Ming Long is the first to admit she is not an extrovert. But to climb the corporate ladder, the senior business executive of Chinese-Malaysian descent was forced to behave otherwise.
“If I ask you to close your eyes and visualise a CEO, you don’t see an Asian woman,” says the respected former fund manager for the $2.5-billion Investa Office Fund.
“[People] expect you to be very meek and mild, that you come into the room, sit in the background and don’t say much.
“I’ve had to learn how to become an extrovert at work because that’s how they would accept me as being an effective leader.”
Ms Long may have overcome institutional bias to reach the upper echelons of corporate Australia, but she is a rare exception.
An Australian Human Rights Commission report has found that no more than five per cent of leaders in business, politics, universities and government departments hail from non-European backgrounds – a sobering fact that weakens Australia’s claim to be a multicultural success story.
“It’s lonely; it’s hard to find other people like me in leadership,” said Ms Long, who resigned from Investa in April and is now considering her next career move.
“To make sure I was continually effective in the teams I was working in, I would adapt to the people around me. I never expected them to adapt to me.”
The study, the first of its kind, reveals a pervasive leadership bias against those of Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, African, Pacific Island and Latin American descent.
Among the nation’s 40 university vice-chancellors, all were from Anglo-Celtic (85 per cent) or European (15 per cent) backgrounds. None were indigenous or non-European.
“We have assumptions about what leadership must look like and sound like, and there are structural barriers to those from culturally diverse backgrounds breaking through into positions of leadership,” Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane said.
“I get [approached] all the time at functions by professionals from [non-European] backgrounds who feel they’ve had such experiences and it’s dispiriting. You are talking about people whose ambitions are unfulfilled.”
The report, Leading for Change, said an estimated 32 per cent of the Australian population had a non-Anglo Celtic background.
However, in the last federal Parliament, 79 per cent of the 226 members had an Anglo-Celtic background and 16 per cent had a European background – a trend even stronger in the federal ministry.
Of 124 heads of federal and state departments, just two were of non-European descent and one had an Indigenous background.
“We found a bleak story for multicultural Australia … Australian society may not be making the most of its diverse backgrounds and talents,” the report said.
“When it concerns advancement within professional life, prejudice can trump diversity.”
It said a more culturally diverse workforce made for better decision-making and performance, and outlined a way forward, including mentoring, targets and better data collection.
On average, high school and university students of immigrant backgrounds outperform the children of Australian-born parents in educational attainment. Ms Long questioned why those of Asian backgrounds, in particular, were under-represented in corporate leadership roles.
“I find that incredible given the quality of the students coming through … where do they all go?” she said.