The Bamboo Ceiling | 4 Key Problems Asian Immigrants Face at Work

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In this piece, I’m going to discuss four important problems that Asian immigrants frequently encounter, in what we call: the bamboo ceiling. 

The bamboo ceiling is the broad spectrum of challenges that Asians face in the West, personally and professionally - and how these things interact with one another. Let’s take a look. 

#1: Quantitative Data on the Bamboo Ceiling

Here are some statistics that really demonstrate what the bamboo ceiling can mean for Asians.

Asian Americans are 12% of the professional workforce while accounting for roughly 5.6% of the US population. In research by Buck Gee and Denise Peck, they call it the Illusion of Asian success:” Asian Americans are the least likely racial group to be promoted into Silicon Valley's management and executive levels, despite being the most likely to be hired into highly technical positions. These findings continue across white-collar jobs across the U.S. for management roles. Asian Americans are represented less than any other community, including Black and Latino communities.

In comparison, white professionals are roughly twice as likely to be promoted as their Asian American counterparts. If we look specifically at a typical New York bank, Goldman Sachs reported 27% of its U.S. professional workforce was Asian American, but only 11% of its U.S. executives and senior managers were Asian. In the federal sector, Asian Americans were 9.8% of the workforce in 2016, but only 4.4% of the workforce at the highest federal levels. Essentially, what we see is a trend of Asian Americans that over-represent the community in terms of jobs; while simultaneously, they are massively underrepresented in the leadership levels. Jane Hyun has written about this previously in her book Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling and more recently, Sociologist Margaret Chin has conducted research on this exact problem in her book Stuck.

#2: Qualitative Data on the Bamboo Ceiling: Bias and the Brain

So how did the bamboo ceiling get here? It turns out that neuroscience can offer us some answers. We know from the work of Daniel Kahneman that for the human mind, there are two systems of thought: one is the fast brain, and the other, the slow brain.

The basic premise is that the fast brain (in our amygdala) constitutes our swift, gut reaction to things, and it is where our biases reveal themselves. When your brain wants an instant decision - for example, a car collision situation - you’ll need an instant response on what to do. When danger is present, your fast brain triggers a fight or flight mechanism...and that half-second may well save your life. 

The other system - the slow brain, is located in our prefrontal cortex. It is a center for logic, conditioned by culture; and when our gut instinct tells us something is dangerous, the slow brain helps us take a moment to discern whether it is truly dangerous or not, such as a roller coaster ride. The slow brain allows us to recalibrate our gut response for a more logical approach, one better suited to your situation. 

How does this relate to the bamboo ceiling? Our fast brain functions as an implicit bias system. When we look at the research of Virginia Valian, a psycholinguist, cognitive scientist, and agenda theorist for the workplace, she notes there are many implicit biases in place for Asians. Several of those implicit biases you’ll likely recognize: Asians are good at math but have poor social skills, Asian men are considered feminine or don’t project confidence, Asian women are considered submissive, Asians as skilled with technology, Asians are mechanical and memorize everything but cannot think creatively, etc.

The most popular implicit bias test out there is Harvard’s Implicit Association Test (IAT) which you can take for free. However, something the test creators communicate is that holding implicit biases offers no prediction for your behavior in connection with those biases.


In other words, the fact that an implicit bias exists does not mean you will discriminate against particular communities. Your slow brain kicks in and reminds us, “Hey - let’s not be racist.” However, it's important to note that the use of the slow brain can also be taxing on the body, which means if a person is tired, or there’s alcohol involved, etc., implicit biases may manifest in terms of discriminatory action. 

When implicit bias does rear its ugly head at work, it can place Asian men in a lose-lose situation. A performance review might state that you don't speak up, while another evaluation may state that you are too aggressive. What is assertive in a man becomes aggressive in a woman, and what is assertive for a white or a Black man, similarly becomes “overboard” for an Asian man. Asian women frequently experience similar double standards, too. What is construed as aggressive for an Asian man, becomes shrill and over-the-top for an Asian woman.

There are a host of sociological and historical reasons for these stereotypes. It doesn't help that, as Christopher Frayling’s The Yellow Peril: Dr. Fu Manchu and the Rise of Chinaphobia points out, a stereotype of Asian men was introduced to the West hundreds of years ago. And even today, K-Pop stars tend to be more effeminate than their Western counterparts, utilizing the use of make-up and further normalizing Korean male consumption. A historical component of this narrative is that the traditional success of a man in Confucian society derived from studying hard for civil service examinations, and ultimately finding financial success as a government official. Meanwhile, in the West, a traditional marker of masculinity looks like Conan the Barbarian. In short, there are a lot of social and cultural underpinnings at work. 

Book cover from Amazon

These kinds of expectations also apply to Asian women, in tandem with fetishization, and have frequently been reinforced by Western post-war experiences in Vietnam, China, the Philippines, Taiwan, and South Korea. Western countries that enacted containment measures to prevent the expansion of Communist China or communist Russia had military bases. Those bases were filled with lonely white men who sought company - and found it frequently in the pleasure quarters. 

In those places, women had to be submissive as a matter of business. These perspectives and practices developed a fetishization around a false image of how an Asian woman behaves. In 2013, it was reported that Asian women were the highest search category for all men on dating apps (and yes - white men were also at the top of that list). Ultimately, these kinds of historically-rooted, sociological perceptions create implicit biases around Asian men and women and become the challenges they face on a daily basis.

#3: The Impact of Cultural Blind Spots

Let’s get more specific: Asian Americans tend to fall into one of two groups. The first group is first-generation migrants, meaning they are not born in America and have immigrated here as working adults. The second group consists of Asian Americans 1.5, or second-generation, meaning those born in the West, or who moved to the West at a very young age. This group speaks fluent English, and they are culturally indistinguishable from Americans.  I'll tackle the 1.5 to second-generation more in-depth in the next blog so stay tuned!

With the first generation, they have signed what sociologist Vivian Louie calls the “immigrant bargain,” and they will nearly always take a status hit as a result. For context, I have friends who are leaving Hong Kong right now for a variety of reasons; but a major reason why they don't want to leave is that they don't want to make the immigrant bargain.

An example: I have a friend who is raking in 200k annually at a bank in Hong Kong, and he was looking for an equivalent position at Scotiabank in Toronto, ON. He anticipated the average pay bracket for this position to look similar to his current salary. However, the top pay bracket for this position showed 120k, and nothing beyond. There is always a price to pay, whether in terms of earnings or in the realities of a status hit. 

Another challenge is that first-generation immigrants lack social capital. For social capital, there is an already-established power structure in the West: the old boy networks. In penetrating those networks as an Asian American, there's a lack of role models. A lack of role models means it’s hard to find someone who can teach you how to navigate these social landscapes.

Even when role models exist, some might be hesitant to promote their co-ethnics, for fear it might be read as biased. A lot of immigrants, particularly Asian immigrants, become boxed into ethnic communities and ethnic enclaves. The way to break out and join the primary labor market is to learn how to leverage weaker ties, and not rely on your strongest connections in a job market where networking is so crucial. 

Cultural capital comprises a common struggle of first-generation Asian Americans, too. There is a mismatch, in terms of what first-generation immigrants see as desirable in an employee, versus what the West sees as desirable. A major obstacle is understanding cultural signals, particularly when immigrants first arrive. For example, there's the Duchenne smile: it is a big smile, so much so that your eyes crinkle in the corners. In the West, the Duchenne smile is seen as genuine, heartfelt, and sincere. 

Image Source: Wellcome

However, this perception is not universal. In countries where trust may be lacking (or simply just a matter of cultural practice in some countries in Asia), the Duchenne smile can be perceived as disingenuous, dumb, or even untrustworthy. For people meeting each other in various parts of Asia, it’s common not to smile, because of the desire to exude a sense of confidence and trustworthiness.

There are other common misperceptions that live in body language; for example, the head bobble is universal in India, almost like a reflex. In the West, bobbing your head will get lost in cultural translation. So this is a learning curve for first-generation immigrants, and for someone who is not focused on acquiring this kind of cultural capital, it can become their Achilles heel - preventing promotions or other ascendance on the leadership ladder. 

Cultural differences can also reveal themselves in introverted and extroverted behaviors. In Susan Cain’s New York Times Bestseller Quiet, she discussed how the Chinese education system encourages students who are quiet, reliable, and solid to become leaders. Class leaders are typically introverted, appear quiet, reliable, and are getting things done. Even when you look at leaders in China, many of them present as very austere. Meanwhile, in the West, a lot of leaders exude charisma, like Obama and Trump; very different branding from Xi Jinping.

Personality traits, like introversion or extroversion, live in different value systems, depending on where one is raised. Therefore, it becomes really hard for first-generation immigrants to navigate these biases and associations around behavior. For Asian Americans, the deeply-rooted behavioral systems which promoted them socially and professionally in their home country often must be abandoned to learn an entirely new system. 

A lot of first-generation immigrants will consider pursuing more education because that is what’s taught in the East. The prevailing notion is that the more education you have, the more prepared you are. However, the reality is that employers use soft skills to measure leadership in the West. The reason soft skills are so important is that the higher you go, the more important trust becomes.

When there’s a large talent pool, the leader who has more soft skills and can inspire more trust will be promoted. This is where implicit biases come into play. A lot of Asian immigrants end up in the predicament of being overeducated and underemployed. They can fail to maximize their labor market participation, which is when your education qualifies you as manager-level, but you work in a junior position or stuck in a technical role. 

#4: Economics and the Job Market

Research from Professor Reza Hasmath addresses the ethnic penalty in Canada; and there are many similarities with the U.S. A brief summary: non-Caucasian groups average 25% less income than their Caucasian counterparts. That spread increases to almost 40%, once they hit their 40s and 50s. And if the immigrant is female... it’s even worse.

More recently, efforts have been made toward assisting new immigrants with language, and helping workers get their foot in the door. These are frequently government or nonprofit initiatives. But little has been done in helping Asian immigrants with career advancement; and it is a situation growing ever more precarious, with job trends moving toward temporary or contract-based positions in general. 

Hasmath’s research cited the FDA’s finding that the top minority executives in mainstream companies were superstars, for their relentless hard work and performance. For those who are top performers, they're seen as the exception, and not the rule - but the truth is, those employees are there because they’re clocking 80 to 100 hour work weeks and sacrificing everything for the company. 

The bottom line is, the bamboo ceiling exists due to the low social trust between the dominant majority group, and the Asian American minority group. It's a difficult ceiling for Asian Americans to crack, because of biases and structural elements which privilege those born and raised in the dominant culture. For first-generation Asian American immigrants, the immigrant bargain is a tough one to pay.

As mentioned previously, second-generation Asian Americans also face their own bamboo ceiling. That will be the topic of my next blog. Stay tuned! 

And, if you’re interested in watching my video series on the bamboo ceiling for immigrants, and more on the bamboo ceiling, please visit my YouTube channel by clicking below:   

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