Posted on August 9, 2013, by Jenny Chen
“Jay”* a first generation Indian American and single mom could not believe what she was hearing as she stood in her supervisor’s office. She was explaining to him how the changes in her schedule was impacting her ability to be there for her daughter. Her supervisor looked at her and said, “I am amazed that a person coming from the country you come from could speak up like this.”
Instances like this are not isolated in corporate America. In 2009, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported that “This community has been facing a number of misperceptions or stereotypes, ranging from ‘hard-working’ to ‘anti-social’. While some of these stereotypes have positive characteristics, they have become the framework of barriers establishing glass or bamboo ceilings which present [Asian American and Pacific Islanders] from moving into the upper tiers of an organization.”
Debbie Choy, founder of MenMuu Leadership Institute, says that many of the excuses that Asian Americans face when they are passed over for promotions is couched in words such as “lack of communication skills” or “lack of interpersonal skills.” Choy herself said that she was told many times that she didn’t have enough of a “leadership presence.”
“I would ask them, tell me what you mean by that – should I grow taller? Speak louder? Gain more weight?” Choy said. She received little more than vague answers in return.
“People think of ‘leaders’ as being male and white,” said Choy. “Because that’s who they generally are.”
However, Choy admits that some of the onus lies on Asian Americans, who may not be used to the way business is conducted and alliances are forged in corporate American culture.
“A lot of it is how you present your achievements, talking about your track record in a way that makes you feel comfortable. [As Asian Americans] we are taught to be humble – but you have to talk about your track record in corporate America,” Choy said.
Why is it so important for Asian Americans climb the corporate ladder and reach the C-suite? Can’t we be content with the successes we have? “If there aren’t enough Asian American leaders at the top,” said Choy, “…during layoffs, minorities are disproportionately targeted.”
“Jay”, who works in the Midwest, where there are fewer Asian Americans than there are on the coasts, agreed. In her last job, she says there were no other Asian Americans in her department, one African American, and three Hispanic employees. One by one, all these minority employees, including her, were laid off.
So how can the bamboo ceiling be broken? Perhaps the first step is to make it clear that such workplace discrimination exists. From her personal experience, “Jay” wishes there was more transparency and dialogue in the company she worked in.
“Things came to a head,” she said, referring to the escalating tensions she felt in the workplace which eventually led to her dismissal. “But it might not have happened if we had a general meeting together to start exploring how the atmosphere is…to start airing our concerns. Even the remark the director made [about speaking up] happened when there was nobody else. People don’t know what he is saying.”
A 2005 Gallup poll found that 31% of Asian Americans experienced discriminatory or unfair treatment while on the job, but the Equal Employment Commission reported that Asian Americans only make up 3.26% of the discrimination based complaints filed in the workplace.
“We file complaints a lot less than our African American and Hispanic counterparts. Maybe there isn’t that sense of outrage,” said Choy.
There might be another reason why Asian Americans are not able to rise through the ranks: competition.
“In some of the competitive industries, like IT, there are a lot of Asian Americans who are reluctant to promote other Asian Americans because they are afraid that they will end up competing for the same job,” said Christian Oh, lead training manager of STG, Inc. and Executive Director of Kollaboration DC, an annual Asian American talent show. Perhaps part of the reason for this within race discrimination is the perception of limited possibilities for Asian Americans because of the bamboo ceiling. Some successful Asian Americans have arrived at their hard won position by assimilating and denying their Asian-ness. As a result, many of them are also reluctant to reach out and mentor other Asian Americans, for fear of identifying with their race.
In short, the issue of the bamboo ceiling and workplace discrimination for Asian Americans is complex to say the least. A product of societal stereotyping and institutional discrimination but also of cross-cultural dissonance, and wariness among Asian Americans, the state of the Asian American in corporate America is still constantly evolving.
*Name has been changed