Los Angeles City Hall is surrounded by statues of dragons in a view from Chinatown. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Cerritos High School

Opinion: Why we need to shift the paradigm of the ‘bamboo ceiling’

Imagine being passed up for promotion year after year. You think you’ve done everything right, from starting with an elite tier college degree to working hard day in and day out. Yet, even with your ever-growing years of experience, someone else is always selected as “better suited” to be your boss.

At this point, you may have just reached the glass ceiling, or, if you’re Asian, the bamboo ceiling.

First, the glass ceiling refers to a barrier where employees can’t promote past a certain point or leadership position. This doesn’t necessarily always involve race; it could be due to educational levels, business practices or other stereotypes. The bamboo ceiling, however, refers to the glass ceiling specifically for Asians. 

This term is most likely unfamiliar and that is understandable. Typically, Asians are excluded from discussions of diversity and minorities. It’s quite obvious. The model minority myth perpetuates the idea that Asians do not need any help navigating prejudice or barriers of racism.

After all, Asians have the highest levels of education and income amongst all ethnic groups in America. Surely, they’re all fine without help right?

Asians are a minority group that comprises 12% of the U.S. professional workforce despite accounting for only five and a half percent of the U.S. population, according to the Harvard Business Review. Nevermind that analysis of this statistic at face value can overlook that Asian households typically promote higher education as a ticket to success.

The emphasis on education is partly due to generational conditioning from Asian countries, where historically, the best jobs were often government jobs requiring education. This idolization of scholars further dates back to the times of Confucius when the ideas of Confucianism were spread to and ingrained in the cultures of China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and more.  

Today these ideas are still highly prevalent. Asian culture pushes children to be studious, to aim for financially stable, high paying professions in medicine, law or engineering. One need only look to the overrepresentation of Asian students in college, in STEM majors, and in Silicon Valley to confirm this cultural phenomenon.  

A glance at Silicon Valley is where we find a good example of the bamboo ceiling because people will point to the large overrepresentation of Asians in tech jobs and possibly dismiss claims of a ceiling. After all, those jobs are what push Asians to be the ethnic group with the highest average income in the country.

Yet, according to a 2015 Silicon Valley Diversity report cited by the Harvard Business Review, what remains unaddressed is the lack of Asian representation in leadership within these corporations, and therein lies the bamboo ceiling.

Now when I say this next part, I don’t want it misconstrued as saying that the whole system is solely and simply propelled by racism. There is a certain prejudice that undoubtedly works both for and against Asians specifically when it comes to the workforce.

The part that works for Asians comes from the model minority myth that Asians are educated, will work hard to get any project done, and be typically unproblematic in the workplace which potentially puts them in an attractive spotlight for employers. To some extent, this is simply a valid pattern recognition driven by culture.  

Yet, the model minority myth then works against Asians in the opposite direction when it comes to promotion and leadership positions.

Yes, there are other natural factors involved such as established social circles, connections and implicit in-group bias, but the model minority myth that frames Asians as quiet, hardworking and unproblematic can also lead to them being ignored for company promotion requests.

Another term that comes into play here is called the “sticky floor,” which works in conjunction with the bamboo ceiling to describe how Asians can get hired in the tech industries, business companies and scientific communities, but then cannot rise from within, according to Career Trend. 

No company will openly admit to this discrimination because it is largely implicit within individual hiring managers. Combine that with the new trend for companies to seek “diversity” in their leadership, touting Black and Latino leaders. In a certain sense, albeit a cynical one, when it comes to diversity, Asians do not “count.” 

According to recent research from Columbia, MIT and Michigan, there exists a leadership gap between South Asians, such as Indians and Pakistanis, versus East Asians, such as Chinese and Japanese people. By tracking corporate CEOs, senior managers and MBA graduates, the research aims to identify the cause of the discrepancy.

Why does the bamboo ceiling seem to exist for East Asians, but exempt South Asians? After considering and controlling for varying demographic factors such as English fluency, socioeconomic status, education and more, the study ruled that prejudice between South Asians and East Asians did not account for the leadership gap, nor did any difference in ambition levels between the two groups.

Ultimately, the study concluded that the gap could be explained by the difference in assertiveness between the two groups. This revelation, that a culture of personality is a driving factor behind this leadership discrepancy, is groundbreaking.

Jackson Lu from MIT Sloan says that the study’s lowered measured averages of assertiveness in East Asians show the prevailing influence of the values of Confucianism that promote “humility, harmony and stability,” which have created a culture that encourages a passive style of communication. Lu contrasts that with South Asian cultures which “encourage debate and argumentation,” as discussed in Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s book ‘The Argumentative Indian.’

The passive style of communication unconsciously employed by people of all races, not solely limited Asians, is not necessarily a bad trait. The inclination toward non-confrontation can help keep a workplace calm and encourages listening.

Don’t get me wrong. We as Asian-Americans have nothing to prove to American society. It is American corporate leadership that must learn the value of diversity not just in race, but in communication style. Yet, the reality is that to change an established and self-perpetuating American leadership culture that prizes assertiveness requires us to first breakthrough into those upper ranks ourselves. No one automatically deserves to lead.

Therefore, you and I must fight for the opportunities to climb to top leadership positions and to do that we will have to adapt. As long as the status quo requires projections of confidence, motivation, and conviction, we will shape ourselves to meet that demand. Through adaptation, we advocate for ourselves, our ideas and our accomplishments and achieve the power to revolutionize American leadership and elevate our peers.  

The bamboo ceiling exists when Asian Americans are intentionally or unintentionally excluded from company diversity reports. The bamboo ceiling exists when Asians are overrepresented in the American professional workforce but are the least likely ethnic group to be promoted to management. The bamboo ceiling exists when people assume connections between a style of communication and confidence and thus competence.

So when we, Asians, realize this barrier to our ambitions, let us strive to seize the power to break it. Disregard the optimism that anyone will help you and take it upon yourself to shift the paradigm of the bamboo ceiling.