The “Bamboo Ceiling”

Last week, we talked about how much Asian Americans invest significantly in their children’s education so they are set up for success later in life.

So, what happens after the straight A’s, Ivy League diplomas, and advanced degrees?

Although Asian Americans only make 6% of the total U.S. population, they have a much higher representation in many professional fields. According to 2015 EEOC data, Asian Americans represent 12% of the U.S. professional workforce. In the top 5 Silicon Valley tech giants (Facebook, Intel, HP, LinkedIn, and Yahoo), Asian Americans represent 27.2% of their total employees. According to 2016 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Asian Americans also have the lowest unemployment rate compared to the national average and any other ethnic segment.

Yet this narrative around their success obscures the fact that Asian Americans are significantly underrepresented in managerial and executive positions, a phenomenon referred to as the “bamboo ceiling.” Taking the previous study on Silicon Valley employees for example, compared to 27% of representation in total employees, Asian Americans represent only 19% of managers and 14% of executives. This is worse than the “glass ceiling” for women. In the same five tech companies previously mentioned, men are 42% more likely to have an executive role than women. The disparity is even worse for Asian Americans: white men and women are 154% more likely than Asians to hold an executive role.

The reason behind the “bamboo ceiling” is complex. Many have pointed the finger at common stereotypes. Asian Americans are often perceived to lack social skills, which makes them unfit for leadership. More importantly, what has been under-looked are the strong cultural drivers Asian Americans struggle with at work.

  • “Work More. Talk Less.”
    • Asian culture has a pervasive belief in the reward of hard work. 69% of Asian Americans believe “people can get ahead if they are willing to work hard” vs. only 58% of general Americans. However, hardworking literally translates into just DOING the work. In Asian cultures, you can only win over people’s respect with actual deliverables. Many Asian languages have idioms advocating for the idea of “Work more. Speak less.” It is considered extremely disgraceful and rude to talk about one’s own success, or how great their ideas are.
    • Being able to sell an idea, inspire others, and build a team to make the idea happen is arguably one of the most important leadership skills in corporate America. Many Asian Americans lack the culture motivation, role model, and environment to practice such skills. When most Asian American parents focus on academic performance, many of them failed to prepare their children with the necessary training to promote themselves, persuade others, and to ultimately lead.
  • “Obey your elders.”
    • Asian culture has a strict power hierarchy – both at home and at work. The power hierarchy is mostly governed by age and seniority. Those who are younger, or more junior, are not allowed to express disagreement with their superiors. Subordinates are not allowed to point out managers’ misdoings or oversight. Disagreement is considered a challenge of authority and often results in punishment and mistrust.
    • Many Asian Americans grow up being asked to obey their elders as a symbol of respect. Whether they are U.S. or foreign born, many of them continue to struggle speaking up when they disagree, especially if the other person is older or more senior. Because they’ve been suppressed since their youth, many also lack skills in persuasion, which inherently leads to poor results even if they do speak up.
  • “Stable income is everything.”
    • Asian culture values stability and harmony. Doctors, lawyers and engineers are popular occupations for Asian Americans because they are perceived to guarantee a stable future with steady income. Many Asian American parents feel extremely uneasy when their children want to change jobs, try a new career, or start their own company. They will go great length to convince their children it is NOT a wise decision, and some would even threaten them by creating unnecessary tension in the relationship.
    • Risk-taking is often a judge of character in evaluating leadership competency. Entrepreneurship has empowered a whole new generation of leaders and innovators. More and more Asian Americans are joining the movement, but many have to fight for a support network or make the difficult decision to move forward without one.

Recommended Posts