Out of the frying pan and into the fire: talent management hots up in the Asian Century

Dai Le

When I entered journalism in the early 1990s, starting in print journalism with Fairfax Community Newspaper, I was the only ‘Asian’ face in the organisation. I did not take notice of my ‘presence’ or rather ‘lack of’ Asian presence until nearly two decades later, when I was stepping out of the media.

As I left the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to delve into the world of politics, I realised that there was no one from my background taking over where I left.  Although I did try to encourage a few young Asian Australian journalism students to give the ABC a go, they ended up not pursuing the path.

Reflecting back, there were two reasons why they did not succeed: they had no one within the organisation they could relate to, and who could guide them through the process, or introduce them to the right people within the organisation so that they could volunteer their time, and gain work experience with the hope of landing a job.  Secondly, there was no one in the organisation who was conscious of the need for ‘diversity’ within the various program areas in the organisation. After all, the name of the game was to be a good, solid, balanced, fair, articulate, analytical and accurate journalist/broadcaster/researcher/producer. 

While the ABC Charter did promote diversity over the years through ‘ethnic reporter cadetships’, not many ‘ethnic’ faces, nor voices, came through the ranks. This made it much harder for the sole ‘Asian Australian’ journalist like myself as I felt I had to continually try to prove myself, and others, that I was capable, and good enough - especially in my expression of the English language.

Then out of the frying pan and into the fire. In 2008, when I entered the world of politics, I became acutely aware of the lack of representation in the political arena of Asian Australians and the culturally diverse population. I remembered as I entered the halls of both NSW State Parliament and Canberra Parliament, I noticed how white Anglo-male dominated these corridors were! From the bottom up. From advisers to Members of Parliament.  And having lived and grown up in one of the most culturally diverse regions in the country, in Fairfield City in Sydney’s South West, walking into these institutions took me to another world.

However, as the DCA report Cracking the Cultural Ceiling reveals, the lack of recognition for the contribution Asian Australians can bring to organisations hampers the growth and development of Australia as a country overall, in the context of the ‘Asian Century’. In a country where nearly 10 percent of the population is born in Asia or identify as having an Asian background, that we should have such a low rate of representation in Australian leadership positions should raise questions. And I commend the DCA for starting that conversation.

As members of the Diverse Australasian Women's Network (DAWN) have expressed to me, they are confronted regularly by the challenges they face in the workplace as Asian Australians.  They said there needs to be a network that will support the aspirations of Australasian women. They are motivated and ambitious but they need help to engage, collaborate, educate and inspire one another. They come from a ‘collective’ culture and are expected to succeed in an ‘individual’ culture of the West.  But many do believe there needs to be more representation of Asian Australian women in professional and leadership positions.

So can this be achieved? And how can it be achieved?

Cultural diversity is one of our greatest strengths. And cultural and gender diversity just makes business sense. That’s the bottom line. According to the DCA, Australia’s two-way trade in goods and services totalled more than $A600 billion or 41 percent of GDP in 2012 and eight out of ten of Australia’s largest trading partners are in Asia. Closer to home, Australia’s ‘multicultural market’ has an estimated purchasing power of over $A75 billion per year, with a higher than average disposal income.  It is in our economic interests to adopt a culturally inclusive approach to business strategy and talent management. Perhaps there is a need to reassess our Human Resource departments to take into account a culturally diverse workforce, and in this case, Asian Australians?

The key barriers that have locked out Asian Australians from Australian organisations include cultural bias and stereotyping, the Westernised leadership models, the lack of relationship capital, and culture not being understood according to the DCA report.  Organisations that fail to fully grasp the strategic value of recognising Asian Australian talent, will be impacted in terms of corporate performance, innovation and access to new markets.

Dai Le
Founder and Executive Director at Diverse Australasian Women's Network

Dai was born in Saigon, Vietnam and spent years in refugee camps in South East Asia before being accepted to migrate to Australia in 1979. A former award-winning journalist, independent film-maker and broadcaster with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Dai stepped into the world of politics in 2008 standing as a candidate in the seat of Cabramatta where she caused historic swings turning Cabramatta into a marginal seat.

Dai is passionate about creating a platform for the Australian Asian community, in particular for women, to help identify, nurture and support these talented women so that they can contribute to Australia's political and public discourse.

Along with a group of highly successful business and professional women in Sydney’s South West, Dai decided to form the Diverse Australasian Women’s Network – DAWN – to create a space where these women can ‘lean-in’ as they embark on their individual challenges.

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