Asian American leaders find 'bamboo ceiling' tough to crack for promotions

ByDion Lim and Randall YIp KGO logo
Tuesday, May 18, 2021
Asian Americans least likely to be promoted at work
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Have you heard of the bamboo ceiling? It's basically the glass ceiling with a twist. It points to why Asian Americans are the least likely to advance into executive roles.

SUNNYVALE, Calif. (KGO) -- You've likely heard about the glass ceiling- the term often used to describe the under representation of women and people of color in management ranks. ABC7's Dion Lim reports on a slight twist to that. It's called the "bamboo ceiling," and points to why Asian Americans are the least likely to advance into executive roles.

Jeanny Chai described her first few years out of Stanford and in the corporate world as easy.

Then things began to change. She often found herself being not only the only Asian American, but the only woman in a room full of white men.

"Like I didn't belong. Like they had a comradery and understanding, a business and cultural comfort that somehow I had to learn the ropes, Chai said.

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Dave Liu is venture capitalist, cartoonist and writer who's publishing a book in the spring offering career advice.

"Every ethnicity, every individual has ceilings. But I think it's much harder if you are a person of color, or if you are a woman, because inherently the majority has a lot more say in terms of the culture of the company," said Liu.

A study of data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found this -- Asian men and white men in the Bay Area are represented fairly equally in white collar jobs.

Yet, white men make up 48 percent of all executives in the Bay Area compared to just over 18 percent for Asian men.

WATCH: Our America: Asian Voices - The Asian experience in America today

While the communities and cultures vary, one thing binds them together: they are all Americans.

Asian American woman slightly out number white women in the professional ranks in the Bay Area.

Yet white women make up 18.5 percent of all white collar executives in the Bay Area compared to 7 percent for Asian women.

"So dynamics for Asian promotion rates for companies, consistently that Asians are least likely to be promoted," said Buck Gee, a retired Cisco executive.

He's also a former board member of Ascend, a non-profit originally funded by the Big 4 accounting firms to integrate Asian Americans into management positions.

He sees the problem as two fold.

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"One is the implicit bias that Asians are good workers, but don't have leadership skills," he said.

"You're all hard working, you're all obedient, You all abide by the rules," Liu emphasized

He says these stereotypes often associated with the model minority myth don't equate to leadership skills in the corporate world.

Gee sees a culture conflict.

"Leadership culture, management culture, corporate culture is different enough from Asian tradition, Asian culture," he said.

RELATED: The history of the model minority myth and its impact on Asian-American communities

Chai who's since left the corporate world to become a motivational speaker says her bosses often asked her to take on extra roles.

She incorrectly thought the extra work would lead to a higher salary and nice promotion.

It didn't work out that way.

"And I hear this over and over again with other people. Great. You're doing so much. Thank you. But we don't know how to say, hey, I want to get paid. I want to be rewarded. I want to move up," Chai said.

She thinks for change to happen, there has to be greater acceptance of differences.

"There are different people. There are different kinds of leadership. Right now what's understood is your traditional alpha male easy breezy kind of executive- which I love. I think they're great- but it's hard for anybody else who doesn't fit that to break in," she said.

Both Chai and Liu chose to take control of their own careers by launching their own companies. For others, consider asking for a promotion, sharing your goals early with your boss and achieving those goals together. If that's not happening, it may be time to find a new job.