Bamboo ceiling

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The term "bamboo ceiling" was coined by Jane Hyun in her book focusing on Asians in the workplace, Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians.[1] It is defined as a combination of individual, cultural, and organisational factors that impede Asian Americans’ career progress inside organizations. Since then, a variety of sectors (including nonprofits, universities, the government) have discussed the impact of the ceiling as it relates to Asians and the challenges they face. As described by Anne Fisher, "bamboo ceiling" refers to the processes and barriers that serve to exclude Asians and American people of Asian descent from executive positions on the basis of subjective factors such as "lack of leadership potential" and "lack of communication skills" that cannot actually be explained by job performance or qualifications.[2] Articles regarding the subject have been written in Crains, Fortune magazine, and The Atlantic.[3][4][5]

The term is a derivative of the glass ceiling, which refers to the more gendered metaphor used to describe invisible barriers through which women and minorities can see managerial positions, but cannot reach them.

Based on publicly available government statistics, Asian Americans have the lowest chance of rising to management when compared with Blacks, Hispanics and Women in spite of having the highest educational attainment. When it came to in terms of adding gender into the evaluation of the Bamboo ceiling it was revealed that Asian American men faced higher rates of promotion discrimination than Asian American women, while Asian American women faced a pay equity discrimination in comparison to payment with Asian American men.[6][7][8][9][10][11][12][13]

The bamboo ceiling in the United States[edit]

Underrepresentation of Asian Americans[edit]

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination on the basis of race. However, covert forms of racism persist in the workforce. The Census Bureau reports that Asian Americans have the highest education levels of any racial category in the United States. Of Asian Americans, 52.4% are college graduates, while the national average is 29.9%.[14]

  • The Asian American population in 2000 accounted for about 4.8% of the U.S. population,[15] but only 0.3% of corporate office populations.[16]
  • In New York, Asian Americans have the highest number of associates at top New York law firms, yet the lowest conversion rate to partner.[17]
  • Even in fields where Asian Americans are highly represented, such as the Silicon Valley software industry, they comprise a disproportionately small percentage of upper management and board positions.[2] Statistics show that despite one-third of all software engineers in the Silicon Valley being Asian, they make up only 6% of board members and 10% of corporate officers of the Bay Area's 25 largest companies.
  • At the National Institutes of Health, where 21.5% of scientists are Asians, they make up only 4.7% of the lab and branch directors.[18]
  • According to a study of the 25 largest Bay Area companies 12 had no Asian board members, and five had no Asian corporate officers.[19]
  • While Asian Americans make up 5% of the US population in 2008, only eight of the 867 (less than 1%) Article III Federal judges are Asian Americans.[20][21] Between 2009-2010, President Obama had nominated eight Asian Americans to a seat on the U.S. District Court, four women and four men.[22][23][24][25] Six of the nominations have been confirmed by the Senate except for the nominations of two of the men Edward Chen and Goodwin Liu; while all the women were confirmed.

The bamboo ceiling in the United States is a subtle and complex form of discrimination, and the umbrella term "Asian American" extends to include a number of diverse groups, including South Asians, East Asians, and Southeast Asians. These groups are often subject to "model minority" stereotypes, and viewed as quiet, hardworking, family-oriented, high achieving in math and science, passive, nonconfrontational, submissive, and antisocial.[26] In the workforce, some of these perceptions may seem positive in the short-term, but in the long-term they impede progression up the corporate and academic ladders.

While Asian Americans are often viewed as a "model minority" race, many feel that they are an invisible or "forgotten minority," despite being one of the fastest growing groups in the country.[27] Because they are generally considered ineligible for many of the minority rights of under-represented races, and Asian Americans have been shown to be less likely to report incidents of racial discrimination in the workplace, although there are far fewer institutional avenues and programs for them to combat these labels and perceptions.[28]

Causes and effects[edit]

Some analysts attribute the racial disparity in administrative capacities to negative extensions of the aforementioned stereotypes of Asian Americans, such as common assumptions that they are "lacking in leadership skills" or that they have "poor communication abilities."[29] Asian Americans are also sometimes expected to have higher qualifications than their white counterparts, such as graduating from more prestigious universities, to achieve the same positions in American companies.[16][29]

Many of these stereotypes and expectations have a basis in cultural misunderstandings. Some Asian Americans claim that they are raised with culture-specific values that affect perceptions of their workplace behaviour. For example, some report being taught from an early age to be self-effacing, reticent, respectful, and deferential towards authority.[2][29] These values do not translate well into the American workplace, where Asian Americans are sometimes perceived as aloof, arrogant, and inattentive.[2] As a result, Asian Americans are less likely to be seen as having qualities that appeal to American employers, such as leadership, charisma, creativity, and risk-taking, and are often passed over for promotions in spite of satisfactory job performance. Asian Americans are also less likely to aggressively network, self-promote, and speak up at work meetings with concern and ideas when compared to their coworkers.[2]

Others indicate that physical characteristics are a factor. Studies have shown that taller individuals tend to be promoted and earn more money than shorter individuals, and the average Asian American height is shorter than the national average. Some also report that Asian facial characteristics are unconsciously perceived as less expressive, less engaged, uninterested, and untrustworthy. These factors, combined with the common stereotypes and portrayals of Asian Americans as "nerds" and "geeks", with high intelligence as well as high math and or science aptitude(s), creates an image of Asian males in particular as "short, not good-looking, socially inept, sexually null."[29] Furthermore, even Asian Americans born and or raised in the United States are sometimes assumed to be less English-proficient on the basis of their appearance as "perpetual foreigners."

Another factor may be an existing lack of connections and Asian Americans role models in upper management and in politics. Until relatively recently with the Civil Rights Movement, a large number of individuals of Asian descent had few political and social rights, or were denied rights of citizenship by naturalisation. While many Asian Americans are active in political life and government positions today, their representation is still disproportionately small, and there remain unofficial barriers to political access.[30]

A survey that was taken revealed that while 83% of Asian Americans felt loyal to their jobs, but only 49% felt as though they belonged in the American workforce.[31] According to researchers that study diversity and talent management said that 25% or 1 out of 4 Asians said "they had felt workplace discrimination because of their ethnicity."[32] Asian American men, more than any other demographic, said they felt stalled in their careers and were more likely to quit their current jobs to search for advancement elsewhere[33] and revealed in another survey done by researchers that 66% of Asian American men and between 44-50% of Asian American women said they felt their careers had stalled showing that not only do Asians face large amounts of widespread workplace discrimination in general, but that Asian American men are discriminated against more by a wide margin revealing a great gender disparity.[34]

In comparison, to Asian American men articles revealed that estimated on average Asian American women earned 27-40% less than Asian American men in terms of payment, if the latter is proven to be true the gender gap in terms of payment between Asian men and women is the highest of any racial group.[12][13]

Sticky floor[edit]

Another commonly cited barrier, complementary to the bamboo ceiling, is the "sticky floor." When applied to the Asian American experience, the sticky floor refers to the phenomenon by which young professionals of Asian descent are often trapped in low-level, low-mobility jobs.[28] Asian Americans graduate from universities in high numbers, and firms tend to hire them in high numbers as well. However, within a few years, many claim to find themselves pigeonholed into dead-end careers with no path for advancement to upper-level corporate careers.[29] This process is visible across a number of fields, including business,[2] academia,[26] and law.[29] Even in areas where Asian Americans are believed to excel, such as software engineering, there is an overall tendency to see them assigned to low-ranking positions with fewer opportunities for advancement compared to other racial groups.


A psychological experiment was done by two researchers on the Bamboo Ceiling and their findings revealed that East Asians who do not conform to racial stereotypes of Asians and possessing qualities such as assertiveness, dominance, and leadership skills are less likely to be popular in the workplace with one of the researchers even stating that "In general, people do not want dominant co-workers, but they really do not want to work with a dominant East-Asian co-worker."[35][36]

Contrary to popular beliefs, Asian Americans do openly ask for the professional rewards they feel that they deserve, but despite their overwhelming desire to climb higher on the corporate ladder as well as the American workforce in general, Asians hit barriers that prevent them from doing so.[37]

Breaking the bamboo ceiling[edit]

The bamboo ceiling is a socially recognized phenomenon, and a number of different methods have been proposed to help address the issue. Some people have suggested that Asian Americans make stronger attempts to overcome negative stereotypes through "self-awareness."[16] This involves going out of one’s way to network and interact with others, making oneself visible by taking pride in and credit for one’s work, and commanding leadership roles and proposing new ideas in the workplace.[2][16] Some companies also have leadership programs designed for Asian Americans to cultivate skills and to help translate values across cultures.

Other forms of Asian American underrepresentation in American society[edit]

Media underrepresentation[edit]

Despite making up over 5% of the U.S. population, Asian Americans accounted for less than 2% of people and characters shown on television.[38][39][40][41] Even when the media represent areas of the U.S. with large Asian American populations, Asian Americans are rarely represented.[42][43]

Sports underrepresentation[edit]

In the United States, Asians, particularly people of East Asian descent, are stereotyped as being physically and athletically inferior to other races.[44][45] This has led to much discrimination in the recruitment process of professional American sports where Asian American athletes are now highly underrepresented.[46][47][48][49][50] In 2012, despite making up 6% of the nation's population, Asian American athletes only represented 2% of the NFL, 1.9% of the MLB, and less than 1% of the NBA.[45]

Basketball is a sport noted for its low number of Asian athletes, despite the fact that the sport's color barrier was broken by an Asian American named Wataru Misaka athlete in 1947. Misaka was the first person of color to play in the NBA.[51] The Utah native played for the New York Knicks.

In American sports, there are and has been a higher representation of Asian American athletes who are of mixed racial heritage in comparison to those of full racial heritage. For instance, former football player Roman Gabriel was the first Asian-American to start as an NFL quarterback and was only of half East Asian descent (Filipino).

Notably, the majority of Asian American athletes who are currently recruited or drafted to compete professionally tend to be in sports that require little to no physical contact.[45]

Political underrepresentation[edit]

Asian Americans in 2012, made up 2% of congressional population. However, at that time they represented 5.8% of the total population in the United States.[52] To be proportionate to population size, there would have to be 31 Asian Americans in Congress.[53]

Underrepresentation in business[edit]

As of 2011, only 1.5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are Asian, although they comprised 5% of the total United States population.[54]

See also[edit]


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  2. ^ a b c d e f g Anne Fisher (8 August 2005). "Piercing the 'Bamboo Ceiling'". CNN. Retrieved 14 June 2012. 
  3. ^ Anne Fisher (18 November 2011). "Training executives to think globally". Crain's New York Business. Retrieved 14 June 2012. 
  4. ^ Anne Fisher (7 October 2011). "Is there a 'bamboo ceiling' at U.S. companies?". Fortune Magazine. Retrieved 14 June 2012. 
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  10. ^ "Glass Ceilings: The Status of Women as Officials and Managers in the Private Sector. Introduction: End of second paragraph". The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Retrieved 2009-09-07.
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  12. ^ a b Retrieved 2014-01-01.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  13. ^ a b Retrieved 2014-01-01.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
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  15. ^ "Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin: 2010" (PDF). 
  16. ^ a b c d Hyun, Jane. Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians. New York: HarperBusiness, 2005. Print.
  17. ^ Hechler, David (22 April 2011). "NAPABA Helps Asian-American Lawyers Beat Stereotypes While Expanding Skills". The Legal Intelligencer. Retrieved 11 December 2012. 
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  23. ^ "Presidential Nominations Sent to the Senate, 4/21/10". (21 April 2010). The White House.
  24. ^ "President Obama Nominates Goodwin Liu for the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Judge Robert N. Chatigny for the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit". (24 February 2010). The White House.
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  30. ^ Lee, Jonathan H. X., and Kathleen M. Nadeau. Encyclopedia of Asian American Folklore and Folklife. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011. Print. Page 226-7.
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  37. ^ Diane Stafford (24 July 2011). "Asians Noticeably Absent as Leaders of Top U.S. Companies". The Ledger. Retrieved 21 January 2013. 
  38. ^ [1] The Portrayal of Racial Minorities on Prime Time Television 101 Prime Time Television: A Replication of the Mastro and Greenberg Study a Decade Later Retrieved 2013-28-12.
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  41. ^ (PDF)  Missing or empty |title= (help)
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  54. ^ Sylvia Ann Hewlett (28 July 2011). "Asians in America: What's Holding Back the "Model Minority?"". Forbes. Retrieved 19 February 2013.