Asian Australian lawyers face ‘bamboo ceiling’

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The Australian legal profession is lacking in Asian cultural diversity, a new report has highlighted.

Produced by the Asian Australian Lawyers Association, The Asian Legal Profession: A snapshot of Asian Australian diversity in 2015 surveyed the cultural backgrounds of law firm partners, barristers and judges.

The report found that Asian Australians make up 9.6 percent of Australia’s population, but they account for only 3.1 percent of partners in law firms – a disparity that the report termed the ‘bamboo ceiling’.

With Asian Australians making up 8.2 percent of its partnership, Johnson Winter & Slattery came out on top for firms with more than 40 partners. Lavan Legal topped the mid-sized firms with 20 percent of its partners having Asian heritage.

The report also found that six large firms and 44 mid-sized firms had no Asian Australian partners.

This narrative is repeated at the Bar where Asian Australians account for only 94 out of 6,160 barristers. The lack of cultural diversity at the bar has had flow-on effects for the judiciary, where Asian Australians make up a mere 0.8 percent of judges.

“At the launch of the Association [in 2013], I observed that while the number of Asian Australians coming through our law schools has been increasing for some time, this did not appear to be reflected in the senior echelons of the legal profession in terms of partners of law firms, members of the Bar or the judiciary,” said the Association’s president, Reynah Tang.

By providing data to support the anecdotal evidence, Tang hopes that the report will start a constructive dialogue around cultural diversity in the Australian legal profession.

The reasons for the under-representation of Asian Australians in the legal profession are not explored by the report, but based on research conducted in the business sector, Tang said that Westernised leadership models, cultural bias and stereotyping could be among the barriers.

“If anything, these issues are likely to be exacerbated in the legal profession which tends to be more conservative and lag behind developments in other sectors,” he said. 
  • Ning Dong on 1/05/2015 9:59:03 AM

    Language has long been used as an excuse to discriminate Asian Australian lawyers, coupled with anti-intellectualism. Legal representation rate is not a justification for discrimination. Asian Australian Lawyers can also represent clients from other cultural background. Bias is the main reason for the lack of career advancement for Asian Australian lawers.

  • Ning Dong on 1/05/2015 9:53:28 AM

    Language has long been used as a way to discriminate Asian Australian groups, coupled with anti-intellectualism.

  • SALVATORE SAPUPPO on 28/04/2015 3:14:26 PM

    Dear David Ng

    To further add I agree that people from certain ethnic groups have to send more resumes and that includes people with Italian and Greek names as well, not just Asians and Aboriginals. I agree it is problem but as I said not much has changed in 28 years that I have been lawyer. Maybe we need to change our names prospective employers can find out when we go for the interviews and then we will not get the job anyway.

  • SALVATORE SAPUPPO on 28/04/2015 3:02:53 PM

    Dear David
    Lets say that discrimination is alive across all cultural groups. I am all for inclusion and we all suffer because of our cultural backgrounds. If you think discrimination in Australia in bad today you did not grow up in Australia in the 1960s as I did. The Anti Discrimination Act was passed in 1975 and we should be grateful for the likes of the late and honourable Mr Gough Whitlam and late and honourable Mr Malcolm Fraser for the Multicultural Australia as we now know it because it was not like that in the 1960s. Lets agree that there is much more to be done in this area but Australia lacks leaders with strong leadership qualities in human rights policies generally.

  • David Ng on 28/04/2015 1:41:45 PM

    So you are suggesting that all people of Asian descent born outside Australia have been, and should be, ruled out of consideration for senior legal positions because they clearly cannot speak English properly?

    I would add something here but I think your comment speaks for itself in all its glory.

  • Francis Galton on 27/04/2015 9:06:03 PM

    The study is invalid because it fails to account for the share of the Asian population (9.2%) that speak English proficiently, if not natively.

    6%* of Australia's Asian population was born overseas, which means that 9.2%-6% =3.2% is the number of Asians born in Australia, and therefore the number of Asians with the requisite English proficiency.

    So now we're comparing 3.2% with 3.1% cited in this study, which means that Asians are not underrepresented, and therefore that there is no bamboo ceiling.


  • David Ng on 17/04/2015 9:34:18 AM

    I hear you Salvatore but I think to assume that it applies equally to all non-white or Anglo ethnicities is to characterise the issue too broadly.

    There was a report a few years ago in which identical resumes were produced and then sent to employers under names of different sounding ethnicities. It was found that in Victoria, people with Chinese or Aboriginal-sounding names were most discriminated against (having to send around 170% more resumes to get an interview than the base group with Anglo-sounding names). People with Arabic sounding names were next (being marginally less discriminated against) and then Eastern Europeans (who had a much better rate).

    However it was found that people with Italian-sounding names actually had no disadvantage when compared to Anglos. This result was not replicated in the other states (where they were marginally disadvantaged) and was attributed to Victoria (Melbourne particularly) having a large Italian and population.

    Given these results I think its naive to imagine that Italians or Eastern Europeans face the same disadvantages as Asians and Arabs in terms of advancement in the legal profession.

  • SALVATORE SAPUPPO on 15/04/2015 11:34:24 AM

    The comment is true but what the Asian Lawyers Association need to understand it is not just a bamboo ceiling, it is an ethnic cultural ceiling.
    There are very few lawyers of any ethic background in any of the positions mentioned even among st the Australian born lawyers of ethnic background. Juicial appointments, members of the bar, partners of the large law firms are prominently of white anglo saxon background and that has changed very little in the 28 years that i have been a lawyer since 1987. In all ethnic groups, some of which are in the greater numbers than the Asian group, they are all underrepresented as a proportion of the population.

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