The Bamboo Ceiling: What it is & How We Can Break it

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As a child, I was raised with the belief that if I respected my teachers/elders, worked hard every day,  and behaved well in school, then I would go on to a good college and ultimately a well-paying job in the future. And honestly, I could say the same about the upbringings of my Asian friends. This is not a coincidence, as I’m sure most of you AAPI readers here would agree as well. Respect and adherence to authority are very important tenants of Asian culture, and I was raised on these principals because that’s the way my parents were taught when they grew up in China. These are very important lessons to learn at a young age, and I can say that because of my upbringing, I was able to stay out of trouble in school, stay focused in academics, and ultimately succeed by going to a good college.

For a lot of Asian Americans, however, this style of upbringing omits key lessons that are necessary in the real world. Although AAPIs are typically seen as hard workers who succeed academically and go on to great colleges and prestigious jobs, they are also viewed as introverted and lacking leadership potential and communication skills.  This is especially bad in the workplace, as charisma and gregariousness are important traits when companies look to promote workers to managerial positions.

(Image Source: Asia Society)

What’s becoming increasingly apparent is the fact that Asian Americans are being left out of managerial positions even though their academic qualifications meet and exceed company expectations.  Although Asian Americans graduate from college at double the national average, we only see a 0.3% representation of AAPIs in corporate management. And industry-specific statistics show that, for example in the technology industry, Asian Americans make up 1/3 of all software engineers but only 5% of all board members. Statistics from other industries all show the same result that Asian Americans make up a good portion of the workforce but do not make nearly quite a mark in management. Hence the term “bamboo ceiling” which represents the barrier from high positions that AAPIs face.

But what causes this problem? Well, it goes back to the childhood story I mentioned earlier. Many Asian Americans currently in the workforce say that they were taught from an early age to be self-effacing, reticent, and deferential towards authority. In the American workplace, these traits can cause others to perceive Asian Americans as aloof, introverted, weak, and passive. As a result, AAPIs are less likely to have many of the qualities that appeal to employers, such as charisma, leadership, creativity, courage, and risk-taking. Compared to co-workers, they are seen as less likely to network and interact with others, and speak-up when faced with concerns. And therefore, this can cause some to be passed-over for promotions in spite of great job performance.

What can be done to solve this issue? Sure, there are a lot of misconceptions about Asian Americans in general that can result in unfair stereotypes. But if you were a hiring manager who needed the best-possible candidate to make your company profitable (so that you can keep your own job), you would not base your decision purely on unproven stereotypes. Instead, you would look at how a candidate truly interacts in the workplace passing judgment on whether those stereotypes are even applicable in the first place. What I’m trying to say is that stereotypes alone are not enough to make or break your future. It wouldn’t be sufficient to blame the entire bamboo ceiling phenomenon on stereotypes that exist through no fault of our own. We have to change ourselves because the problem isn’t that employers merely get the impression from of stereotypes that we lack creativity and leadership skills. It’s because a lot of us actually do. And we have to make an effort so that our own performance can break any negative preconceived notions that others have of us.

How can we disprove these stereotypes? One big source is in upbringing. Sure, because of our parents we are good in school and never get in trouble. But being too authoritative on children can also discourage creativity, risk-taking, and speaking-out. These are traits that we, as the next generation of AAPI parents, have to be cautious not to stifle. Overall, I feel that a few small changes, especially for kids early on, can go a big way in breaking the bamboo ceiling. But for whatever other solution people come up with, it is important to remember that this is an issue that Asian Americans must take responsibility for and not only something that we can solely blame on the misconceptions of others.

Daniel

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