Overcoming the Bamboo Ceiling

Participants at Asia Society's second annual Diversity Leadership Forum in New York City on May 17, 2010. (Elsa Ruiz/Asia Society)

By Vishakha N. Desai

Originally published in Huffington Post on July 21, 2010

NEW YORK, July 21, 2010 – Engineers, accountants, and computer programmers—but not CEOs. That's the prevalent image of Asians in American corporate life, and calls are growing to dismantle the so-called "bamboo ceiling" impeding Asian American career advancement once and for all.

Just like the "glass ceiling" from which it takes its name, the "bamboo ceiling" isn't an official barrier or policy but is a perception rooted in reality. Statistics show Asian Pacific Americans are the fastest growing ethnic group with ever-rising purchasing power and—as a group—the most educated employees. Yet, they are still underrepresented in corporate leadership. The number of Asian Pacific Americans who served as chair, vice chair, president, or CEO of a Fortune 500 company last year: seven.

Why is this happening, and what can be done? At Asia Society, we recently commissioned a survey of workers at Fortune 500 companies and found that Asian Pacific Americans overwhelming care about the futures of their companies (88 percent). They also gave high marks to their companies' diversity efforts. Yet just 55 percent said their firms capitalize on the perspectives and talents of their Asian Pacific American workers. What's more, in an age of globalization, less than one-third (31 percent) said their companies encourage employees to pursue careers in Asia—despite language skills, cultural knowledge, and family links.

Another disparity can be seen in the fields where Asian Pacific Americans are employed. Nearly half of survey respondents work in financial- or technology-related departments and, overall, the survey found they are less likely to feel they are able to fully use all of their skill sets or feel they have opportunities for career growth and development.

To a certain extent, career roadblocks are rooted in ethnic stereotypes. Asian Pacific Americans are often depicted as "hardworking," "non-confrontational," or "good at math and science"—stereotypes with positive characteristics, to be sure, but like all stereotypes they can box people in to certain roles and, in turn, can cause people to limit themselves.

This has to stop. In an era where global business opportunities demand fast action and varied perspectives, marshalling the skills of a diverse workforce would seem like a no-brainer—and an area where America offers a competitive advantage.

By easing the way for Asian Pacific Americans to climb the corporate ladder, companies can reward dedication and maximize these workers' contributions to corporate growth at home and abroad—whether through professional skill development, support of employee resource groups, mentoring, or building ties with Asian communities and Asian markets.

Overall, Asians in America are a young population, and our tale is still being written. We are ourselves a diverse group, and we find—over time—that what brings us together is really our common American experience rather than our Asian origins.

Breaking down the bamboo ceiling to allow employees and employers alike to reach their fullest potential must be part of our American story.

Vishakha N. Desai is president of the Asia Society, which recently completed its first Asian Pacific Americans Corporate Survey.