only one, or if I leave I half the numbers of Asian leaders in ASX companies.

“Even now I look at the things that I want to do in the future… I know that whatever role I go to those biases will continue to exist unless the person who is sitting on the other side, who wants my skills, can recognise that that difference is really valuable rather than being afraid of it.”

Long said while the numbers of culturally diverse women in leadership remained so low, her view was women have to adapt their style to fit the majority, without losing their “true identity”.

“So it’s difficult, I’m not saying this is easy… I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying work with what you have and then when you get into leadership make changes, and educate people about different styles that are just as valid and in some respects probably more valid into the future, as businesses change and have to adapt to changes in the environment and the economy.”

Long said the benefits to cultural diversity were “endless”.

“It feels like for myself that we are on this cusp of a wave that is coming through, where I can see with leaders and with organisations, it is almost like the scales are coming off their eyes and they’re seeing diversity for the first time and thinking: ‘Oh my goodness this could really be a game changer for my organisation,’” she said.

“I love it when in some respects I find somebody from an ethnically diverse background and I sit and ask them about their journey through their career, and when they describe to me the additional hurdles they have had to overcome, that says to me, this person is adaptable, they are resilient, gosh they work hard, and they’re quite sensitive to how other people are thinking and reacting and I love the skills that they have learnt as a result of the challenges that society places on them.

“We also live in Australia, just geographically we are so lucky to be in the Asian region, we should be using that workforce that is in Australia, that loves this country, that wants this country to be successful… to causally build bridges into Asia to help our country, help our businesses, help our teams be more successful.

“[Diversity] is priceless and it is almost like it is there for the taking if we didn’t let biases blind us.”

Annese said Australia needed to look at what biases were stopping women achieving leadership roles.

“We are undoubtedly not making the most of the talent that we know is out there in the community,” she said.

“We really need to look hard at what biases, either conscious or unconscious, are preventing these women from progressing to the top.

“In line with the theme for this year’s IWD, Be Bold for Change, our report sets out four recommendations for change.”

The recommendations for change include:

  • Boost the percentage of female ASX leaders, particularly of culturally diverse female CEOs. It is not until we boost women’s representation overall that we are going to make significant inroads into increasing the representation of culturally diverse women in ASX leadership.
  • Ensure female ASX leaders are representative of cultural mix of Australian community. This is particularly important given that the percentage of female ASX leaders who are culturally diverse appears to have plateaued between 2013 and 2015.
  • When appointing CEOs, target culturally diverse women in senior executive roles. This report has demonstrated that, of any ASX leadership role, culturally diverse women are best represented amongst senior executives.
  • Consider introducing targets for culturally diverse women in leadership. This is particularly pertinent given the positive impact public reporting on targets has had on women’s representation in leadership roles in Australia to-date.

“This time next year, I hope we have seen some positive action in all of those areas,” Annese said.

But she said that organisations need to want to make this change.

“They need to accept that… the research is telling the truth that cultural diversity and gender diversity are good for business,” she told Pro Bono News.

“Once they accept that then the first step we recommend is to set some targets for change.

“And then the other area is to focus on organisational culture, and look at things like bias and discrimination and invisible things that sometimes happen.

“So it is a complex area to create change in because we are up against a long history of workplace structure and also a culturally dominant group, however if you do want to change things you have to start somewhere.”

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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