Shattering the Bamboo Ceiling

Asian Americans are the most represented racial group in the white-collar workforce but are the least likely to hold managerial positions.

Sarah Chu
Sarah Chu
Nov 30, 2020 · 4 min read

Many people aren’t aware of another glass ceiling that is 3.7 times harder to crack. Part of the issue is that it is hidden in plain sight.

Overlooked in the timely diversity discussion, Asian Americans, more stereotypically known as the most “successful” racial group, are forgotten in the glass ceiling conversation. A recent article by Harvard Business Review contributors, Buck Gee and Denise Peck, find that Asian American white-collar professionals are the least likely racial group to be promoted into Silicon Valley’s senior leadership, even though they are the most likely to be hired into technical roles — a result more commonly known as the bamboo ceiling.

For Gee and Peck, the uncovered fact was “painfully obvious”: the 19-page diversity and inclusion report from a large Silicon Valley company never specifically addressed Asian Americans. Despite their exceptional credentials, Asian men were lumped into an “underrepresented category,” while Asian women were thrown into the “all races category.” The study inherently implies that all Asian Americans are the same: they simply aren’t management material.

The gap in the management pipeline extends across other Silicon Valley technology companies as well. Ascend Foundation, a non-profit organization for Asian-American professionals, released a study in May 2015 called “Hidden in Plain Sight: Asian American Leaders in Silicon Valley,” which analyzed the number of employees in the management pipeline from five large technology companies (Google, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Hewlett-Packard, and Intel). These results were consistent with the authors’ findings: Asian Americans were well-represented in the non-managerial workforce, yet were severely underrepresented at the executive levels.

The bamboo ceiling is even harder to break when gender is taken into consideration. In addition to racial bias, Asian American women face gender bias for upward mobility within an organization. With only 1 of every 285 Asian women as an executive, Asian women are left with very few mentors to look up to. The lack of observable role models makes it increasingly difficult for Asian women and men to attain the resources needed to be promoted into management roles. Gee and Peck’s analysis, along with the Ascend Foundation’s findings, suggest that Asian Americans are overshadowed by the illusion of Asian success.

The model minority myth further perpetuates when most people lump Asian Americans as a monolithic entity, when in fact, they are a diverse and growing population in the United States. Tracing their heritage back to 19 origin groups, significant variation exists in income, education, and poverty levels. For instance, a typical Burmese American household earns $36,000 per year, a figure well below the national median income of $73,060. In contrast, the average Indian American household earns nearly 3 times as much, earning $100,000 per year. Dissecting key demographic and economic factors is crucial to understand the diverse needs of the Asian American community.

Incorporating the model minority myth into Gee and Peck’s findings help explain how invisibility translates into the workplace. Professionals may assume that Asian employees have no work-related problems, and therefore, do not need professional support. In reality, many Asian Americans struggle to find the training programs needed to climb the management ladder because the model minority myth makes them invisible.

Businesses can implement policies that actively take a stance against the model minority myth. First, acknowledge that racial stereotypes are prevalent issues. Diversity and inclusion initiatives fail to be more inclusive of Asian Americans in the management pipeline. It is important to be data-driven and to carefully review the promotion rates of not only Asian Americans but also other marginalized people of color, such as Blacks and Hispanics.

Professional development initiatives and mentorship programs may also help close the executive leadership gap. Robust development programs that are specifically designed to nourish Asian American talent will support its participants to reach their career potentials. Furthermore, Asian Americans, many of whom are children of first-generation immigrants, lack access to mentors, which is an important resource in almost every field. Studies show that mentorship at an early stage of a person’s career can have a long-lasting, positive impact on his or her professional development. By investing in these programs, firms can build a diverse and inclusive workforce that drives companies to unparalleled business growth.

Misplaced stereotypes, such as the model minority myth, overlook the fact that Asian professionals are severely underrepresented in managerial positions. The idea that all Asian Americans flourish in the workplace reinforces the meritocratic illusion of Asian success, and that the Asian leadership gap can be resolved through hard-work. Diversity and inclusion issues don’t resolve themselves overnight, but people can no longer succumb to social norms. Asian Americans — and companies — need to start having these conversations about inclusion in the workplace. Until then, the bamboo ceiling has yet to be shattered.

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