Most people have heard the term “glass ceiling,” the invisible barrier that prevents women and people of color from advancing in the workplace. But fewer people know the term “bamboo ceiling,” which refers to the barrier that impedes Asian Americans from career advancement and opportunities.
Christopher Tang, the Edward W. Carter Professor of Business Administration at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, recently wrote a Los Angeles Times opinion piece on the topic, describing how the increase in anti-Asian hate has also put a spotlight on less violent forms of discrimination, such as implicit bias and stereotypes.
On May 7, Tang hosted a UCLA Anderson event to discuss the bamboo ceiling and examine the complexity of the problem. The panelists, all of whom were UCLA alumni, shared personal anecdotes, what they have learned from their own journeys and ways in which they have overcome barriers in their careers.
The participants were Fran Benjamin, managing director of Good Works Consulting; Debra Liu, human resources development rotation consultant at investment firm Capital Group; Mary Osako, UCLA’s vice chancellor for strategic communications; and Yolanda Stanton, senior diversity partner at San Francisco–based business platform Gusto.
Tang set the stage for the discussion with a PowerPoint presentation. First, he noted that there are 48 countries in Asia, so Asian Americans are a very large, diverse group of people. Next, he cited the myth of Asian Americans as the model minority and the false idea that most are successful and wealthy. In fact, the poverty rate among Asian Americans is 12.5%, and income levels vary significantly. Additionally, although Asian Americans represent 12% of America’s professional workforce, less than 1% of S&P 500 CEOs are of East Asian descent.
Stanton followed Tang’s presentation with a statistic as well, sharing that Asian Americans make up only 2.6% of corporate leadership in Fortune 500 companies, despite being 7% of the U.S. population.
“In corporate America, there’s a monolithic model for successful leadership,” she said. “There’s some sense of what leaders are supposed to look like and act like. And the personality trait for Asian Americans is that we’re not assertive, strong or confident leaders. I think these prevailing stereotypes and biases show up at work through promotions and progression.”
Osako, who has held executive positions at Amazon, Yahoo and Activision Blizzard, shared a personal story that illustrated this point. She remembered her first day as a chief officer at a Fortune 500 company, where the receptionist and security guard asked for her manager’s name so he could come greet her. When Osako named the CEO, they were immediately confused and then asked if she was one of his new assistants.
“At another company, I was [a chief officer], and I remember people saying, ‘Oh, you’re really exotic,’” Osako said. “It’s one of these things I have felt no matter what my level is at an organization. And it’s really important to have conversations like this, just to be able to say it out loud.”
Multiple panelists mentioned advocacy and allyship as ways to break through the bamboo ceiling. Liu acknowledged the importance of self-advocacy, but also recognized how difficult that is for some Asian Americans, whose parents or elders often kept their heads down, worked hard and stayed quiet.
“In some ways, we saw that modeled and thought that that’s how we needed to operate, too,” Liu said. “But in the corporate world, it is important not only to work hard, but to be able to advocate for yourself in your work. If they don’t hear about the work that you’re doing, they just won’t know about it. And it’s usually not out of a desire to neglect someone, but it’s just out of pure visibility.”
Benjamin, who coaches organizations on diversity, equity and inclusion, has seen firsthand how biases show up systemically within companies, noting that it’s important for allies to understand the facts, history and processes of bias and their own role in it.
“When I think about language like ‘model minority,’ I ask myself questions like, ‘What is it modeled upon or what is it a model for?’” Benjamin said. “And I come to answers like whiteness or majority culture and a monolithic prototype for what it means to be a leader. As a white ally, it’s important for me to stand in that and own that and to also explore my assumptions.”
Stanton added that there has been a lot of performative allyship, especially after the events of the past year, so people need to think about their intent versus their impact.
“It’s great if you want to post on social media, but are you really doing the right things for the right reasons?” she said. “What are some of the things that you can do as an ally and making sure that you are educating yourself? The onus is not upon the minority to educate you. You really need to educate yourself and … actively listen and be an ally.”
When asked how Asian Americans can change perceptions and stereotypes, Osako said it might be helpful to share a few examples of what she did wrong early in her career. To fit a perceived idea of leadership, Osako would try to assume a persona that wasn’t her, from attempting to be “one of them” and laughing off offensive jokes to being super professional and stern. But she found being inauthentic to herself was a burden.
“I decided with some intention [to try] to be myself,” Osako said. “If something offended me, then [I would] just say it out loud [and] not try and hide the fact that I’m a woman or that I’m Asian American. … I would just come forward and tell it as part of my story.”
She added that one of her goals is to speak out and share personal stories in order to help those with similar lived experiences succeed.
Liu agreed that authenticity is a key part of leadership, but people often have a hard time being authentic or confidently themselves.
“My encouragement is to recognize what your authentic voice is and … show yourself grace as you’re figuring it out,” Liu said. “I would definitely encourage people, no matter how young they are, to lean into their authentic voice.”
As Tang wrapped up the 90-minute discussion, he noted that change can happen if we have dialogue with each other and open up our hearts and minds.
“We should be bold, educate people [and] be authentic,” he said. “We need to step out of our comfort zone to educate people. … Education is one way to break the stereotypes. It takes time, but we can get there, we must get there [and] we will get there.”