Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling
By: Matt Osborne
For: Dr. Stefan Litz
November 29th, 2012
Much like the glass ceiling, a term which refers to the restrictions which women face in the workplace, the bamboo ceiling describes the hardships and restrictions which face the Asian population in North America. The bamboo ceiling states that people of Asian descent are passed over for larger management and leadership positions within their companies for less qualified people of non-Asian descent. This is becoming a large problem in western society as it is become a more and more diverse workplace and the minority population continues to grow. The Asian-American population is expected to grow an astounding 213 percent over the next 50 years, 164% over the total population growth for the same period (Reid & Berry, 2010). With such a large growth strengthening the prominence of the Asian community in the future we cannot have a business culture that discriminates against this community. Asian culture is becoming more and more seen in the western world, with Asian restaurants and settlements such as china town becoming regular parts of most urban areas and the prominence of Asian employees and managers in western businesses will continue to grow along with that. Asian culture is having a growing impact in western society and this should carry over into a larger role for Asians within western companies.
The bamboo ceiling, for the large part, does not exist due to intentional racism or discrimination, but instead exists due to a variety of underlying factors that most business managers would not even think twice about. The lack of intentional racism or discrimination as factors is shown in the statistic that over 88% of Asians feel happy and good about their workplace and that 85% feel that there are no disrespectful or offensive actions (Reid & Berry, 2010). These factors must be exposed so that western society can focus on correcting this flaw in the corporate world and improving the upper managerial job prospects for Asians. It is wrong of our society to discriminate against other cultures, even if it is an unintentional discrimination, we must be diligent in determining why this is happening and from these factors determine how we can right the situation and help break through the bamboo ceiling.
Evidence of the Bamboo Ceiling:
The bamboo ceiling can be seen to exist due to the small number of Asians in management positions when compared with the large number of Asians that exist within the western business world. While Asians make up around 5% of the American population, they only represent 2% of CEO’s and upper management of the Fortune 500 companies. If you look at this statistic with the fact that people of Asian descent make up a large chunk of enrolment in Ivy League schools you begin to see how Asian businesspeople are being passed over for less qualified candidates. Asians make up 15-20% of Ivy League school enrolment, and many other top schools are flooded with top Asian students. Asians are performing better and graduating by the thousands from top rated schools, yet they can only receive 2% representation among Fortune 500 executives (Center For Work-Life Policy, 2011). The Asian community also receive a higher percentage of bachelor degrees, with the Asian population having 20% of single people over 25, and the western culture only having 10% for the same grouping (Reid & Berry, 2010). This shows that there are many qualified and talented Asians that are entering the workforce; they just aren’t able to get into management roles, despite their obvious qualifications.
Factors Contributing to the Bamboo Ceiling:
There are many factors that may attribute to the bamboo ceiling in North America, with the largest of these factors being that Asians are perceived to not have the leadership abilities required to take on these larger managerial and executive positions. Some argue that this is due to the difference in general philosophies of both the western and Asian cultures. The western culture seems to live by the saying “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”, whereas the Asian culture follows the saying “the loudest duck gets shot” (Fisher, 2011). If we look at these two philosophies in a business sense we can see that many North American companies see leaders as people who are very vocal and very extroverted so that they may enact leadership unto their followers. "Americans are taught to show leadership potential by being gregarious, outgoing, outspoken, and confident” (Hyter, 2011). As shown by the sayings above, the Asian philosophy is quite the opposite, with Asian people tending to be more reserved and respectful, and they are not taught to show their leadership abilities in the traditional American way. “The Asian ideal is to work very hard, be humble and deferential, and blend in with the group. Expressing opinions or proposing changes is often seen as disrespectful" (Hyter, 2011).
These differences in leadership styles appear to be causing this perception of disparity between the leadership abilities of Asians and Caucasians. This is not to say that Asians are unable to match the leadership abilities of their Caucasian counterparts, just that the inflexibility of North American companies to broaden their narrow view of what is leadership and how to be leader, are limiting Asians advancement possibilities. This narrow vision of only one correct style of leadership is very out-dated and has led to the stereotyping of Asians as being good followers, but poor leaders. There is more than one way to be a leader in our global business culture, and this is not being recognized by many western corporations. This way of thinking must be changed and western society must do a better job to re-think our view of leadership, and how we evaluate potential leaders. This way we can avoid the racism and cultural stereotypes that are leading to this form of cultural discrimination.
On top of not being able to conform to the western leadership model, another challenge that prevents Asians from breaking through this bamboo ceiling is the difficulty many have fitting into the western business society. Only 28% of Asians feel very comfortable being themselves in their workplace, 12% lower than the next lowest race, which shows it’s quite obvious that Asians don’t feel comfortable in this western society and it will negatively affect their work performance (Center For Work-Life Policy, 2011). In a business society where it is all about who you know, not being able to form valuable relationships from which you can benefit is a huge disadvantage to potential management candidates. Establishing a professional network will not only help your chances to be promoted further up in your own company, it can also greatly improve your productivity as you can rely on this network to help you make sales, generate ideas, and to share connections with. Networking is especially important for young employees who look to move up the corporate ladder, as if you have any connection with any top managers, no matter how distant or vague, it makes it more likely you will be selected by that manager for a promotion. Due to this inability to fit in with their western business counterparts, 63% of Asian men and 44% of Asian women feel that their careers have stalled and that they will not be able to achieve any higher jobs within their company (Center For Work-Life Policy, 2011). This only leads to a smaller chance of these people actually achieving higher positions as they will feel less motivated and less focused on their job performance. Compared to Caucasians, Asians are three times more likely, and much greater than that compared to other minorities, to reduce the effort they put into their job and contemplate quitting due to issues of bias (Center For Work-Life Policy, 2011). This could be part of the cause for the bamboo ceiling as if Asians feel that there is any bias then they are less likely than other races to improve or even maintain their work efforts, which would lead to less of a chance of being promoted into management jobs due to slipping job performance.
Cultural differences seem to be the largest influence on all of these factors, and the differences in the Asian and Western cultures communication style is just another example of this. Firstly the language barrier is enough to make it difficult for certain Asians, who do not speak English well, from advancing too high within a western company. Looking beyond just the language barrier, the typically reserved and less-outspoken Asian culture is less likely to promote new ideas or to challenge any current ideas that they may not agree with due to their politeness and upbringing, where-as western culture views these characteristic as demonstrating initiative and creativity, which help lead to promotions (Center For Work-Life Policy, 2011). This difference in communication also leaves Asians behind the western culture in terms of self-promoting. Many Asians are very conscious to not boast about their achievements or how talented they are; instead they expect this to be acknowledged by others. Where as in the western culture it is essential to promote yourself and be outspoken about your achievements, as this ensures that this is acknowledged and known by management when it comes time to promoting an employee. Until many Asians learn to self-promote in a more effective way it may be difficult for them to be recognized for their skills and achievements hence making it difficult for them to break the bamboo ceiling and realize upper management jobs (Bachtiar, 2012).
The placement of Asian workers is also another factor that leads towards Asians being left out of management positions. Currently 60% of the Asian workforce is located in IT, finance, accounting, engineering and research, which do not usually lead to promotions into leadership roles (Reid & Berry, 2010). This is due to stereotyping and instead of being on the fast track to promotions and management jobs these workers are stuck in dead-end jobs with little room for growth and slim to no chance at being promoted to management.
One factor that does not cause the bamboo ceiling is Asians’ lack of desire for top management roles. In fact Asians are 12% more likely to aspire to be in a position of top management then their Caucasian counterparts (Center For Work-Life Policy, 2011). This proves that people of Asian descent are motivated and interested in these top management positions, they are just not being offered the roles.
How to Break the Bamboo Ceiling:
One school of thinking believes that Asians may be able to break through the bamboo ceiling would be to simply comply with the western views on leadership. If Asians were to adopt the work and leadership style that western executives are looking for in top managers, they would theoretically be viewed higher be upper management and have a higher chance of promotion. This would require many Asian workers to abruptly change how they act and fit their new behaviour to what the company feels would be best for leaders and managers. Unfortunately 48% of Asians believe that this is a problem and hence would not adapt their behaviour just to get a promotion (Center For Work-Life Policy, 2011). Due to these complaints, this method would not be a viable option for many Asians, and even if it was, these people should not have to change who they are and how they act just in order to gain a promotion. There is also growing belief that even if these Asians conform to western beliefs that they will still not be accepted by their Caucasian counterparts as they would be intimidated by an assertive and aggressive Asian who would be viewed immediately as a threat by Caucasians and not promoted due to this factor (Keung, 2012).
One way for many employees of all races to gain promotion into top level jobs is to get a mentor. Senior level mentors are very effective to help lower employees gain promotion to upper levels especially if they are within the same company. This is because these mentors can give advice to the lower employee on what characteristics upper management are looking for in potential leaders and can help the employee to be able to climb through the company ranks much faster than normal, as well as reach positions they may not have been able to get to otherwise. Asians are currently not taking advantage of this tool as only 46% of Asians currently have a mentor, which is 15% lower than Caucasians (Center For Work-Life Policy, 2011). This is a huge missed opportunity for the Asian community as this is a well-known method for career advancement, and if more Asians had mentors it would be much easier for them to overcome and break through the bamboo ceiling.
Due to the fact that western business managers do not appreciate the leadership style of the Asian culture, Asian workers must take extra initiative to make sure that their leadership talent is put on display and that top level managers see this. This would include taking on extra tasks and duties that would put the worker in leadership situations, and could have them leading projects and tackling new challenges in order to ensure they have the opportunity to demonstrate their leadership abilities. This will help break the bamboo ceiling as if more Asians are doing everything possibility to demonstrate their leadership abilities and they have a proven record of success in leadership roles to go along with this, it would make their leadership abilities impossible to miss when they are being evaluated for a potential upper management roles, which would lead to more Asians being promoted (Fisher, 2011).
The most logical solution to this problem is instead of asking, what can Asian workers due to overcome this discrimination, ask how management can avoid this discrimination and better improve their hiring process so that it is more evenly suited to all races. This could entail starting a development program that focuses on training and developing the skills of Asians, as well as other minorities, so that they are certain to have the skills needed to achieve and succeed in leadership positions. This would ensure that Asian candidates would not be overlooked due to their perceived lack of abilities, as upper management would be certain that these employees are good selections as they have trained and developed these employees themselves. Asians participating in these types of programs would certainly have an edge in reaching management positions over those who have not, as they are specifically trained for these roles and have made management aware of this. The four areas in which business who successful avoid the bamboo ceiling focus on are having opportunities for career growth/development, the ability to use ones skill set, the ability to reach ones potential and having flexible work arrangements (Reid & Berry, 2010). These four small goals are important to increasing the level of top managers whom are Asian, and other businesses should follow this same outline to be able to increase their diversity level in regards to the Asian population.
There are some examples of Asians breaking through this bamboo ceiling, such as the case of Ajit Varki, which highlights both the struggles to break through the bamboo ceiling but also the potential for success. Dr. Varki graduated at the top of his class from a well-respected school in India, one of the best in the country, and decided he wanted to come to work in America for a university. This was very problematic for him as he was not only a foreign immigrant, but also a graduate of a foreign school. The universities were originally very sceptical of Dr. Varki despite his clearly excellent qualifications. Eventually he made his way into the academic industry and slowly climbed the corporate ladder, becoming the very first foreign president of the American Society for Clinical Investigation and the first foreign editor of the Journal of Clinical Investigation (Ruttimann, 2009). This was a milestone for many Asian immigrants looking to break the bamboo ceiling. This step was one of the first of many positive examples of Asian immigrants succeeding in western corporate society, yet there is still a long way to go. A more negative example can be seen through the case of Alice Huang who was in the final round of interviews for a position as university president. Throughout the interview she was continually asked what she would be willing to give up if she got the job, and eventually came out and told them she did not think she would get the job due to how she looked and what her race was. In response to this she only received silence from her interviewers which confirmed her suspicions, and shows that the bamboo ceiling is indeed real and that it can have detrimental impacts on the life of Asian immigrants and their careers (Ruttimann, 2009).
Companies can greatly benefit from diversifying their management staff as the business world becomes more and more global every year. If you expect to compete on the world stage then you must have a diverse staff with a large knowledge base of overseas areas, such as Asian countries. Having Asians in high level management roles would offer that company valuable information on how to break into markets overseas, as well as how to market products to all Asians, including the growing number of those residing in western society (Reid & Berry, 2010). This information could prove to be the difference between a company succeeding and failing in a foreign market, or with the Asian demographic in western society. To receive the benefits that comes with this diversity, western corporations must be very careful to avoid stereotyping and should be more sensitive to others cultures. Understanding that the western way doesn’t apply to everyone and it isn’t necessarily the best practice will help many corporations to get over these stereotypes, be more sensitive to Asian culture and to increase the chance of seeing Asians in top management. Breaking the bamboo ceiling is not an easy task to accomplish but as long as western society doesn’t get too caught up in their culture and sees the value that can come along with diversity, there should be dramatic increases in future Asian managers in top western and global corporations.
Bachtiar, G. (2012, June 14). Bamboo Ceiling: Asians & the American Workplace. Retrieved from Tech Wire Asia: http://www.techwireasia.com/3397/asians-in-the-american-workplace-breaking-through-the-bamboo-ceiling/
Center For Work-Life Policy. (2011, July 20). Asian-Americans Still Feel Like Outsiders in Corporate America, . Retrieved from Work-Life Policy: https://www.worklifepolicy.org/documents/TopAsianTalent_PressRelease_7.20.11.pdf
Fisher, A. (2011, October 7). Is there a 'bamboo ceiling ' at U.S. companies? Retrieved from CNN- Fortune Management: http://management.fortune.cnn.com/2011/10/07/asian-americans-promotion-us-companies/
Fisher, A. (2011, November 18). Training Executives to Think Globally. Retrieved from Crain 's New York Business: http://mycrains.crainsnewyork.com/blogs/executive-inbox/2011/11/training-executives-to-think-globally/
Fisher, A. (n.d.). Piercing the 'bamboo ceiling '.
Hewlett, S. A. (2011, August 3). Breaking Through the Bamboo Ceiling. Retrieved from Harvard Business Review: http://blogs.hbr.org/hbr/hewlett/2011/08/breaking_through_the_bamboo_ce.html
Hyter, M. (2011). The Power of Choice: Embracing Efficacy to Drive Your Career. Global Novations.
Hyun, J. (2006). Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians. HarperCollins.
Hyun, J. (2012). Leadership principles for capitalizing on culturally diverse teams: The bamboo ceiling revisited. Leader to Leader, 14-19.
Keung, N. (2012, June 1). The ‘bamboo ceiling’: University of Toronto researchers look at why it’s so hard to crack. Retrieved from The Star: http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/article/1204283--the-bamboo-ceiling-university-of-toronto-researchers-look-at-why-it-s-so-hard-to-crack
Lanham, F. (n.d.). Solutions for Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling. Retrieved from Asia Society: http://asiasociety.org/texas/solutions-breaking-bamboo-ceiling
Reid, D. W., & Berry, P. A. (2010, November 14). Cracking the Bamboo Ceiling. Retrieved from Diversity Executive: http://diversity-executive.com/articles/view/cracking-the-bamboo-ceiling/1
Ruttimann, J. (2009, June 29). Breaking Through the "Bamboo Ceiling" for Asian American Scientists. Retrieved from Journal of Science: http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2009_05_29/science.opms.r0900072
Tan, J. (2008). Breaking the “Bamboo Curtain” and the “Glass Ceiling”: The Experience of Women Entrepreneurs in High-Tech Industries in an Emerging Market. Journal of Business Ethics, 547-564.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (2008, December 21). Asian American and Pacific Islander Work Group Report. Retrieved from The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: http://www.eeoc.gov/federal/reports/aapi.html
Yang, W. (2011, May 8). Paper Tigers. Retrieved from New York Magazine: http://nymag.com/news/features/asian-americans-2011-5/
Bibliography: Bachtiar, G. (2012, June 14). Bamboo Ceiling: Asians & the American Workplace. Retrieved from Tech Wire Asia: http://www.techwireasia.com/3397/asians-in-the-american-workplace-breaking-through-the-bamboo-ceiling/ Center For Work-Life Policy Fisher, A. (2011, October 7). Is there a 'bamboo ceiling ' at U.S. companies? Retrieved from CNN- Fortune Management: http://management.fortune.cnn.com/2011/10/07/asian-americans-promotion-us-companies/ Fisher, A Hewlett, S. A. (2011, August 3). Breaking Through the Bamboo Ceiling. Retrieved from Harvard Business Review: http://blogs.hbr.org/hbr/hewlett/2011/08/breaking_through_the_bamboo_ce.html Hyter, M Hyun, J. (2006). Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians. HarperCollins. Hyun, J. (2012). Leadership principles for capitalizing on culturally diverse teams: The bamboo ceiling revisited. Leader to Leader, 14-19. Reid, D. W., & Berry, P. A. (2010, November 14). Cracking the Bamboo Ceiling. Retrieved from Diversity Executive: http://diversity-executive.com/articles/view/cracking-the-bamboo-ceiling/1 Ruttimann, J Tan, J. (2008). Breaking the “Bamboo Curtain” and the “Glass Ceiling”: The Experience of Women Entrepreneurs in High-Tech Industries in an Emerging Market. Journal of Business Ethics, 547-564. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (2008, December 21). Asian American and Pacific Islander Work Group Report. Retrieved from The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: http://www.eeoc.gov/federal/reports/aapi.html Yang, W