Asianaustralians cant be themselves if they want to succeed

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WE often hear about the invisible glass ceiling women have to break through to rise to the top in business.

But the bamboo ceiling stopping Asian people getting ahead in Australian workplaces is proving an even more intractable problem for our economy.

When Malaysian-born Ming Long left her role as CEO of Investa Property Group in April, she halved the number of Asian CEOs in the ASX 200.

And the 45-year-old business leader is calling on Australia to recognise the damage the trend is doing to our industries, at home and overseas.

While people of Asian ethnic origin make up 10 per cent of the Australian population, they hold less than two per cent of senior executive positions in the countrys top 200 companies.

Ms Long has run some of Australias biggest finance and real estate companies, but says shes never stopped turning cartwheels to fit in.

Its a tightrope, she told news.com.au. I feel like sometimes Im doing this artistic gymnastic thing on this beam ... Im trying to do these triple spins etc and stay on that tightrope.

She says Asian employees, especially if they are also women, are expected to be quiet, unthreatening and good at maths-type roles. If they dont conform, they may be labelled as aggressive.

In a meeting with other executives where you are clearly the stand-out odd person, the stereotyping then comes in.

When you dont play to that stereotype it means people dont like you as much.

Getting into leadership, there is a sense you need to have people who want to work with you. That means you cant be yourself.

I really try to stay away from stereotyping people because I think its dangerous. I think it pigeonholes people and it doesnt allow you to have vision for what that person can become.

A SHAME FOR OUR COUNTRY

There are a high number of Asian-Australians working in major companies, its advancement thats the problem.

A 2014 report by the Diversity Council of Australia found that Asian people are overrepresented in entry level positions, but the numbers thin out further up the management chain.

Almost a third of Asian talent intended to leave their employer in the next year, the report found. One in four of those intending to resign cited negative cultural diversity as an influence on their decision.

Ms Long says many assume that people who look like her dont want to be in leadership or that they dont aspire to more in their careers.

She believes that is such a shame for our country that wants to harvest the best talent available that were not utilising these graduates. They seem to be hitting a ceiling and I think its because people dont value the differences they see.

In January, Australian of the Year David Morrison pointed out that Asia holds more than 50 per cent of the worlds population, and seven out of Australias top 10 export markets (66 per cent of our total market.)

A more diverse workforce is likely to be a more successful one, because it will be able to consider every different side of an issue.

If youre trying to solve a problem with a group of people who all have the same experience and think the same way, the studies show youve actually increased the risk of making the wrong decision, says Ms Long.

WHY YOUR WORKPLACE SHOULDNT HAVE A CULTURE

Successful companies often try to hire employees who are a cultural fit for their organisation, but this can lead to a homogenous workforce.

Youre more likely to hire someone who looks like you, sounds like you, makes you feel really comfortable, says Ms Long. Youre relaxed around them.

Theres a danger to that in the sense that its not going to expose you to the diversity of ideas that come from people with different backgrounds.

This systemic discrimination also affects indigenous people, Muslims and the LGBT community.

Workers who are different in some way have to be twice as good at what they do just to be seen as equal, Ms Long explains.

She said businesses need to hire different kinds of people to attract a range of talent, and we need to change what society expects leaders to be.

People will say, but we are looking for merit, but thats a trap too ... Merit is a trap. It really depends on whos defining it.

I want people to judge me as a human, not as a woman, not as an Asian.

Ming Long has more than 20 years of experience in financial management and real estate and is the first and only Asian female to lead an ASX-100 or 200 listed entity in Australia. She speaks at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney on Saturday. Tickets available here.