Report: Bittersweet Success? Glass ceilings for British Chinese at the top of business and the professions?

Reported by Johnny Luk, Co-Founder of Tempowear and FAiL Night – a series of events that promote positive failure.

Policy Exchange, a renowned Think Tank that regularly influences national and government policy, recently published a first of its kind report analysing career patterns on a number of ethnic minorities, including the British Chinese population segment. 

I caught up with one of the authors of the report, Michelle Bannister, a former Communities Lead for the Conservative Party, to ask her why she wanted to do this report:

‘I’ve long had an interest in public policy research – I previously worked in political engagement and when I left political campaigning, tackling minority issues was what I wanted to focus on, being partly of Chinese heritage myself. I felt that this work had a chance to make more of an impact, given Policy Exchange aligns well with the current government.’

What’s nice about this report is up until now, there has been few detailed analysis of ethnic minority groups for the British Chinese, and we often get lumped into the ‘other’ category on ethnic minority studies. Delving into further detail on the substance, I asked Michelle to run us through some highlights:

‘On the whole, I think that the British Chinese are doing very well – Chinese children outperform every other group at school (and have done for many years) and nearly three-quarters of Chinese ethnicity pupils go on to study at university, comparing to less than half of white British children going to university. Many then go into accountancy, medicine, law and other highly regarded professions. But there aren’t the numbers of British Chinese reaching the top of these professions that you might expect.’

The report highlights how over a third of lawyers in major law firms are Chinese, a quite an impressive figure, yet bizarrely – they are the least likely to be made a partner, a figure not changed for over a decade. Something must not be right – and this pattern is commonplace in other professions. Michelle gave a theory on why:

‘I think there is an assumption that Chinese people are quiet and passive, and these are not the sorts of qualities that people look for when appointing directors or partners. I don’t think that these stereotypes are true of everyone, but Chinese professionals believe that if they work hard enough they’ll make it to the top – that their hard work and talent will be automatically recognised. Firstly, hard work isn’t actually enough. These top jobs require excellent ability but also talent at networking to bring in business for the organisation. Secondly, professionals shouldn’t be waiting for their work to be noticed and recognised – it is important to talk regularly to senior people to show that you are interested in progressing in the company and to find out what weaknesses you must remedy to earn a promotion.’

This indeed correlates with the common stereotype of the Chinese community – and something many in our community is gradually fighting to shake off. I asked Michelle whether she had a tip for a British Chinese professional?

‘Approach more senior people in your company to ask for advice and support. Your peers will be doing something similar and indeed many companies operate official mentoring programmes. Our research found that support from more senior colleagues is really vital for career progression.’

During the launch, it was promising to hear many leaders acknowledging that organisations and companies should play a more active role in encouraging diversity, and while the pipeline is encouraging from its source, more must be done to bring the talent to a senior level. From the employee perspective, not being afraid to put yourself out there, take risks and being assertive, is essential. Don’t wait. It’s up to all of us to do so.

You can read the full Policy Exchange report here.

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