Asians Do Not Get Promoted Fairly in the Australian Public Service

Asians Do Not Get Promoted Fairly in the Australian Public Service

There was an interesting - and perhaps unsurprising - piece of research published recently based on the history of promotions in the Australian Public Service (the Australian government agencies).

In a nutshell, it showed that there was systematic bias (or let's be honest, discrimination), against those who were not of Anglo-Saxon background, when it came to getting promotions. The so-called ‘bamboo ceiling’ is, unfortunately, alive and well in the APS.

The research

Researchers from the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University in Canberra recently conducted extensive research into the history of promotions in the Australian Public Service. ‘Modelling Australian Public Service careers’ by Robert Breunig, David Hansell and Nu Nu Win investigated whether or not being female, from a non-English speaking background (NESB) or having a disability affects career advancement.

They looked at 100 000s of anonymised datapoints from promotions over the past 20 years from 2001 to 2020 - the entire population of all promotions throughout the period. The data, while anonymised, contained numerous dimensions like age, gender, ethnicity, language background etc.

The researchers found that:

  • women are more likely to get promoted at senior thanks than similar men, and just as likely at junior ranks, from 2017 onwards
  • being disabled lowers your promotion prospects at most seniorities
  • being from a NESB lowers promotion prospects at higher ranks

Importantly, their research controls for numerous other factors that could explain these differences, including language differences & cultural differences (the promotion difference persists even for Australian born NESB employees and those who migrated at an early age).

Further, drilling down into the NESB cohort, they find that Asian-born NESB employees who arrive in Australia very young (before the age of 6) are promoted at the same rate as other NESB employees. However, the Asian-born NESB employees arriving after the age of 6 have worse prospects than non-Asian NESB who arrive after the age of 6. Also, Asian-born NESB who arrive before the age of 6 have similar prospects to Asian-born who are ESB.

So, taken together, this implies some kind of ‘Asian-penalty’ that can’t simply be explained by language or cultural assimilation. Immigration itself does not harm promotion prospects, as ESB individuals arriving after the age of six are promoted at a rate similar to their Australian-born counterparts.

It’s not just an APS promotions problem

This research adds to the compelling research on hiring discrimination conducted by the University of Sydney in 2020, and paints a bleak picture for the hopes of Asian Australians to be treated fairly in the workplace, be it applying for a role in the private sector, or being fairly promoted in the public service.

Key takeaways

The real takeaway for business and government organisations is the need to use real, objective hiring. The power of data for good is obvious here.

If promotions were based on objective, measurable criteria that can’t be easily manipulated, the room for bias would be greatly reduced. This will require structural change, and not just lip-service and the odd unconscious bias workshop.

The skills-based hiring movement needs to find its way into skills-based promotions too.

We try our best to do this at Alooba. We carefully measure peoples' contributions across numerous metrics.

What's interesting to see is, even for us, it's easy to slip back into assumptions of how people have performed, based on our feelings.

However, we quickly get a reality check when we open the dashboard and look at the cold, hard truth of what people have actually contributed - not what we FEEL they contributed.

Without these metrics, I'm sure we would have mis-promoted and mis-fired people in the past.

Future research angles

The outcomes of this research seem devastating, and warrant further investigation. The researchers might like to dig further to understand the impact of other variables, pending the availability of the data to understand if:

  • The best/high performing Asian Australians exit the APS at relatively junior levels to enter the private workforce. Perhaps there is an underlying ‘quality’ or ‘ambition’ that’s not being accounted for. Tracking the career progression of the leavers with a LinkedIn dataset would be interesting.
  • There is a generational divide, with most senior APS leaders being in their 50s or 60s, and the wave of Asian migration to Australia being relatively recent, it may simply take some time for the Asian Australians to reach the upper echelons of the service. Time will tell.

The initial findings of the research are damning, and are further evidence of the need to ensure fair hiring and promotion practices, both in the public and private sectors.

Tired of the BS? Check out our definitive guide to diversity hiring.

Hear from leading Alooba customers who have already crushed their hiring bias with Alooba

I wouldn't dream of hiring somebody in a technical role without doing that technical assessment because the number of times where I've had candidates either on paper on the CV, say, I'm a SQL expert or in an interview, saying, I'm brilliant at Excel, I'm brilliant at this. And you actually put them in front of a computer, say, do this task. And some people really struggle. So you have to have that technical assessment.

Mike Yates, The British Psychological Society (Head of Data & Analytics)

Content: Looking to crush interview bias? Check out our best practice interview guide.