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Geraldine Johns-Putra

Episode 8   3 June 2021

Breaking through the bamboo ceiling

Geraldine Johns-Putra host of New Earth lawyer podcast


Episode 8 Breaking through the bamboo ceGeraldine Johns-Putra
00:00 / 17:52


Geraldine Johns-Putra

Principal lawyer, Geraldine Grace | Host, New Earth lawyer podcast 

In this episode, I expand on my views on the 'bamboo ceiling' - the barrier to advancement of people from different cultural backgrounds, usually referring to Asians, but really applicable to all cultural diversity.  As a Malaysian by birth and a migrant to Australia, I bring my personal lens to the topic, with observations for  culturally diverse individuals who are looking to advance,  colleagues who want to be good allies to them, and organisations aspiring to be champions of a culturally diverse workforce and leadership.



Show notes





I am an experienced corporate lawyer, using the law to build purposeful, human-centred, Earth-friendly legal enterprises & ecosystems, for happier humans and a better planet.

I am also the founder and host of the New Earth lawyer podcast.

I am based in Melbourne, Australia, and an expert in enterprise governance, purpose, business & human rights and modern slavery. I established my own law practice Geraldine Grace in 2020, focussing on enterprises seeking purpose, and actors in the impact economy.  

I am a legal advisor to not-for-profits with a national reach in impact and purpose. I work with Boards to optimise performance and help enterprises embed purpose and integrate human rights into their business.

I have over 20 years' experience practising law in Australia, the UK, Hong Kong and mainland China.  I have worked for large global and Australian law firms and was a partner of a top-tier Australian law firm for several years. 


I sit on the peak governing body of Australia's largest university. 

Show notes:

  • [2:07] I talk about why cultural diversity is important - it's really about promoting diversity of thought.​

  • [4:31] Since the expression 'bamboo ceiling' was coined in 2005. we have moved away from promoting a singular ideal of leadership to recognising different styles, which helps people from different backgrounds.

  • [6:37] Introverts, for example, are now able to be themselves more. 

  • [8:06] Growing up in one culture and adapting to another can mean becoming conditioned to rely on external cues and validation. It can nurture early success, but we will eventually top out.

  • [12:04] In the workplace, the very definition of leadership means expressing your authentic self - the sooner we do that the better.

  • [13:15] Colleagues seeking to be allies can celebrate uniqueness and show good old-fashioned respect and civility. Tolerance goes both ways.

  • [15:04] An organisation that invests in individual one-on-one purpose-work for next-generation leaders will reap rewards from diversity. Organisational purpose aligned with - not imposed upon - individual purpose will unleash potential.   


Jane Hyun, author of Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians

Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.

The 11 ways to ​get out in cricket, which, thanks to my sister's Australian boyfriend and now my brother-in-law, was one of the first things I learned about cricket when I arrived in Australia.

Show notes
Geraldine Johns-Putra New Earth lawyer podcast breaking through the bamboo ceiling


Hi, everyone, it's Geraldine Johns-Putra. And I'm the host of the New Earth lawyer podcast. Now, today, I wanted to talk about something that I actually spoke about at a panel last week. The topic is the bamboo ceiling. You might have seen that I actually reported about this on social media. And I thought what I would do is I would spend this episode of New Earth lawyer explaining what I said during that panel, because I think it's a really important topic. 


The bamboo ceiling or cultural diversity is actually a topic that I have found, in the past, quite challenging to talk about and to pick apart. Why? Because there are simply so many cultures. We talk about gender diversity, and that's very important too obviously. Now, today, these days, there's a debate about how many genders there are. Even with that debate, there are still way more cultures than there are genders. And within cultures, there are sub-cultures. And you've got threading through cultural diversity, linguistic diversity and ethnic diversity.


I am, for example, a Malaysian by birth, brought up in Malaysia and I've emigrated to Australia. And as I'll explain a bit later on, there's more to it than that. So with all of this complexity, it's quite difficult to come up with effective strategies to address the lack of cultural diversity in senior leadership in Australian business today.


But I did get my thoughts together for this panel. And so that's really what I want to talk about today. Firstly, why is cultural diversity or addressing the lack of cultural diversity important? Well, because the real reason we want to promote diversity is diversity of perspective, diversity of thought is the aim, it's what we want. Let's say that the norm in Australian business, and the higher echelons of Australian business today, is white, Anglo-Saxon male with a private school education.


Now, there is nothing wrong with that type of individual per se. But if we have boardrooms or C-suites filled with people who have only that type of background, or fit that stereotype, then chances are, they're going to have a very narrow perspective, and end up in a sort of echo chamber, where they don't have a lot of dynamic opinions and challenge happening. Because that's what we want. We want people who have got different perspectives, who've got something different to contribute, who are sparking off each other, and really generating something electric and energetic and new. Plus, also reflecting the community and reflecting the workforce of the organisation and the clientele.


And if you just have one or two - which we refer to as tokenism - different people, or people from different backgrounds, that's not enough. If you walk into a room, and you're the only person who is from a different background than everybody else, chances are, you're going to try and fit in. And that's

actually not what's desirable.

Having a very diverse C-suite or boardroom gives everyone permission to really bring their true selves out. And that's when you're going to get the rewards of the diversity that you're seeking.


Now, what can we do about breaking through this so called bamboo ceiling? This is where I really did give some thought to it. Especially if if you've grown up in an Asian culture say and Asian culture is stereotypically known for promoting quieter qualities and the, it's said, the standard of being a leader, it's desirable is someone who's assertive, as someone who's a bit of a go-getter. So there's possibly an inconsistency or clash in how an Asian person might have grown up and what they're aspiring to be. That said, I personally think that, since the idea of the bamboo ceiling really became prominent, in the early 2000s, there was a book written by a lady called Jane Hyun, who is an executive coach, and she coined the expression bamboo ceiling, Breaking through the Bamboo Ceiling, I believe was her book, written in 2005. Now in that era, which is 15 or 16 years ago, there was more of this idea that a leader needed to be more outspoken and more assertive. In that time, I would say that we have become more used to, more accustomed to different personality types, and able to be more nuanced, able to distinguish what people with different personality types can actually bring to the table. So that whole idea of being brash, and in your face, I would say, doesn't hold as much water as it did.


I personally, am an introvert. And, you know, in the last two years or so it's become okay to be an introvert. There's a great book written by a lady named Susan Cain. It's called Quiet. And that book is written for introverts. It gives tips to people who are introverts on how to really leverage their introvert style, strategies to deal with our style. And it also makes clear that introverts can bring something, can contribute to organisations. So books like that have actually brought to our awareness that, you know, there's more than one type of personality. And everybody's unique, and everybody has something, something to contribute. So whatever your cultural background, I would say, there hasn't been a better time than now to embrace all the different parts of yourself, and bring it to your workplace. And I'm going to say here that I actually don't think the bamboo ceiling is so much about being one personality type, or having certain qualities that you're encouraged to have growing up over others.


I actually think it's about being cross cultural. I think it's about people growing up in a different culture, coming from a different culture, being imbued with one culture and then crossing over into something else that is presented as the norm that creates this extra challenge of knowing who you really are. As we grow up, as we go through adolescence, it's hard enough. I mean, we all remember how hard it was growing up and going through secondary or high school and trying to figure out who you were. But when you're cross cultural, there's an extra challenge, because you're always actually looking outside for cues. 

Take me as I said, I'm Malaysian and I already have a complicated ethnic background. In Malaysia, we have three races, the Malays, the Chinese and the Indians. I am mixed-race Malaysian, so I am part Indian and part Chinese. And there's also additional European blood on my dad's side. So I, you know, was already a little bit confused, I would say, about my identity. It was already complex to begin with. And then I came to Australia to study and I stayed on and I emigrated here.


And when I arrived in Melbourne to study at university, I actually spent a fair bit of time trying to understand the Australian culture. When I look back, I can see, it was actually more of an effort than I realised at the time. I remember I had a uni coursemate, who joked with me.  He was an Australian. And he said, well, you're going to have to get to know the rules of cricket, if you want to be Australian. And it was a joke. But, you know, just kind of, because I did learn the rules of cricket to fit in to an extent. I felt that I had to, to have an easier time. So what I'm saying is that, you know, that's an example of how I adapted. And I continued to do things like that, adapt and adapt and adapt, and became a bit of a master at it. I wanted to be accepted. And along the way, I may have lost myself a little bit, as I said, I had a little bit of uncertainty anyway as to what my true identity was.


And so what I'm saying is that cross cultural individuals, we're constantly relying on what's outside of us to stay on track with who we think we ought to be, right? And well, we become conditioned to it. And what I think it does, or it can do, is translate actually into early success in school, or university, because you become so good at being everybody else, the best at being everybody else is how I put it. And it can even serve us through your early career. But then there comes a point when it's not enough. And this actually happens to many high achievers. Because at some point, we have to really become our authentic selves.


In the workplace, you really, if you want to become a leader, you need to show your own character, you need to show resilience, you need to demonstrate who you really are, you need to know your own values. And that's what leadership really is, when it comes down to it. You need to be uniquely yourself.

And if we think of leaders we admire, well, they are true individuals. And that's what sets them apart. And that's why they've got to where they are. So we need to know ourselves first.

And if we're coming from one culture and trying to adapt to another, I would say the sooner we get there, understanding who we really are, the better it is for our career and our leadership prospects. Because others are going to see it, and they will recognise it, and they will be drawn to it. And they will respect it. Plus, it's going to make us happier because we're going to be our authentic selves.


Now, having said all that, I'm going to turn to what people in organisations, colleagues who might want to be allies to help promote cultural diversity can do.

Given what I've said, I would say that the obvious thing is to celebrate everyone's uniqueness.

If you want to be an ally, also, well don't make assumptions. Because as I said, there are so many perspectives when it comes to cultural diversity. It's easy to think that someone comes from one country and therefore they're like this, or they come from another cultural background, and therefore they're like that, but everybody is going to have a different story. So get to know the person first. Rely on respect, and civility, old-fashioned values that will serve us all well.

If you make a thoughtless statement or a joke that misfires, apologise, and that actually goes both ways, the tolerance goes both ways. So for those of us who come from a different cultural background, I think we can be tolerant of people who make mistakes.



Racism exists, and we don't want to tolerate out-and-out racism. But people make mistakes or they can lack awareness, they can be ignorant. And the best way to overcome that, I think is to be tolerant and explain why something they say might be offensive or inappropriate.

For organisations and leaders who want to be champions of cultural diversity, what I would say there is that psychological safety is number one, to allow people to be who they really are, they need room to get to know who they really are, and to express who they really are. And an organisation that allows that actually is going to create a very powerful workforce.

I work with purpose-led companies or companies who want to embed purpose. And we tend to focus a lot, or we have done in the last few years, on organisations and their purpose. What I would really love to see is enterprises or organisations, investing in individuals, particularly the future leaders, give them some one-on-one coaching so that those leaders of the next generation can understand what their personal purpose and personal values are.


And where there's an alignment with the organisation's purpose, well, that's actually going to be more powerful than imposing an organisation's purpose onto people. When people know who they are, what their purpose is, well, then their voice is going to shine through and who they are and their passion is going to come through. And if they can align that to what the organisation is doing, and the organisation's why, well, then all of the positive things about diversity that I talked about, which is diversity of thought, and perspective, that's going to be unleashed. And I think that is how we will enable people to break through every kind of ceiling that there is. 


So that's me for today, my thoughts on cultural diversity and the bamboo ceiling. If you've enjoyed the episode, then please like it if you're watching on YouTube, subscribe, or follow our social media channels. And as always, until the next time, take care of yourself. Goodbye.



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