Breaking Through the Bamboo Ceiling

This post was written with Ripa Rashid, Executive Vice President at the Center for Work-Life Policy, and Diana Forster, a Ph.D. student at the University of Florida and a fellow at the Center for Work-Life Policy.

Why aren't more Asians getting to the top at U.S. companies?

They ought to be: They're highly educated, graduating from top universities and graduate programs at rates exceeding those of their peers. They're also extremely ambitious, with 64% of Asians aspiring to top jobs, compared to only 52% of Caucasians, according to new research from the Center for Work-Life Policy.

Yet the impressive credentials and achievements that have caused them to be dubbed "the model minority" aren't reflected in senior-most leadership positions. Asians make up 5% of the U.S. population, but only 1.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs and barely 2% of board members. What's worse: They're aware of the anomaly — and they're not happy about it.

What elements build and reinforce the "bamboo ceiling"?

Among the 3,000 Asian men and women surveyed by the CWLP, 25% feel they face bias in the workplace; a 2005 Gallup survey put the figure at an even higher 31%. Rather than outright discrimination, Asian professionals encounter unspoken inequities that make them feel that they don't fit in — from a team that routinely meets at a steakhouse despite the Chinese senior manager's suggestion that they try a Chinese or Indian restaurant, to a sense shared by 37% of Asian men in the CWLP survey that their colleagues seem uncomfortable asking about their personal life, more than double the numbers for their Caucasian or Hispanic counterparts and 14% greater than for African-Americans.

There's a pervasive feeling of being "a square peg in a round hole," as one manager puts it, with 48% reporting that conforming to prevailing leadership models is a problem. For example, a female vice president at a major multinational was criticized by a boss for her Anglo-Indian accent, which he found "too stuffy." The comment left her hurt and confused. "What am I supposed to do?" she asked. "Go for language classes?"

Other tripwires are rooted in cultures that instill Asians with communication and networking styles at odds with the mainstream dynamic of assertiveness and directness. Asians are frequently criticized for being reticent, more hesitant than other cultures to advance new ideas at a team meeting or promote themselves to their manager. As a result of a deeply engrained deference to authority, Asians in the CWLP survey are also significantly less likely than other ethnic groups to challenge a consensus, let alone participate in the "in your face" leadership model rewarded in much of corporate America.

"In Asia, there's a saying that the loudest duck gets shot. In America it's 'the squeaky wheel gets the grease,'" says Jane Hyun, a corporate consultant and author of Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling. "These things are totally different and at odds with each other."

The result? CWLP research finds that 63% of Asian men and 44% of Asian women feel stalled in their careers. Many are actively looking to leave their current companies: 19% of Asian men and 14% of Asian women plan to leave within the next year, compared with only 9% of Caucasian men and 10% of Caucasian women.

Corporations can't afford to lose their Asian talent. Not only are Asians a vital part of the white-collar pipeline generally, they are also particularly well-qualified in the fields of science, engineering, and technology. Asians and Pacific Islanders pursue science and engineering graduate degrees at more than twice the rate of the general U.S. population — key areas where the U.S. already lags behind many of its peers.

Furthermore, as American-based multinationals extend their reach in China and India, the cultural fluency of their Asian employees can confer a critical competitive edge.

But the answer isn't just to "fix the Asians." Smart companies need to look for other solutions that teach their non-Asian managers to recognize the richness they can contribute.

Goldman Sachs, for example, realized this. "It was not enough to offer leadership training to East Asians," says Gail Fierstein, Global Head of Human Capital Management for the Federation and Revenue Divisions. "We had to raise awareness and educate a wider audience, including managers across the firm." In response, they've created the upcoming program Voices from East Asia: Redefining Global Leadership, which utilizes an interactive forum to educate managers about the wide spectrum of Asian professionals working at the firm and increase their awareness of the diversity across Asian cultures. By exploring how cultural values impact the workplace and gaining a better understanding of the workplace experience of their East Asian colleagues, participants expand their perceptions of effective leadership and communication, and learn best practices to maximize the potential of global talent.

"The Asian community is a very large economic force both inside and outside of the U.S.," says Barbara Adachi, the managing director of Deloitte Consulting LLP's human capital practice. "The more you understand the impact that China and India are having on the world, the more you recognize the importance of having Asians be part of your leadership team."

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.