Asians in the American Workplace: Breaking Through the “Bamboo Ceiling”

In the late 1990’s, I read a story about how both Asians and Asian-Americans facing the so-called “Bamboo Ceiling” effect when working for big American corporations. The term was introduced by leadership strategist and executive coach Jane Hyun in her bookBreaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians, as a combination of individual, cultural, and organizational factors that impede Asian Americans’ career paths inside the organizations. The research was based on hundreds of interviews with Fortune 500 executives, as well as Hyun’s own insights from her corporate consulting practice.

Are Asian Americans under-represented in corporate America? The concept of the so-called bamboo ceiling says it's a problem with perception and a preconceived notion that Asians are super-smart, but lacking in social skills. (Photo credit: Shutterstock)

Rajat K Gupta was such an example of how someone of our ethnic origin could break through the barriers to get on top. At that time, he was just trusted by McKinsey & Company to become their Managing Director, and it made him the first Indian-born CEO of a U.S. multinational corporation.

After nine years of service in the consulting powerhouse company, and retiring four years afterward, the IIT Delhi and Harvard Business School graduate held numerous strategic positions in Goldman Sachs, Procter and Gamble, American Airlines, The Gates Foundation, The Global Fund and the International Chamber of Commerce.

This is a feat that’s not too common with Asian Americans or Americans of Asian descent.

Fast forward to 2012, a recent survey from Asia Pacific American Research indicates the same situation. It still happens until now, with Asian Americans feeling an odd mixture of loyalty and a sense of belonging in their respective organizations.

Now we have Andrea Jung as CEO of Avon Products and Vikram Pandit as Citigroup Chief but only eight Fortune 500 CEOs are acknowledged as Asians. Even so, 83% of Asian Americans say they are loyal to their organizations, although only 49% feel they belong, as revealed by Asia Society Senior Advisor Jonathan Saw.

The question is why it still happens.

Graduating from prestigious educational institutions — especially Ivy League universities — and quickly getting good jobs are everyone’s dream. From 5% of U.S. residents identifying themselves as Asian, only less than 2% of Asian Americans hold executive jobs at Fortune 500 companies, according to research by Work-Life Policy. The figure is higher for Ivy League college graduates identifying themselves as Asian or Asian American at 16%. Thirty-five percent of students at MIT or Stanford identified as Asian or Asian American.

Achievers, but Still Outsiders

But we rarely see those high-achieving Asian Americans in senior leadership positions, which makes the fastest growing minority in the States feel marginalized. This has been acknowledged as a major reason why Asian Americans don’t have such a strong sense of belonging in the workplace.

In a 2011 interview, Hyun related this phenomenon with eastern values.

In an organization, you do need to understand how to promote yourself in a graceful way to get ahead and to let people know what you’re doing. And I think if you talk to most of the Asian individuals who are working in these organizations, most of them are uncomfortable with that because they didn’t grow up with that as something that was valued, the idea that you can actually boast about your accomplishments and talk about what you’ve done and really, you know, pitch yourself in a pretty open way.

There is a perception that Asian Americans are great workers, but not too great with relationships, which is crucial to building a career in senior management, says Saw.

Asian Americans are always seen as great doers, which is great, but it only gets you to middle management. At that critical juncture between middle manager and senior management, where relationships matter more than what you do, those perceptions matter.

There is also the problem with Asians being stereotyped as being clever, geeks or even nerds. Asians are often portrayed as very serious, rigid and unsocial, which is a veryun-American way of life. Even the media stereotype Asians to be doctors, programmers or pursuing other serious roles or jobs.


Actor Sendhil Ramamurthy, who has appeared in Grey’s Anatomy, Heroes, and CSI: Miami, says there is a strong tendency for TV and film studios to typecast. “Asians play certain characters. They play the doctor, or they play the smart guy. That’s very much still the case. I don’t know what it takes to change that, otherwise I’d be doing it.”

The situation applies to a total population of 17.3 million Asian Americans, regardless of which countries their parents are from. This is only one-third of the current Hispanic population, which usually gets more attention. However, Asians are considered to be more tech-savvy than the total population in general.

Eighty percent have broadband internet at home, which is higher than overall population of 60%. Meanwhile, 74% have their own laptops, against 52%. Eighty-seven percent of Asian Americans go online everyday compared to 73% of the general population.

It takes two to tango. Asian Americans need to pitch and promote themselves in an elegant way to improve others’ perception of our race.  It might take some time, though. Until then, this mindset — both Asian Americans’ and the rest of the world — might keep the bamboo ceiling difficult to breach.