Bamboo Ceiling in the Workplace
As the anti-Asian hate movement takes hold, the general public is gaining more understanding of the long-standing racism against Asians. Aside from the news-grabbing xenophobic violence, however, there also needs to be a discourse on the implicit biases keeping Asians from the C-suite, despite a seemingly healthy pipeline of talent.
There hasn’t been a lot of research on this front, though many of us in Corporate America share similar lived experiences and mental baggage. From my recent experience of moderating a panel on breaking barriers in the workplace as Asian women, the barriers we confront boil down to three themes.
At the first glance of diversity reports from prominent tech companies, there is a relatively high representation of Asians in the workforce. Yet, upon close examination, the high representation does not cascade to the top echelon, where Asians are disproportionately underrepresented facing the so-called “bamboo ceiling” barrier.
Excessive focus on assertiveness disadvantages Asians
The Western culture has long celebrated assertiveness and often equated it with “executive presence,” inferred by the proverb of “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” The Eastern culture, on the other hand, emphasizes humility and harmony, reflected by the proverb of “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” As Corporate America leans into diversity, it’s time that we examine the history behind the focus of assertiveness and its historical ties to Western culture.
After all, unchecked assertiveness leads to toxic leadership and narcissism, devoid of empathy central to the modern leadership style.
Looking younger minimizes chances for top jobs
Another barrier Asians face is that we often look younger than we are, a phenomenon implied by the cliche “Asians don’t raisin” and extended to Black and Latinx communities suggested by “Black don’t crack” and “Brown don’t frown.” The scientific reason behind darker skin showing age more slowly is because it has more melanin (the dark pigment that determines sun sensitivity), wielding more protection against skin damage from the sun.
Looking young may seem like a good thing, especially in this youth-oriented culture, until we realize that it minimizes our chances of ascending to the top ranks.
I experienced this inconvenient truth myself when I started my journey to the boardroom a few years ago. To prepare for the journey, I connected with a recruiter known for her expertise in boardroom searches. After reviewing my LinkedIn profile, her first comment was that I needed to change my profile photo. In her blunt assessment, I looked like I was barely 30, still living in my parents’ basement, and struggling to make ends meet.
It could not have been farther from the truth. By then, I already had 20 years of work experience with a resume of varied accomplishments. I was shocked by her words but also thanked her for her honesty, as it showed me the unconscious bias from the eyes of a professional.
Such bias, if unaddressed, would rob me of the at-bat chances, resulting in the elimination before I even had any opportunities of advocating for myself. Needless to say, I promptly changed my profile photo to better underpin the years of expertise I have and quality for executive positions.
Bias about accents rooted in our European-centric reference system
The third common theme is the topic of accents. Asians are unique in that “around six-in-ten Asian Americans (57%), including 71% of Asian American adults, were born in another country. By comparison, 14% of all Americans — and 17% of adults — were born elsewhere,” as stated in this Pew Research Center article.
Many people, probably due to lack of exposure to diverse backgrounds, have this bias that accents, especially non-European ones, imply a lack of English fluency. However, much like the discussion about assertiveness above, we should inspect how the general public perceives European accents vs. Asian accents. This Baptist News Global opinion piece sums it up poignantly, “How often have people talked in British, French or Italian accents to American audiences in exhibition of European elegance and worldly sophistication? Yet bearing such an accent of one’s Black American, Middle Eastern, Latino or Asian background is often met with condescension or disapproval.”
The bias we have about accents is deeply rooted in our European-centric reference system.
We won’t bust our biases until we challenge the underlying context and truly embrace diversity. One handy framework is thinking critically about “the job to be done,” by Clay Christensen. Instead of focusing on the conventional demographics and attributes for the job, we need to dig beyond superficiality to expose the core dimensions needed to perform the job. Using this framework, one would argue that outsized assertiveness, looking younger due to our DNA, and speaking an accent different from the European ones have very little to do with qualifications in performing executive job functions.
The lack of research on the underrepresentation of Asians in the top echelon is a result of the “model minority” myth. It singles Asians out as a white-adjacent group and pits Asians against other BIPOC groups. However, the biases and barriers Asians face in the workplace share a lot of commonalities with racism against other BIPOC groups.
The current racial discourse has highlighted our biased system of whiteness: one race above all others, and one culture above all cultures, despite the lofty goal of “All men are created equal” by our Constitution. Dismantling biases and barriers takes a village. It’s time that we unite and reach across the racial aisle to challenge systematic racism and advance racial equality.