A new study shows that 80 per cent of Asian workers in Australia are unsatisfied with their career prospects and doubt that their companies value diversity.
It’s not a surprising statistic, considering less than five per cent of leadership positions in government, universities and top companies are held by people from non-European backgrounds.
Another Canadian study has found that people with names of Asian origin were 28% less likely to get an interview when they applied for a job.
According to Lisa Annese, the CEO of the Diversity Council of Australia, a Westernised leadership model is to blame.
The assumption is “that people from Asian backgrounds don’t value self-promotion or assertive, direct communication. Their quiet reserve is interpreted as a lack of ambition. That is just a stereotype according to Annese.
So what’s the truth about Asian workers?
Understanding the stereotypes
Betina Szkudlarek, senior lecturer in Cross-Cultural Management at the University of Sydney, says that the pace and style of Australian conversations is directly contrary to behaviour in many Asian cultures.
“East Asian employees are often accused of being reluctant to speak in group meetings,” says Szkudlarek. However, “in many East Asian cultures a person waits for someone to finish their thought, sometimes even takes a while to think it over, and only then responds.”
Likewise, a common complaint against Asian workers is that they lack initiative, a description Szkudlarek believes is hampered by Western-led cultural expectations for employees.
“In Anglo-Saxon cultures such as Australia… employees are expected to take their own initiative,” she says. However, in Asian cultures, a “lack of self-initiative is (perceived as) a sign of respect paid to the supervisor and not a sign of incompetence”.
So how can Australian companies bring out the best from their Asian employees?
A significant factor in fostering inclusion and diversity in the workplace is recognising – and valuing – different working practices and mindsets shaped by different cultures. And there’s a huge amount of potential that can be unlocked by becoming better at engaging with those workers from Asian backgrounds.
(Want to know how to unlock your Asia capability? Read our story about how the Star Casino boosted their Asian management)
“The answer is to broaden our definition of leadership so people can be who they are and it doesn’t have an impact on their capacity to progress, so that merit is the only factor,” says Lisa Annese.
“If you’re just picking the ones who fit your narrow leadership model, you’re really overlooking a significant proportion of people who could be really great leaders.”
By understanding the cultural experience of Asian employees, and broadening our expectations of good leadership, she believes, we can help more employees succeed and benefit Australian companies at the same time.
If they fail to do so, Annese believes Australian companies will miss out on promising opportunities in the future.
“This doesn’t make sense in a country like Australia, when we’re geographically located in the Asian region and many of our top corporations do business with Asia. Organisations are definitely missing out.”