Asians Face ‘Bamboo Ceiling’


By By Pamela Babcock July 5, 2012

NEW YORK—The “model minority myth”—which suggests that Asian-Americans succeed at everything they set out to do—is inaccurate, experts said recently, because it fails to take into account diversity, individual needs and potential challenges faced by individual employees.

“Understanding Asian-Americans is really about understanding that they’re not this one monolithic group,” Vincent A. Eng, CEO of Veng Group, a Washington, D.C., public affairs and government relations firm, told attendees at the Asia Society’s 2012 Diversity Leadership Forum in June.

While many Asian-Americans have done very well for themselves and are role models for others, Eng said the myth “really hurts us because there are certainly groups that aren’t doing well.”

Asian-Americans are often lumped into one demographic group, but members of this population are incredibly diverse, Eng noted. There are more than 20 Asian ethnicities in the U.S. and a long list of countries of ancestry.

Stereotypes and perceptions can affect career mobility and success. Eng said it pays to understand Asian-Americans and their cultural values to ensure they aren’t overlooked for promotions—an experience often referred to as hitting a “bamboo ceiling.”

Many Ways to Identify

Asian-Americans are the fasting-growing racial group in America and account for about 5.6 percent (17.3 million people) of the U.S. population, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

Moreover, they come from all walks of life. “Some of us are doctors, some of us lawyers,” said Eng, a lecturer at Columbia Law School who has worked to promote Asian civil rights. But, he added: “Some of us are restaurant owners [and] some of us work in nail salons.” Likewise, Asian-Americans encompass individuals from a number of different countries such as Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam.

They can identify in a range of ways, such as third-generation Asian-American, immigrant, international student or American-born Asian. In the U.S., about 60 percent of Asian-Americans are foreign born, Eng said. Language barriers are a problem for some: one in three Asians in the U.S. has limited English proficiency, he added.

Moreover, there are educational gaps. Not every Asian-American goes to Harvard or Yale; more than half go to community colleges, Eng said. Many Asian-Americans, particularly Chinese- and Japanese-Americans, “have done very well” economically, he said, while others have the lowest per capita income of any ethnic group. Meanwhile, some Southeast Asian groups have “incredibly high unemployment” when compared to the national average, he added.

Accepting Asian Identity

An Asian-American’s identity is tied to a number of factors. Eng grew up in a generation in which many youth shunned their identity. He avoided Chinese School and cringed when his grandparents spoke Chinese, fearing that the people down the street would notice “that I was related to them.” He shunned Asian friends until after high school.

But Eng said that as he evolved and got a better sense of his strengths, weaknesses and how to succeed in the workplace, he was able to embrace his identity. He realized that he “didn’t need to be ‘white’ to add value to the workplace. … I can add value as an Asian-American.”

Exploring Stereotypes About Asians

During the session, panelists spoke about stereotypical traits some Asians face:

  • They’re not good at networking. It’s important to network to “get your story out,” observed Aijaz “Jazz” Tobaccowalla, senior vice president of worldwide biopharmaceutical businesses & diversified businesses for Pfizer. Tobaccowalla, a native of India who came to the U.S. for college, encouraged Asian-Americans to join their company’s Asian-American affinity or employee resource group. Pfizer’s group is focused around getting “connected,” he said. “That’s a big thing we want to push for the Asian employees.”
  • They’re humble and don’t like to take credit. Asians are generally brought up to be modest about accomplishments. But it’s difficult to get rewarded when one’s supervisor or senior leaders don’t know what you’re doing. Rajan Vig, managing director of risk, finance and corporate systems IT for Credit Suisse, said there’s a fine line between “blowing your own horn” and communicating what you’re doing and how it aligns with the organization’s overall global strategy. Mentors and sponsors play a key role.
  • They avert their eyes. In Asian culture, averting one’s eyes when speaking to a superior is a sign of respect. In mainstream America, it can be seen as not paying attention or worse, Eng noted. Growing up in India, Tobaccowalla said his eyes “would go straight down” when his father raised his voice. But today, Tobaccowalla said his 12-year-old son will look him directly in the eye as “a way of saying I’m actually listening to you.”

Next Generation

Vignoted that given the explosive growth in China and India, “the young guys straight out of college,” are very confident and don’t hesitate to ask how they can become a managing director. Many join affinity groups “to prove themselves.”

“They’re very well-spoken and they get connected very quickly,” Vig said. That’s not the case with the older generations. “They’re not taking charge of their careers,” he said of older Asians, and have the philosophy that, “if I sit back and I work hard … my manager is going to take care of me,” Vig said.

Other Takeaways

Asian-American financial services executives reflected on stereotypes they faced during the opening plenary session of the conference.

Ida Liu, managing director and head of North America Asian clients group for Citi Private Bank, said that, in general, Asians are very much individual contributors and that the ability to transition from an individual performer to a team environment “can prove to be somewhat challenging.”

Michelle Scales, director of diverse segments for Wells Fargo, said when Asians adapt and assimilate, it’s important for them to retain their cultural identity. Those who become more assertive and demonstrate common American leadership traits might find themselves typecast.

“If you’re a woman, it’s the ‘Dragon Lady’ or the ‘Tiger Lady.’ I’m from Pakistan so the animals change,” Scales explained. “But you don’t want to get labeled. … I think there’s a very fine balance.”

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

Related Articles:

Asian Millennials Seek Challenges and Autonomy, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, June 2012

Asian Employees Seek Development, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, June 2012

Are Your Asian Employees Underutilized? SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, December 2010

The Forgotten Minority, HR Magazine, July 2007

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