How Asian Americans Can Break Through the Bamboo Ceiling
By Aïda Yuen Wong, Professor of Art History at Brandeis University; Founder and Head of Design of Callimode, an Asian American contemporary jewelry brand specializing in luxury designs to express antiracism in Asian calligraphy. Ethical & Sustainable Jewelry with Recycled Gold and Non-Conflict Diamonds.
September 16, 2022 (Expanded on October 10, 2022)
Definition of Bamboo Ceiling
The term "bamboo ceiling" refers to the barrier to upward mobility confronted by many Asians in traditionally white enterprises. Similar to the glass ceiling term applied to women and other cultures historically oppressed, bamboo ceiling describes obstacles and barriers that Asian-Americans experience when reaching the top levels of leadership and management. Specifically, bamboo ceiling describes cultural and occupational barriers impeding the upward mobility of Asian Americans.
Encapsulating a broad set of issues, the term "bamboo ceiling" refers to the mix of cultural, organizational, and personal factors that hinder Asian American talents upward trajectory. Similar to the metaphorical glass ceiling, which refers to an invisible barrier preventing women from reaching senior positions in their fields, Bamboo Ceiling describes barriers preventing qualified Asians from reaching senior positions in the U.S.
A survey of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data found that: Asian men and white men in the Bay Area are about evenly represented in white-collar jobs. Nationwide, white men are 222 percent more likely than Asian men to hold an executive position.
White women are 164 percent more likely than Asian women to be executives. Yet white men represent 48 percent of all executives in the Bay Area, compared with a little more than 18 percent of Asian men.
Fewer than a dozen Asians are CEOs of Fortune 500 Companies, and among those, people of Indian descent have greater successes than those of East Asian heritage such as Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans. At American law firms, about 90% of equity partners are whilte, whereas Asian Americans constitute only 3%.
A study by Catalyst found that Asian-American women employees make up just 4.4% of managers-level or higher in S&P 500 companies. Yet white women represent 18.5% of all white-collar executives in the Bay Area, compared with just 7 % for Asian women.
In another report by Ascend, "The Illusion of Asian Success" (PDF), Buck Gee and Denise Peck found Asian American women are among the least likely to become executives in Silicon Valley--even as Asians are becoming the largest racialized professional cohort in the Bay Areas technology industry. Even in technology, where Asians are the ethnic group with the highest probability of hiring (more than 30% of the labor force), they are least likely to rise to top management positions (less than 15% of executives). The relative growth in the number of Asians over the past 10-12 years into senior-level positions might still not register as a growth of individuals into senior-level positions. Taken together, management research evidence suggests that a bamboo ceiling that inhibits Asians from reaching the apex of the organizations hierarchy exists at the regular tempo, but for only East Asians, and not South Asians.
Because Asian Americans are often perceived as the model minority who excel in school and have the highest median income among all racial groups in the United States, their difficult ascent to the top of the corporate ladder may seem hard to fathom, the subject of a recent book by Margaret M. Chin titled Stuck: Why Asian Americans Don't Reach the Top of the Corporate Ladder (2020). Chin breaks down the contributing factors to the Bamboo Ceiling and proposes ways to overcome it.
The consequence of this bamboo ceiling is the lack of leadership representation among Asian Americans. Asian Americans are most likely to break through the bamboo ceiling & move into senior leadership positions when their organizations are struggling. Asian Americans are underrepresented in senior positions, affecting their voices, visibility, and acceptance within American cultures and organizations.
The implicit and systemic biases that prevent this racial group from occupying the C-suite or the highest leadership roles affect Asians of all genders. Women feel this particularly keenly as they are often perceived as younger than they actually are and less competent. Some have faced sexual harassment due to the stereotypes of the docile, exotic or morally loose "Oriental" women. This is an intersectional social phenomenon studied by scholars such as Jane Hyun, Buck Gee, Denise Peck, Jean Lau Chin, William Cohan, Laura Colby, Yen Le Espiritu, and others.
What Factors Contribute to the Bamboo Ceiling?
There are several important reasons for the Bamboo Ceiling. General white discrimination and perception of Asians as the perpetual aliens (see my blog: Why it is not ok to ask "Where are you from?" https://callimode.com/blogs/why-it-is-not-ok-to-ask-where-are-you-from/why-anti-chinese-racism-was-different-and-why-it-is-not-ok-to-ask-where-are-you-from) are clearly at work. But adding to that, Margaret Chin believes that many Asian Americans have been raised according to a certain "play book" that emphasizes hard work over social skills. Asian parents, especially first-generation immigrants, teach their children that self-improvements such as mastering the requisite skills in their studies, jobs, and extra-curricular interests would ensure greatness. Abiding by this playbook proves highly effective in getting kids into good schools, including the Ivy leagues plus (including elite colleges such as the University of Chicago and UC Berkeley), where the current Asian student population is around 25%. (Chin, 3)
After graduation, not uncommonly followed by good first jobs, the playbook becomes silent. Parents who used to push their children to work hard now care more about them getting married and having their own children, which is another issue in itself. As to how to become social and professional leaders, those who simply continue to follow the playbook would find themselves shut out of the top tier, according to Chin's research. Due to the restrictive immigration policy in the U.S. against Asians through the 1940s, few of the parent generation have had the opportunity to rise to the C-suite and act as role models in these positions. For this reason, these parents cannot be blamed for their inability to pass on knowledge about how to get to the top. As corporate leaders tend to promote people who look like them (primarily white male), simply working hard does not guarantee rapid promotion.
To understand what causes the Bamboo Ceiling, Jackson Lu and her colleagues sought to deconstruct positive stereotypes about model minorities and examine differences among Asian subgroups within the U.S. Lu and colleagues found that MBA students from East and South Asia did not differ in their motivation for leadership. To shed light on why East Asians are kept behind by the bamboo ceiling while South Asians do not, additional analyses by Jackson Lu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and colleagues (2020) showed that East Asians are less assertive, contradicting Western norms regarding leaders communication styles.
Asian Americans are often made to feel that they are best at quantitative knowledge or are assigned to the back office which does not get them noticed easily for the most lucrative promotions. Many Asian Americans themselves shun non-quantitative work, sensing that it would be where they face more discrimination.
According to a recent NBC report, Asian Americans feel the leased included in the workplace of all the racial groups. In addition to micro-aggressions, an overwhelming number of Asians do not feel their opinions are heard and valued. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/asians-feel-least-included-workplace-racial-groups-new-report-says-rcna27730
What can be done?
U.S. companies should also be aware of the cultural differences between various subgroups of Asians, Lu said, instead of lumping all Asians together. At an individual level, East Asians could benefit from greater awareness of the cultural differences between subgroups. Even within each particular Asian group, considerable variation exists in levels of education, class, and acculturation.
As U.S.-based multinationals expand their footprints into China and India, for example, cultural fluency among their Asian employees may provide critical competitive advantages.
The responsibility does not rest solely with Asian Americans. But Chin believes that Asian Americans can do a lot to end the cycle of discrimination, not least by being critical of the playbook. It is important to recognize that the pathway to success is multidimensional. Some would need to work on their social skills and be more empathetic, while others should develop the courage to do things that are not considered "safe bets."
Asians in a Center on Work-Life Policy study were also considerably less likely than other ethnic groups to challenge the consensus, much less engage with the "in-your-face" model of leadership that is rewarded across most of corporate America.
Asian Americans ought to realize that they have a place in every level of the corporation, and they can be successful at all. The idea of the perpetual alien must change without implying that Asian Americans have to give up their cultural heritage (however defined), if that is something important to them. There is also no shame in using one's social network and participating in affirmative action programs, as the "model minority" should not be considered too comfortable to need help.
The picture is brighter today than a generation ago, with Asian Americans being the fastest growing racial group in the U.S. In 2019; their population was 18.9 million and is projected to be 27.9 million by 2040 and surpass 35 million by 2060. (Source: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/04/09/asian-americans-are-the-fastest-growing-racial-or-ethnic-group-in-the-u-s/)
Inevitably, the work force would be seeing more Asians and Asian Americans regardless of their stations. It is hoped that with each new generation, the stereotypes and biases would be more vigorously fought against, so Asian Americans can realize their full potential or simply no longer be looked upon as the threatening, lowly, sexually available, nerdy (or whatever) others.
The non-profit organization, Stand with Asian-Americans, has set up a website for Asian Americans to report workplace discrimination: https://standwithasianamericans.com/