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May 22, 2024

How Asian Americans can break the ‘bamboo ceiling’

Here are a few insights into how Asian Americans and senior executives can break down barriers to leadership and redefine what it means to be an Asian American professional.

The theme of this year’s AAPI Heritage Month, “Advancing Leaders through Innovation,” resonates deeply for many Asian American professionals. The unfortunate truth is, far too many of us have had the common experience of invisible barriers hindering our career advancement.

These hurdles aren’t always overt or easily identifiable; instead, they often stem from subtle biases, stereotypes and our own cultural values and expectations that can significantly impact opportunities for growth and recognition. This so-called “bamboo ceiling” represents a barrier that many Asian Americans face as they seek to further their career.

Consider the findings of research conducted by the Ascend Foundation, which in 2015 introduced the Executive Parity Index (EPI). The EPI measures the ratio of the percentage of executives within specific gender and racial groups against the percentage of career-level professionals in that same group within a given company.

Their research revealed Asian American men and women have consistently low EPI scores. The EPI for Asian professionals is 0.53 compared with 1.30 for white, 0.62 for Black and 0.64 for Hispanic professionals, based on the EEO-1 reports from 124 companies.

Subsequent research has shown this phenomenon occurring consistently at many major US companies. The question remains why this might be the case.

The bamboo ceiling effect

Through my own research and personal experience as someone who is Chinese by heritage and born and raised by immigrant parents in the US, I’ve identified a few potential answers to this question. 

Here are a few insights into how Asian Americans and senior leadership can break down these barriers and redefine what it means to be an Asian American professional. By doing so, we can pave the way for greater representation and inclusion in senior leadership positions, and advance toward a future where diversity isn’t just celebrated but also embraced as a cornerstone of organizational success.

  • Breaking down the ‘straight-A’ mindset. A common theme among Asian Americans growing up in the US, even across generations, is that their parents expect them to excel in their education and studies. My parents were no exception, and even a “B” was sometimes considered a failure.

    While this desire to demonstrate academic success through straight-A's is undoubtedly a good trait to have and builds up a solid foundation of “hard,” technical skills, there’s a downside. This unwavering focus on book smarts may also neglect building up the necessary “soft,” interpersonal skills that modern workplaces require to succeed in roles beyond that of an individual contributor. This is where it may hinder our efforts as Asian Americans to advance in our careers.

    My recommendation for overcoming this? Find an activity you enjoy outside of academics or the workplace and pursue it wholeheartedly. Growing up, I took up tabletop roleplaying, where I picked up skills on creativity and storytelling; I volunteered for festivals and conventions where I learned organizational skills and leadership; I took up team sports like volleyball, where I honed skills on teamwork and sportsmanship.

    Even today, I continue to enjoy games to stimulate my imagination, volunteer for multiple organizations to broaden my horizons, and dive into my hobbies to learn and find enjoyment in life. It’s through these activities that I developed skills I could never have gained through my work or academics alone.

  • Rethinking traditional values. Many Asian Americans, including myself, grow up with very traditional values instilled in them, including humility and honoring one’s elders through filial piety. These admirable values can, however, negatively impact the career path of people working in the US.

    Several times in my early and mid-career, I missed opportunities to advocate for myself when it came time for reviews, promotions and pay increases, because it felt wrong to speak up about my accomplishments. I often deferred to seniority when it came to meetings and discussions, because it felt wrong to speak out of turn. I rarely spoke up around leadership because it felt wrong to stand out.

    In all these instances where I could have made myself seen and heard, I elected not to, because it went against these ingrained values. And I have no doubt it had a seriously negative impact on my career.

    I certainly don’t advocate abandoning your values altogether. But I do suggest making a conscious decision to advocate for yourself and speak up as needed. It’s a necessary part of career advancement, and something that must be done even if it goes against our upbringing.

  • Breaking down implicit biases and stereotypes. Biases and stereotypes are important to recognize not just for Asian Americans themselves, but also for anyone working with an Asian American.

    First, the term “Asian American” is a monolithic term that too broadly covers the wide spectrum of nations and cultures under the current umbrella, and the unique challenges each faces. The Chinese family who came over in 1975 under the Immigration Act had a very different experience from the Vietnamese family who arrived in the same year as refugees, and the quality of life that their children are experiencing today may be completely different as well.

    If statistics on Asian Americans were to be further divided by region of origin (East, Southeast and South), the results would paint vastly different pictures, and specific needs and challenges for each population could be more effectively addressed.

    Asian Americans are also often viewed as the “perpetual foreigner,” someone who, regardless of their citizenship status, will never be seen as an American. The oft-heard, oft-mocked question of “But where are you really from?” comes to mind as the best example of this. The only way to address bias or stereotypes is to be educated about them to understand the misconception and eliminate it from groupthink. Diversity training has come a long way to help mitigate some of them.

  • Breaking down the model minority myth. The idea of Asian Americans as the “model minority” first emerged in the 1950s, during a time when Japanese Americans fought to remove racist sentiments following World War 2. The concept and term found prominence during the Civil Rights era in the 1960s through a series of articles that attempted to discredit the movement by highlighting the successes of Japanese and Chinese Americans and downplaying the claim of racial discrimination against minority groups in the US.

    Over time, the model minority label has continued to spread through academia and media, and gradually become attached to other Asian American groups as well.

    Today, as a reflection of the model minority myth, Asian Americans are broadly seen as hard workers, highly educated and—in a stereotype that is in large part perpetuated by Asian parents themselves—successful individual contributors (i.e., doctors, scientists, engineers and accountants). This was further fueled by the 1965 Immigration Act, which based admission on skill and profession, and brought a generation of highly educated Asian professionals to the US.

    This model minority mindset sets unreasonable expectations at many levels, which can be harmful to both individuals and to organizational cohesiveness. Consider:

    • By establishing a “model” or an ideal, there must be a counterpoint—a group that is somehow less-than-ideal—even when there is no basis for it. The label is destructively divisive and only serves to pit one group against another, rather than setting everyone up for success by building up trust for healthy, professional relationships.

    • It frames Asian American professionals as diligent workers, but not necessarily as capable leaders; smart and hard-working does not necessarily equate to being a good leader.
    • It ends up masking the kinds of stereotypes and biases that truly affect our ability to succeed. Those who may inadvertently view Asian Americans as a model minority may not realize they are assigning other, more unfavorable stereotypes to them or writing off discrimination because of their perceived favored status.

Overall, the concept of the model minority is one that needs to be abolished, not just in a professional environment, but everywhere. Its origins and the stereotypes associated with it do far more harm than good for Asian Americans.

Redefining the Asian American professional

Circling back to the AAPI theme of advancing leaders through innovation, we can look at reimagining what it means to be an Asian American professional. This applies not just to the corporate workplace, but at all levels of society and professions, to help them succeed in their careers and other, non-traditional pursuits.

Here is how I envision the starting package for the new and improved Asian American professional to look like:

  1. Their culture, heritage and experiences form an authentic identity that enriches the diversity of the workplace. 

  2. They have developed soft skills through activities outside of their studies and work, knowing that exceptional work and grades make up only half of what’s needed to succeed.

  3. They don’t hesitate to speak about their accomplishments. They promote themselves to others so that others can promote them. 

  4. The idea of Asians as a monolithic demographic goes away. As long as they are viewed as a singular entity, their specific needs and challenges will never be fully addressed.

  5. They are seen as Americans, not Asian Americans.

  6. They are considered to be more than just an ideal worker—but as the creative and innovative trailblazers and leaders we all have the potential to be.

Joe Chan

Senior Consultant, Technology Modernization

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Joe Chan is a leader on Cognizant's Pan-Asian Group council, and externally serves on the leadership team of the Ascend North Texas chapter and the Board of Directors of the Celebrating Asian American Heritage Foundation.

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