Asian Americans – especially those from East Asian cultures such as China, Korea and Japan, which value harmony and humility over assertiveness and self-promotion – face a challenging yet invisible obstacle to their success. Experts call it the “bamboo ceiling.” In this Hubspot article, business journalist Mia Sullivan explains the unconscious biases that can come into play when American companies consider Asian American employees for promotion. Organizations can help these employees by offering more equitable career development pathways. Proactive employees also can become more self-promoting and consciously develop their own networks.
- Though overrepresented in the professions, Asian Americans are underrepresented in top leadership positions.
- The theory of “implicit leadership” posits a “cultural archetype” for leaders. Firms are less likely to promote those who don’t meet this stereotype.
- Companies must invest more in leadership development and devote resources to training Asian Americans and other groups for executive roles.
- Asian American women face both the bamboo ceiling and the glass ceiling – the invisible barrier that blocks women and people of color from high-level promotion.
Though overrepresented in the professions, Asian Americans are underrepresented in top leadership positions.
According to statistics, Asian Americans are spectacularly successful. They are the most educated US demographic, given that 54% have bachelor’s degrees or higher. They have the highest average median income and the lowest unemployment numbers. They score high in generational upward economic mobility.
“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.”
Despite this, Asian Americans consistently confront an obstacle to career success. In 2005, executive coach Jane Hyun labeled this barrier, “the bamboo ceiling.” While Asian Americans are 12% of US professionals, only 4.4% are directors at Fortune 1000 companies. Although firms hiring tech workers are more likely to enlist Asian Americans over other demographic groups, Silicon Valley firms are less likely to promote them to top roles. So, why does the “bamboo ceiling” exist? Researchers blame bias, cultural differences and poor corporate career development programs.
The theory of “implicit leadership” posits a “cultural archetype” for leaders. Firms are less likely to promote those who don’t meet this stereotype.
Stereotypically, US executives are self-promoting, assertive and confident. But, generally, Asian cultures, especially East Asian cultures, emphasize different values, including being humble, living harmoniously and conforming socially. However, a study in PNAS, a scientific journal, found that South Asians – from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, for instance – don’t seem as hampered by the bamboo ceiling as East Asians. South Asian Americans do better, proportionally, than white Americans in attaining leadership positions.
“Lack of representation at the highest levels of leadership in business can be a vicious cycle.”
Researchers ascribe this difference to South Asian study participants evidencing greater assertiveness than East Asians, such as Chinese, Korean or Japanese people. While South Asian cultures encourage assertiveness, East Asian cultures tend to discourage it. Asian Americans also face the stereotype of being considered quiet, methodical and good at math. As a result of this “damaging and inaccurate” stereotype, they are often seen as “doers not leaders.”
Companies must invest more in leadership development and devote resources to training Asian Americans and other groups for executive roles.
Lagging promotions suggest that US companies don’t provide equitable access to training and high-level jobs. McKinsey reports that just 27% of East Asian workers (compared to 44% of white employees) feel every employee receives equal mentoring and coaching opportunities. Even at the $100,000-plus income level, Asian Americans earn 93 cents for every dollar white workers earn.
“Research suggests companies that are more racially and ethnically diverse are more likely to have better financial returns.”
Corporate career training and broader hiring would make high-level leaders less homogenous. At present, 88.8% of Fortune 500 C-suite executives are white and 88.1% are men. This lack of diversity harms organizational performance and sends a discouraging message: when Asian Americans see only white men in leadership roles, they may believe those posts are out of their reach.
Asian American women face both the bamboo ceiling and the glass ceiling – the invisible barrier that blocks women and people of color from high-level promotion.
Even though women are a larger percentage of college graduates than men and make up 55% of the US workforce, they hold only 29% of US chief-level executive positions – only 8% at Fortune 500 firms. Black Americans also face a glass ceiling, with only 4% to 5% in senior manager or vice president roles in American companies, although they are 13% of the workforce. And, only a half dozen Fortune 500 CEOs are Black.
“Leadership doesn’t have a face. Leadership doesn’t have one style. Successful businesses can operate in many different styles.” (Tiger Network founder Erik Lee)
Experiencing the bamboo ceiling led tech sales worker Erik Lee to start the Tiger Network to help Asian Americans connect, co-mentor and share stories. He hopes to change the market’s unconscious biases. Networking, coaching and learning to “articulate your wins,” especially if you tend to be quiet, will help you develop the assertiveness and confidence to advance. All employees should check themselves for biases about how leaders should look and begin the work of shedding those discriminatory assumptions.
About the Author
Mia Sullivan writes about business and technology at The Hustle blog.