I was recently interviewed by Anne Fisher for Fortune magazine’s Ask Annie career advice column about whether a “bamboo ceiling” exists in U.S. companies. The letter writer was an Asian-American who was recently passed over for a promotion in favor of an allegedly less qualified non-Asian candidate.
This topic sparked a discussion for me with a long-time Global Novations employee and Asian-American, Jane Chang. She shared with me her observations on how the deep seeded code of conduct for Asian-Americans can sometimes negatively impact career development and the ability to rise into leadership positions. I share Jane’s perspective below in the spirit of inclusion, personal and professional development, and cultural understanding.
While the general stereotypes of Asian-Americans are favorable in obtaining employment (e.g., hard-working, dedicated, proficient in math, quiet, non-confrontational, agreeable), there is indeed a “bamboo ceiling” that very few break through. If you looked at employment numbers, Asian-Americans are well represented, making up something like 20% of the workforce on average here in the US. Compared to other minority groups, however, we are often the forgotten race.
We are on accelerated tracks through academics, test scores and graduation achievement rates are higher for Asian-Americans. However, that advanced track often ends once we enter the workforce.
Asian-American women, whether first, second, or third generation, enter the workforce with culturally influenced behaviors and expectations. We are trained to abide by the rules of our parents or household. For example, children should obey their parents, purse a degree or profession that represents pride, wait for elders to sit down, and eat when given permission.
Transfer these trained behaviors into corporate America and they’re the polar opposite of what it takes to be successful. Asian-Americans don’t grow up promoting ourselves; our parents do that for us. Most of us are uncomfortable with the idea of marketing and pitching our work, let alone building a network or having internal champions, common strategies for career advancement. We’ve been brought up with the ethics of keep your head down, work hard, and you will make money.
These are examples of how deep the traditional Asian cultural messages are for us and how we operate. These deep-rooted behaviors and expectations blind us in terms of understanding how to navigate in a corporate culture and flex accordingly. Add this to the fact that there are very few Asian-American women in executive and leadership positions to coach and mentor, so many are stuck at the bottom looking up. It’s interesting because even though I have the awareness, I still find myself exhibiting these subtle, unconscious behaviors in the workplace. The results are sometimes positive – I’m viewed as hardworking, dedicated, and dependable – but never saying no, or offering up alternative suggestions, often leads to me being tactical verses strategic.
“Lack of leadership” and “inferior communication ability” are common subjective factors. Take the visual aspect of this. In general, Asian-American women are shorter and smaller in stature. In a room with other groups, we are not physically “seen” as easily. We usually don’t make a long-lasting impression; descriptions of us are usually the similar. If you showed a photo of a tall blond woman standing next to an Asian-American and asked who the CEO was, the assumption would be the tall blond woman.
Now, add the verbal communication skills. We are taught to be submissive and control our emotions – speaking loudly signifies defiance. This of course transfers to how we communicate in the workplace. We are not accustomed to speaking up and our voice projection is lowered. Thus, we are seen as lacking leadership skills – we can’t lead if we don’t offer our opinions, and since we don’t talk loud enough, nobody will listen. That inferior communication ability could be a mix of various assumptions. If English is a second language, the accent may be a factor. Add together an accent and lack of confidence to speak out loud and it’s easy to see the reasoning for the feedback. Asian-American women in particular often don’t realize the importance of soft skills, such as presentation skills and interpersonal abilities, resulting in lack of visibility and leadership attributes.
I think the first step is recognizing culturally influenced behaviors. Being conscious of the habits and identifying what may be perceived negatively. Examine how the Asian-American culture serves as the basis of our work mannerisms and tendencies: How am I presenting myself? Do I look and act like a leader? Recognize the bamboo ceiling barriers, both personal and organizationally. Ask: What are the behaviors I need to exhibit to be a leader? Having strategies on how to communicate effectively at work and seeking a mentor or coach to navigate the corporate culture are essential for growth. Really commit to building a deep and broad network and most importantly: ask and give honest feedback. Own your growth, your culture, your development, and your career.
Readers: what do you think? Please share your thoughts on this topic in the blog’s Comments section.