Ways to Start Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling

February 20, 2019
By  Tony Leong

Study hard. Work hard and there would be no limit to where you can go. I was raised on those ideals. I still believe in them. I consider myself fortunate for what I have and where I am at in life. But over the years, I have wondered why there seemed to be so few Asians in senior management and in leadership positions. More broadly, Asians are infrequently represented in media and movies.

Prior to 2017, I had never heard the term “bamboo ceiling.” But the first time I heard it, I knew immediately what it meant. The term was popularized by career coach Jane Hyun in her 2005 book, Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians. It’s an adaptation of the “glass ceiling” describing how some professionals (often women) can see the next level of career growth but cannot reach it because intangible forces keep them from breaking through.

Specifically, the bamboo ceiling describes the cultural and professional barriers that hinder Asian Americans’ progression up the ladder.

Why Do Ceilings Exist in the Workplace?

With many factors at play, ceilings are tough to break through—and tougher to discuss. The St. Louis Fed’s Asian Employee Resource Group (ERG) and many of our peers are discussing these issues, in tandem with a diversity and inclusion initiative meant to deepen understanding of co-worker perspectives.

Why do ceilings exist? The reasons may include:

  • Cultural upbringing and bias
  • Societal expectations and perceptions
  • Institutionalized barriers, such as a self-perpetuating lack of executive mentorship
  • Gaps in organizational development infrastructure

In some cases, ceilings may be unwittingly reinforced by the very people affected by them.

Our Asian ERG spent the better part of last year discussing what the bamboo ceiling represented for each of us and sharing stories. So, let’s talk about the bamboo ceiling: what it is, why it exists, and how organizations and individuals can address it.

Unconscious Cultural Differences and Biases

In my experience, one of the things about Eastern cultures is a sense of deference and rank. In Western culture, it’s not unusual for people to elbow their way to the table and demand to be heard. In fact, aspiring leaders often are encouraged to be more vocal and visible. But some of those recommendations, like “charging a little bit harder,” are not traditionally Eastern approaches.

These cultural barriers tend to beget professional ones. These include stereotypes, like, Asians are very industrious but not assertive communicators. Or, They are great at executing tasks, but perhaps not leadership material.

Author Hyun noted that nuanced behavioral differences can be misunderstood, leading to untapped potential and even career stagnation.

Communication Roadblocks

For Asian immigrants, language might also be a barrier. But more of an issue is the perception that differences hinder communications. I think there may be a sense of differentness that prevents people from being seen as leaders or seeing themselves as leaders.

In this case, Asian Americans may be overlooked for promotions or not pursue them in ways other peers might.

The biggest roadblock is, of course, not bringing these issues to light.

Does the Bamboo Ceiling Really Exist?

That question is worth exploring; Asians continue to be considered a “model minority”—a term that in my view is unfair to all minorities. People may think, Why are Asian Americans talking about this? Asians appear to be doing well, and their issues pale in comparison to other groups.

As summarized in a 2018 Harvard Business Review article by Buck Gee and Denise Peck, “In some key measures, Asian Americans are the most successful U.S. demographic—more highly educated, for example, and with higher median incomes than any other racial group. More significant, Asian Americans are 12% of the professional workforce while making up only 5.6% of the U.S. population.”

But, the article continues, “This fact underlies the potential blind spot for many companies: Because Asian Americans are not considered an underrepresented minority, they are given little priority or attention in diversity programs.”

Growing Awareness

My interest in this topic was born of ongoing conversations through the St. Louis Fed’s Asian ERG, as well as increasing societal awareness.

A 2016 report titled Lost in Aggregation: The Asian Reflection in the Glass Ceiling (PDF) noted that “professional Asian American men and women are the least likely to become executives in private industry.” In it, authors Gee and Janet Wong of the Ascend Foundation (a Pan-Asian organization for business professionals) analyzed U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission workplace data. They found that:

  • One of every 12 white men in the professional workforce is an executive; one of every 30 Asian American men has reached that level. Nationally, white men are 222 percent more likely to be an executive than Asian men.
  • One of every 28 white women in the professional workforce is an executive; one of every 64 Asian American women has reached that level. White women are 164 percent more likely to be an executive than Asian women.

The Concept of Intersectionality

This brings up intersectionality, which represents overlapping dimensions (race, class, gender, education, etc.) that may affect a person’s experience and/or advancement. When combined, they can create a larger cumulative barrier to achievement.

The bamboo ceiling is particularly pronounced in the case of Asian American women. In another Ascend report, The Illusion of Asian Success (PDF), Gee and Peck found that Asian American women were the least likely to become executives in Silicon Valley—even though Asians had become the largest racial cohort of professionals in the Bay Area tech sector.

What Are the Effects of the Bamboo Ceiling?

What happens when institutions and employees struggle against the bamboo ceiling?

  • Lack of role models: When people of Asian heritage don’t see fellow Asians in upper-management positions, it’s difficult for those in the general workforce to imagine themselves there. A lack of role models can hamper aspirations and opportunities for mentorship.
  • And it’s perpetuating on both ends: If employers don’t see the affected group in leadership positions, will they promote individuals to leadership positions? Organizational inertia can result without a compelling impetus for change.
  • But the biggest impact might be a dearth of diverse viewpoints: Companies make better decisions when they bring diverse people and perspectives to the table. Diversity of thinking can lead to better decision-making and make firms fuller, richer and more whole.

How We Can Address the Bamboo Ceiling, Together

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010 data (PDF), the Asian population increased over four times faster than the total U.S. population from 2000-10. That’s faster than any other group. More recent analysis by the Pew Research Center says Asians are on track to become America’s largest immigrant group, surpassing Hispanics in 2055.

Now is the time to discuss strategies for breaking through the bamboo ceiling.

What Organizations Can Do

Collective leadership is required. If organizations and businesses can acknowledge that the bamboo ceiling exists, that’s a first step. Like with any systemic issue, you must acknowledge it and examine the evidence.

After a frank assessment, companies can then work transparently to say, What can we do? If the perception is X, how can we change that perception? If our candidates of Asian heritage have potential, how can we set them up for success?

Sometimes, I think, when you have programs or efforts to nurture a certain group, there may be a backlash—a perception that there’s special treatment. Asian Americans are not looking for special treatment. We’re not looking for extra help, but we are looking at the impediments to be pulled out of the way. Theoretically, everyone should be entitled to the same advancement levers and have the same chances.

What Individuals Can Do

For those not of Asian heritage, recognize how you can be an ally for your colleagues. It's about being present, even when the person or group affected is not. Stick up for folks when they're not there. Represent. Encourage.

At the St. Louis Fed, the Asian ERG has worked hand-in-hand with leadership to adopt some of the core concepts of our Bank’s own ally training. How can colleagues be present and vocal and stand up respectfully? Our training acknowledges that it’s not natural for folks to be brave in the heat of the moment. Participating in mock ally scenarios helps to set the right behaviors—so that when staff encounter a situation at work or in life, they’re ready.

Parting Words

There are no easy solutions to break the bamboo ceiling or any other ceilings in the workplace. However, frank and honest conversations are a good start.

This is my hope, really, in elevating this topic: This exists. Let’s talk about it.

Additional Resources

About the Author
Tony Leong
Tony Leong

Tony Leong is a senior coordinator (technology) with St. Louis Fed's Treasury Relations and Support Office.

Tony Leong
Tony Leong

Tony Leong is a senior coordinator (technology) with St. Louis Fed's Treasury Relations and Support Office.

This blog explains everyday economics, consumer topics and the Fed. It also spotlights the people and programs that make the St. Louis Fed central to America’s economy. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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