Exploring the Limitations of the ‘Bamboo Ceiling’


Asian Americans are the highest income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States, but they make up only 2.6 percent of corporate leadership in Fortune 500 companies, according to DiversityInc. Like the term “glass ceiling,” which refers to the barriers women may face in trying to reach the top of their fields despite their qualifications, “bamboo ceiling” refers to the barriers that Asian American professionals may face that prevent them from reaching leadership roles in the workplace.

NPR’s Tell Me More explored the issue last Friday, raising the question of the “bamboo ceiling” and what obstacles the so-called model minority faces at work. These can range from long-standing perceptions in the workplace, to even how Asian Americans view themselves.

Linda Akutagawa, president and CEO of Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP), told host Michel Martin that people aren’t accustomed to seeing Asian Americans—and other minorities—in leadership positions to begin with.

“I won’t say that it’s only the structure, but there is, I think, a baked-in kind of assumption of what leaders are supposed to look like, what leaders are supposed to act like,” she explained. “And when it’s different, then people sometimes have a hard time seeing beyond that, and it really takes someone who can look beyond that.”

Wesley Yang, a writer who has extensively written on this issue (at times, controversially, as with his famous “Paper Tigers” piece in New York Magazine), also added that it’s not the traditional assumptions of overt, conscious racism that is seen in the workplace. “It’s really a matter of, like, small daily transactions that exact a toll on women and minorities, that we produce a power structure without there being sort of like an overt intention to keep women and minorities out,” he told NPR.

When it comes to Asian American behavior in the workplace, behavior such as attracting the notice of a potential mentor and getting involved in social activities may not be something they’re accustomed to, according to Akutagawa. “A lot of Asian Americans are taught, you know, you just work hard,” she said in the NPR segment. “And you just keep your nose to the grindstone, and you will be recognized. And you don’t have to talk about yourself.”

Leadership training for Asian American executives, including those through LEAP, seeks to teach or strengthen such competency and skills in the workplace, said Yang. The training involves them in a process of introspection, finding associations between Asian culture and the norms and expectations for leaders in America.

“And what they show is that there’s almost no overlap between these two terms,” he told NPR. “So it may well be the case that many Asian professionals arrive in the workplace with a set of culturally ingrained sets of, what is appropriate behavior, ways to relate themselves to superiors and to elders, that may well be a recipe for invisibility.”

When asked by host Martin what success would look like, Akutagawa said it would be not making it a surprise when an Asian American or a person of color achieves any sort of leadership position.

“I mean it should be just part and parcel of just what we see,” she said. “In some ways right now, they’re still the exception to the rule. I think there’s a lot of ground to be broken.”

Image via Northwest Asian Weekly