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Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and the Bamboo Ceiling

This month marks Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in the United States – a month celebrating Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs). There are currently over 20 million AAPIs living in the U.S and it is the fastest growing minority in the country. (1) Although often grouped and stereotyped together, the AAPI population is a very diverse group with hundreds of languages, cultures, ethnicities, nationalities and religions.

Stereotypes vs Realities

As someone who travelled from India to the U.S to pursue a graduate career, I can relate to the identity shifting experience of many AAPIs as they emigrate. When I arrived in the U.S, my identity shifted from being part of the majority growing up in India, to being a minority- an Asian American, an immigrant and a foreigner. Despite being in the US for over 30 years at the time, I recall being told to “go back to where you come from.”

My identity-shifting experiences were both positive and negative but the one stereotype was that Asian American’s are successful both financially and in their careers. It has become quite the norm to see headlines of tech companies featuring South Asian CEO’s. Yes, there are the Satya Nadelas, the Ajay Bangas, the Indra Nooyis and the Arvind Krishna’s – Indian CEOs of Microsoft, Mastercard, Pepsi and IBM. And yet when it comes to Asian Americans and their careers, the gatekeepers in organizations continue to think… computing or accounting, yes, marketing-sales… no. Support analysts yes, leadership no…and so on. You know the drill.

So, let’s do a reality check:

  • 1 in 4 AAPIs in NY live in poverty

  • Hmong, Bhutanese, Nepalese and Burmese are some of the poorest AAPIs; less than 20% have college degrees

  • Unemployment of AAPIs rose during Covid with 25% of AAPIs in service and front-line jobs (2)

Indeed, AAPIs are least likely to be promoted to management and executive roles and are least likely to be promoted from individual contributor roles to leadership. White professionals are twice as likely to be promoted into management than AAPIs. Ascend, an Asian American advocacy organization, shared research which shows that Asian Americans, on the whole, make up 12% of the professional workforce and yet only 4.4% of all Fortune 1000 boards. (3)

Asian American’s have also been subjected to discrimination during the Covid 19 pandemic. A spring 2021 survey by Pew Research showed that 45% of Asian adults experienced a variety of outwardly offensive incidents since the start of the pandemic, including racial slurs and remarks that they are to blame for COVID-19. (4)

What are the barriers holding Asian Americans from advancing? Interestingly, the barriers impacting the Asian American community are often viewed through the lens of the individual barriers attributed to Asian cultures that are seen as “foreign,” as opposed to the systemic barriers preventing the advancement of African Americans and Hispanics. As a result, many organizational diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts overlook the Asian American population, even though they are least likely to advance to leadership positions.

I believe that to develop effective solutions, it is critical to unpack the challenges encountered by Asian Americans. With that in mind, let’s turn to my book, Leading Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and consider the 4th principle: Go Deep, Wide and Inside Out. This principle considers the importance of taking a holistic systems approach and embedding DEI into the processes, policies and structures throughout the organization.

Model Minority Label

One of the stereotypes that has done the AAPI population a disservice is the “model minority” stereotype. The term “Model Minority” was first coined in 1966 by sociologist William Peterson in a New York Times Magazine article to praise what he perceived as the success gained by Japanese Americans in the United States as compared to African Americans who were struggling with systemic bigotry and poverty. Since then, this myth has been invoked to question the existence of institutionalized racism in America and manipulated to compare Asian Americans to other racial minorities. 5

The model minority label perpetuates the stereotypes of AAPIs as “industrious and rule-abiding,” quiet, hardworking, studious, and reliable with a solid work ethic. This label assigned to Asian Americans seems innocuous, even flattering, on the surface, but boxes AAPIs in stereotypes that include the less positive attributes of being docile, complacent and overly differential. It reinforces the narrative that Asian Americans are good at technical skills but lacking in “soft” skills needed for leadership such as interpersonal, communications and advocacy skills. As a result, AAPIs are seen as good workers but not great leaders and are frequently criticized for being reticent and more hesitant than other leaders from cultures to advance new ideas at team meetings or promote themselves to their manager. This has prevented them from advancing to leadership ranks.

This erroneous narrative of a lack of leadership skills has resulted in what is often referred to as the ‘Bamboo ceiling’ with 90% of Asian American’s surveyed citing the bamboo ceiling as a barrier to their career.6 I explore more about the bamboo ceiling in a recent podcast with Vignesh Ramachandran. Click here to listen now.

Being seen as perpetual “foreigners” in the workplace has led to the need for AAPIs to “cover” their culture including foods, clothes and celebrations. And as a result, they generally lack a sense of belonging to the workplace.

Additionally, 48% of AAPIs report that conforming to prevailing leadership models is a problem.7 Silvia Anne Hewlett in her HBR article ‘Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling’ encapsulates the challenge:

“There’s a pervasive feeling of being a square peg in a round hole. 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?”7

Let’s ask ourselves, if conventional Western male leadership qualities are the only competencies relevant in today’s complex global economy, are our narrow concepts of leadership biasing our promotion decision-making and limiting the progression of AAPIs?

The question now becomes what can be done to alleviate the challenges posed by the Bamboo Ceiling? Once again, let’s turn to Principle 4 - Go Deep, Wide and Inside Out - to explore solutions and the importance of ensuring that we examine the talent cycle and eliminate bias in order to enable AAPIs breaking through the bamboo ceiling.


To learn more about Principle 4, Go Deep, Wide and Inside Out and the strategies you can develop to embed DEI into the processes, policies and structures throughout your organizations, click hereto buy your copy of my book Leading Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

In the midst of the great resignation, when record numbers of people are leaving their jobs, organizations simply cannot afford to lose their Asian talent. I believe corporate leadership’s success in utilizing the skills and intelligence of all talent, including AAPIs talent, will play a huge role in determining who’s still standing 40 years from now.

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A time sensitive request

I would be very grateful if you would nominate my book, Leading Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, for Thinkers50. Those who have already done so, they tell me it only takes 2 minutes. The process is simple, but you must submit your recommendation by 6 pm EST on May 8, 2022.

You will be asked just one question: Why are you recommending this book?

The criteria: books that have had a lasting influence on the way we think about and practice business and management, and which still have something to teach us today. To make it easy for you, I have shared some content here that you can draw on for inspiration as to why you are recommending the book.

Learn from My Experience

Live Q&A | May 26th @ 10am EST

I'm excited that on Thursday May 26, 2022 @ 10am EST I will be hosting my 6th Learn from My Experience session, a 1 hour live virtual Q&A session facilitated by Laura Shipler Chico, an actress and facilitator based in London.

In this Learn from my Experience webinar, I look forward to responding to your questions on addressing resistance to progress in DEI and sharing examples from my lived experience. To register and submit a question for this session, please click on the link below.

Please do share the link with colleagues and friends who may be interested in joining and learning more about Global DEI.


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