Tuesday, July 8, 2014

How Do Asian-Americans Break Through the “Bamboo Ceiling”?

Whenever I ask people if they have any Asian and Asian-American blog ideas, the typical response I would get is: Have you written about the model minority? And the answer is no, I haven’t directly addressed this topic (and am not particularly excited to tackle it) because I didn’t think I had anything substantial to add to the already robust literature on model minorities.

But, as it would happen, I stumbled upon an interesting term dealing with the model minority stereotype that I have not heard before: “the bamboo ceiling”. Going in the same direction as my last article on Asian-Americans and leadership, the bamboo ceiling is like the so-called glass ceiling. Women and many people of color say they hit a glass ceiling when it comes to executive level or leadership roles in the workplace, but do Asian-Americans face additional hurdles and get shut out of top jobs because they are seen as model minorities?


Watch out for the shards

Asian-Americans have the highest level of education and income in the country. Yet, according to a story on NPR and DiversityInc, Asian-Americans make up only 2.6 percent of the corporate leadership of Fortune 500 companies. Asian-Americans have the education and the skills and abilities, but why are they not better represented in corporate America?

Is this institutional racism? Do Asian-Americans not look or act like how leaders are supposed to look and act? What are our associations with Asian culture and model minorities and what is our understanding – the norms and expectations – of leaders in Fortune 500 corporate America? Do model minorities not possess leadership attributes?

Asian-Americans are dealt a double whammy. For starters, the organizational culture of corporate America is set up in such a way that people who are not white and male are already at a disadvantage. The farther you go up within an organizational structure, the more white and male, the less minority and female those organizations almost all become. Second, when people think of leaders and of Asians, there is almost no overlap between those two terms.


We’ve only moved the old boy network into the good ol’ boys club

In my last article, I wrote of my own personal struggle to balance both Asian and American values, particularly staying modest yet having a presence in a group. It may well be the case that many Asian professionals arrive in the workplace with a set of cultural behaviors, such as ways to relate themselves to superiors and elders, that is a recipe for invisibility. These behaviors include having a hard work ethic where you are focused on pleasing your boss and doing an outstanding job on your assignments, so that social relationships are put on the back-burner, or you don’t let others know of all the good work you’ve been doing.

Yet, even if you are gregarious and brag often about all that you have done for the organization, your colleagues and others who meet you may still see you as a smart, hardworking, and unthreatening model minority. I know, because despite how I acted during my 4-week business program with the Fullbridge Program, my coach told me that I have “soft edges” and do not need to worry about being perceived as disrespectful or mean. I thought, at times, that I overstepped and was quite mean, but I was “soft” enough so I got the benefit of the doubt.

This, then, is the bamboo ceiling that Asian-Americans face in the workplace: goody-two-shoes, unlikely to reach leadership positions that need tough, authoritative personalities. Asian professionals and leadership roles don’t quite match up. The bamboo ceiling exists, and it’s a bitter reality.

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