ADVICE: Breaking the bamboo ceiling

Annick Ah Lan is the Chief Operating Officer of Australian Institute of Quantity Surveyors, but had to overcome a range of racial stereotypes to get there. Annick is passionate about getting more women on boards, and believe strongly in the importance of recognising everyone has something valuable to bring to the table.

In this interview, she shares her experiences with meeting and surpassing the bamboo ceiling, and how she has thrived in male-dominated industries ever since.

  • You’ve had an impressive career in various industries, and currently as COO and 2iC to the CEO at AIQS in the construction industry. Have you ever experienced the bamboo ceiling?

Very much so. It was fortuitous that the first job I held at a European company based overseas had a progressive Managing Director at the helm, who mentored me and kept to the adage that “the sky is the ceiling” for every single member of staff. He looked after the health and wellbeing of employees, invested in training and development and had workplace practices that only now, almost 15 years later, some companies are barely making headway into developing for their own staff. 

Due to the GFC and numerous closures worldwide of this company, I left to face the realities of the job market when I based myself in Australia. Some comments I received whilst interviewing were along the lines of, “You’re so young, why are you on such a high salary?” and “Oh, you can’t REALLY have done all that work?” or “You are so accomplished for someone so young!”. 

It also goes without saying, when you see the line-up of senior management within any particular company and you cannot spot someone who is young, Asian and female, you pretty much deduct in hindsight why you didn’t get a particular job you were aiming for. 

Whether it’s one, or a combination of reasons, there is never an easy way of eliciting the base reason if it stems from unconscious bias. I knew my worth at the time because I had done the hard yards and put in the time, but I was constantly discouraged from aiming high. Another favourite I heard one too many times is, “Oh, you’re very outspoken for an Asian person! Where are you from exactly?”

  • How has that experience shaped the way you approach business, leadership and your career today?

It’s definitely taught me to never take anything for granted! It’s also made a me a much stronger person, more resilient, and quick to accept and react to change. 

There’s no point in fighting against the status quo, so it’s made me quite resourceful in finding smart and innovative ways of doing things.  It’s also made me more understanding and open to listening to others. 

I always ask why, and what am I missing, in situations where I do not see eye to eye with someone else. I also try to figure things out by myself, rather than just wait for answers to fall into my lap, which is something I’m vehement about in instilling in workplace culture. 

Someone who has gone through the painstaking journey of figuring out how to do something will never forget it, and they will do it well, because they would have learned from mistakes made along the journey. 

  • What’s your advice to others unsure of whether they are facing the bamboo ceiling in their current roles? And for those who are, what can they do about it?

To be sure about what they are feeling. Whether or not they take it to the next step to voice their concerns is purely up to each individual. I personally never have, because I chose to either work thrice as hard to prove my worth, or leave the company. If I’m on par with everyone else and can significantly demonstrate this without anyone finding anything to argue against, then the argument to not promote me or not give me what I justly deserve becomes moot. 

How someone acts or reacts in any particular situation is purely up to them, as you can’t change other people’s behaviours, but you can change your own. It is with this attitude that I take things, the good with the bad, and every single hurdle and challenge put in my way has only served to help me grow and become a stronger, more resilient person. 

Sitting around and raging about the situation doesn’t really help anyone, take things into your own hands and demonstrate what you can do, or move on.  Either you accept the situation, or you change things, whether it’s your environment or your attitude, to ensure your contentment.

  • What or who encouraged you to embark on a Bachelor of Computer and Mathematical Sciences when you were studying?

Growing up, I have always had a keen interest in sciences. My dad qualified as a Chemical Engineer, so I assume that being around scientific equipment at a young age sparked my sense of wanting to explore the what, how and why of things. Instead of asking for dolls I was asking for telescopes, microscopes and scientific kits. The National Geographic shops were my favourite place in the world! 

I was also lucky enough to have had a Commodore 64 which was my first foray into programming. From there we moved on to the Pentiums and my fascination with computers continued to develop. I selected IT, maths and biology as majors for my HSC and then applied for two IT-related courses, and neurology as a third option! I was happy to go into either field, but IT won! 

Having said that, I will be the first person to tell anyone that I am an artist at heart. I have done classical ballet almost my whole life and played the piano to university level, however, these were never perceived to be “proper” career options, coming from an Asian background!

  • What do you think holds back young women from studying STEM, and how do we as a society overcome these obstacles?

I believe it’s the stigma and preconceived ideas – almost unconscious bias – surrounding STEM.  My interests were never quashed, I was never told that I couldn’t pursue something purely because of my gender – and I’m talking about from much earlier than kindergarten age.

My thirst for knowledge was encouraged, critical thinking and research were key educational pieces at home, and I devoured books.  As gender wasn’t an issue for me, I never saw it as an obstacle.  During childhood and adolescence, I had a good group of male friends, which meant that I was never afraid to voice my opinions or ever felt uncomfortable being the only female in a group of males. 

I believe that the key to overcoming it is developing a high level of emotional intelligence, understanding that males and females are wired differently, and we need to embrace those differences rather than setting it up as a battle of the sexes. 

A good, solid education begins at home. School is of course, important, but the shaping of a human being’s intrinsic ideas, behaviours, instincts and core beliefs, these come from parents. Therefore, society as a whole needs to work together to overcome the obstacles, it’s not just a matter of policy-making within businesses – by that point, it’s much too late.


About the expert

Annick is the Chief Operating Officer of a Professional Association within the construction industry. Her core focus as the 2IC to the CEO involves operationalising the company’s strategic goals across all areas of the business, including project management, corporate governance and risk management, human resources management, business development and financial management.

She is a spirited advocate of and holds staff lead roles across some of the business’s various committees, including a Diversity & Inclusion Committee, Membership Committee as well as a newly-formed Digital Innovation Committee. Annick is a firm believer in the Kaizen ethos and is a self-professed quantum physics aficionado!