On a crisp morning, Ming Long (BEc '92 LLB '94) is walking her two dogs in the winter sunshine while championing gender equality: “Essentially, I’m trying to advocate for change because I believe our country can be so much better than it is today,” she says.
Long, an energetic advocate for diversity in Australian corporations, is the first and until recently, only Asian woman to lead an ASX 100 or 200 company, having become Group Executive, Fund Manager of the $2.5 billion Investa Office Fund in 2014. She remembers clearly how she had to make her own way up the corporate ladder with very few in the way of Asian – or, indeed, female – role models.
“In some respects, the issues of bias around gender apply twice as much for people with an ethnic background,” she says. “We need to change our culture and ask how we can promote different people into leadership. We need to change how we see what leadership looks like.”
Ironically, it was the 2007 global financial crisis (GFC) that propelled Long’s career to the highest executive level.
“There’s the glass ceiling, but there’s also the glass cliff,” she explains. “That’s where you give the job to a woman because you believe the place is going under anyway.”
Long was handed the reins of the company where she worked just as the GFC had started to devastate the economic landscape – but things didn’t play out as expected. Thanks to her leadership, the company emerged strengthened for ongoing prosperity.
Considering the prevailing corporate culture, which prioritises profit above all else, her game plan was unconventional. “I knew people in the company who might lose their homes if they lost their jobs,” she says quietly. “I made decisions, where I could, to avoid that happening. People were the priority for me.”
Today, with more than 20 years’ experience in financial management and real estate, Long has a full work diary, but she still makes time to talk as widely as possible about inclusion. She recalls one talk at a high school, where she rallied her inner geek for the cause.
“It happened to be May the 4th – Star Wars Day,” she says. “So I was saying, ‘When you look at the X-Wing fighters in the Star Wars movies, there’s only ever been one female pilot. And this is what we’re feeding boys and girls – that women shouldn’t be flying planes.’”
She also told the students about the CEO of Qatar Airlines who earlier this year said that a woman couldn’t run his airline “because it is a very challenging position”. “It’s all linked,” Long says simply.
Long is also active on a number of boards: she is the deputy chair of Diversity Council of Australia, a non-executive director of Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand, and a member of the advisory board for Melbourne’s YBF Ventures Fintech Hub.
She is careful to make sure that any board she joins knows what they will get from her if she signs on. “It’s important that I can still be part of the public conversation around what matters to society. Understandably, not everyone is comfortable with that,” she says. As well, she reserves the right to challenge the status quo, clearly seeing the necessity of speaking truth to power.
We need to change how we see what leadership looks like.
Long also serves as chair of AMP Capital Funds Management, whose parent company recently attracted the ire of the financial services royal commission, and she sees some similarities between this role and her breakthrough position all those years ago. “In some ways it’s a bit like how it was during the GFC,” she says. “It’s galvanising the company. There are really good people working very hard to do the right thing and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
As is often the case with people working passionately for change, Long’s commitment to diversity can be traced back to her own early life. Her family moved from the bustling Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur to the small Blue Mountains town of Lithgow, 150 kilometres from Sydney, when she was just nine years old. It was 1980, and Long’s was the only Asian family at her school. “When we arrived, there wasn’t even a McDonald’s,” she says with mock outrage.
Her greatest hurdle was school itself. Due to differences between the two countries’ education systems, Long had to go straight from Year 2 in Malaysia to Year 4 in Australia. This put her behind the game, and outside the group. “To this day, that feeling of being the odd one out has never really left me,” she says.
She did well at high school, becoming dux in Year 12, before studying economics and law at the University of Sydney. Her three siblings, also Sydney alumni, all studied medicine and are now doctors, but a visit to a University of Sydney Open Day when she was 17 convinced Long to pursue a different career.
“I went to the medical faculty and they had all these bodies there,” she recalls. “I could see what dissection was about and, honestly, I just couldn’t … I went out and I changed all my preferences.”
It was a good move. A highly successful career in financial management and real estate has seen Long recognised as one of the Australian Financial Review’s 100 Women of Influence in 2016, and as a Telstra Business Women’s Awards finalist in 2014. She has also made her mark as an instigator of Property Male Champions of Change, which works within the property industry to drive gender equality and increase the number of women in leadership roles.
Of many achievements, being the only Asian woman to lead an ASX 100 or 200 company is a title Long was happy to lose (to the new CEO of Macquarie Bank, Shemara Wikramanayake), but she'd like to see faster progress. “That’s why I started talking about a ‘bamboo ceiling’ in Australia,” she says. “For many Asians that exist within organisations, we know they are extraordinarily intelligent and have a fabulous work ethic. They have so much to contribute to the success of our country.”
But for too long, she says, climbing the corporate ladder has been akin to gymnastics for people like her. She herself had to bend into all sorts of shapes in an effort to advance her business goals while still conforming to the Asian woman stereotype. A non-conforming Asian woman made people uncomfortable, she explains – including people who could affect her career advancement.
“An Asian woman is stereotyped to be meek, good at listening, will do as she’s told and is a follower, not a leader.”
These days, such career gymnastics are behind her, and Long is now a role model for young men and women who desire careers in corporate Australia. It’s a role she takes seriously, because for all her achievements, Long has never forgotten that her first real opportunity came about because a family friend recommended her for a job. It was in the accounting firm where she would later discover her love for economics.
“Someone gave me that first opportunity,” she says. “I wasn’t fabulous at everything – I didn’t do that well at university – but someone helped.”
Written by Lenny Ann Low
Photography by Stefanie Zingsheim