If you look at the top-line statistics, Asian Americans seem to be doing pretty well.
54% of Asian Americans have at least a bachelor’s degree, making them the most educated racial group in the US. Asian Americans also earn the highest median income, have the lowest unemployment rate, and enjoy the greatest intergenerational economic mobility among American racial groups.
Yet Asian Americans are underrepresented at the highest levels of leadership, despite being overrepresented in the professional workforce. This phenomenon is referred to as the bamboo ceiling.
What is the bamboo ceiling?
The “bamboo ceiling” was coined by Asian American career coach Jane Hyun in her 2005 book, Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians. The term is a metaphor for the cultural, organization, and individual barriers that keep Asian Americans from attaining career progress and leadership positions.
Asian Americans are the most likely racial group to be hired for tech jobs, yet they’re least likely to be promoted into management and executive roles in Silicon Valley. Similarly, 11% of associates at American law firms are Asian, yet only 3% of partners identify as Asian.
Why are Asian Americans the least likely racial group to be promoted from lower-level professional roles into management positions? Researchers and social scientists believe it has to do with cultural differences, cultural biases, and inadequate employee development strategies.
Differences between Asian and American culture may be able to shed some light on the bamboo ceiling. Implicit leadership theory suggests that people are less likely to hold leadership roles when their personalities differ from the cultural archetype of a leader.
The stereotypical American leader tends to be assertive, charismatic, confident, and self-promotional. Yet Asian (and specifically East Asian) cultures — generally speaking — value humility, harmony, and conformity. These cultural values can be at odds with the assumed characteristics of an ideal American leader.
A recent study published in the scientific journal PNAS examined potential causes of the bamboo ceiling and zeroed in on a specific phenomenon: why South Asians (e.g., Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis) don’t seem to be hindered by the bamboo ceiling. (South Asian Americans are actually more likely to attain leadership positions than white Americans, on a proportional basis.)
The researchers pinpointed assertiveness as the differentiator, finding that the South Asian professionals who participated in the study demonstrated more assertiveness than the East Asian (e.g., Chinese, Japanese, Korean) participants. The researchers underscored that assertiveness is encouraged in South Asian cultures, whereas it’s often discouraged in East Asian cultures.
Asian Americans are commonly stereotyped as hardworking, quiet, and good with numbers: the type of workers who can put their heads down and get things done.
As a report from McKinsey puts it: “Asian Americans are often seen as doers and not leaders.” Stereotypes like this are damaging and inaccurate. They also assume that Asian Americans are doing fine at work so, therefore, must not face discrimination in the workplace.
Poor employee development programs
The fact that Asian Americans are overrepresented in the professional workforce but underrepresented in higher-level leadership roles suggests that companies are failing to cultivate Asian American talent. Buck Gee and Denise Peck, who are both former Silicon Valley executives, wrote about this issue in the Harvard Business Review.
They encourage companies to take a hard look at their managerial pipeline and consider investing in leadership training programs for Asian Americans and other underrepresented groups.
Bamboo ceiling effects
The bamboo ceiling has many negative consequences, including:
Lack of equity at work: The stats on managerial promotions in the US suggest that Asian Americans, as a group, aren’t receiving the resources they need to win the highest-level positions.
And there’s some evidence that Asian Americans feel less supported at work than their white colleagues. According to a study conducted by McKinsey, only 27% of the East Asian employees surveyed believe their company provides all employees with the type of mentorship and coaching opportunities that are needed to be successful, as compared with 44% of white employees surveyed.
Wage gap: There’s a wage gap between Asian American and white workers, even at higher income levels. For example: Asian Americans who make above $100k/year earn $0.93 for every dollar earned by their white colleagues. This earning gap correlates to the underrepresentation of Asian Americans in higher-paying managerial positions.
Homogenous leadership: 88.8% of C-suite execs at Fortune 500s are white, and 88.1% are men. These numbers don’t reflect the diversity of the American workforce, which could hinder company performance. Research suggests companies that are more racially and ethnically diverse are more likely to have better financial returns.
Lack of representation at the highest levels of leadership in business can be a vicious cycle. If executive positions continue to be held by mostly white men, it may be less likely for more Asian Americans to believe they can attain these jobs.
Asian American women are particularly at risk. At large organizations, less than 1% of promotions from senior vice president (SVP) roles to the C-suite go to Asian American women.
Bamboo ceiling vs. glass ceiling
The “glass ceiling” refers to the barriers that make it challenging for women and people of color to be promoted to managerial and executive positions. A major aspect of the glass ceiling has to do with implicit bias and assumptions about what a leader looks, sounds, and acts like.
The term “glass ceiling” was coined by Marilyn Loden, as she spoke about overlooked issues that exclude women from leadership roles during the 1978 Women’s Exposition.
In terms of women and the glass ceiling: American women graduate from college at a higher rate than men do, and over 55% of the American workforce is female. But women only occupy about 29% of chief executive roles and only ~8% of CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies.
Non-Asian people of color face a glass ceiling in the US, too. For example, Black Americans make up 13% of the American labor force but only hold ~4%-5% of senior manager, VP, and SVP positions. And only six (yes, six) CEOs at Fortune 500s are Black.
The bamboo ceiling is part of this larger glass-ceiling issue, but it refers specifically to the set of barriers that make it harder for Asian Americans to win leadership positions.
Bamboo ceiling example
Erik Lee moved from South Korea to the Bay Area at age eight, when his dad landed a job at HP. Growing up, Lee recalls frequent discussions about his dad being passed up for promotions, despite receiving stellar performance reviews.
His friends’ parents shared similar stories. From a young age, Lee got the sense that Asian Americans were just trying to survive in the workplace and weren’t afforded the opportunity to thrive.
Lee works in tech sales and says he’s been passed up for promotions in instances that didn’t make much sense, given his performance and qualifications.
For example, Lee was in the running for a promotion while working at a tech unicorn. He was up against two peers — and had more experience and qualifications than both candidates. After receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback following his interviews, he ultimately did not get the job.
“It’s hard to pinpoint whether or not the sole cause of being overlooked was because I was Asian — I don’t think it’s possible in many scenarios. But when I look at those that were promoted, I couldn’t help but think if that was a factor,” Lee shares.
These types of experiences, and years of navigating the sales space at various tech startups, inspired Lee to start the Tiger Network — a group of Asian American professionals aiming to break the bamboo ceiling through networking, executive coaching, mentorship, and storytelling.
One of his goals is to change perceptions around what Asian American professionals can do. The group wants people to realize that Asians don’t just work in STEM, but across all industries in different functions, Lee explains.
Broadening the narrative around what a leader looks like is key to Lee’s goals. “Leadership doesn’t have a face. Leadership doesn’t have one style,” Lee says. “Successful businesses can operate in many different styles and ways.”
To improve equity at your company, here are a few ideas for employees, founders, and executives to consider:
- Develop leadership training programs. The skills needed to become a leader are often teachable. As a founder or executive, get serious about diversity and inclusion.
Assess whether your managers and higher-level employees are representative of your overall workforce, and invest in programs for underrepresented people to develop leadership skills, such as coaching opportunities.
- Be vocal about your impact. If you have a quieter work style, embrace it and be your authentic self at work. But remember, it’s important to tell your manager about your accomplishments and to explain how you’ve grown from working on various projects.
If you want to be promoted, you’ll need to be able to articulate your wins and map your progress.
- Build relationships. It’s important to cultivate a network of people who understand your value. This group could include current and former co-workers, managers, mentors, sponsors, and/or like-minded industry contacts.
Finding a mentor or a sponsor can be key to career development or advancement. Employees who have a mentor are five times more likely to be promoted than employees who aren’t being mentored, according to one study.
- Examine your internal biases. We all have internal biases. Take a hard look at yours and determine whether they’re impacting what you think a leader should look, sound, or act like. Naming your biases is the first step toward dismantling them.