The Bamboo Ceiling – The Barriers As We Become Professionals

The Media’s Effect on the Model Minority

Think Sandra Oh, the logical and ambitious doctor in Grey’s Anatomy or B.D. Wong, the very knowledgeable forensic psychiatrist in Law & Order, or even Mason Lee, the prodigy son in The Hangover II. All these actors played the role of a highly intelligent, calm, timid, and piano playing Asian American in their shows. In the twentieth century as portrayed in the media, Asian Americans are considered the model minority. Unfortunately, these stereotypes have created a social expectation that has translated into the workplace setting and even our daily lives.  As the Model Minority, we are expected to have the highest education and be “geniuses.”

The Bamboo Ceiling

Bamboo CeilingAsian Americans make up a majority of the Business and Technology workforce yet they only make up a small percentage of the Management level positions in the sectors. This has become an underlying problem that remains invisible to many Caucasians. This barrier that Asian Americans face in the workforce especially the business and technology sector is called “The Bamboo Ceiling.” According to Fortune magazine, a study done in July 2011 by the Center of Work Life Policy (CWLP) concluded that 5% of U.S. residents identify themselves as Asian American yet they hold fewer than 2% of executive positions in the Fortune 500. Although the study was conducted in 2011, we can’t expect there to be significant changes in the short span of 4 years.

What is the problem?

A PlusAccording to an article written by Daniel Tsoy, 50% of Asian Americans are college educated compared to the rest of the U.S. at 28% so what is the problem here? Why aren’t Asian Americans rising in the corporate ranks? As I see it, one of the major problems we face is the cultural values that we are taught growing up. We are taught to be humble and that silence is “golden.” but in the United State’s workplace, these values are self destructive. I’m not saying that we need to rid ourselves of the values that we are taught but we need to work harder and become more confident. I was taught that being loud and open is inappropriate and that I should always be humble. Similarly to many of you Asian American readers of my blog, I have also been taught these values. During my first co-op search, I went through over fifteen interviews but I didn’t get hired until much later on. My GPA as well as my experiences were on par with other applicants but because of this, they had the advantage. I would even consider this period of time one of the most stressful times of my life so far. Although this may not be the same exact thing as asking for a promotion or a raise, I can draw parallels between these two events and have faced the barrier of the bamboo ceiling.

Hopefully, many of you will find the advice I give later helpful as you start your co-op search. Sometimes I find myself falling into this sub-group but there are also many other Asian American business professionals who aren’t shy. In fact, Asian Americans are very ambitious. According to the research by the CWLP, Asian Americans are more likely to ask for a raise or a promotion with 37% reporting that they have asked for a pay raise and 28% reporting that they asked for a promotion. However, they are not getting the raise or promotion and the study concludes that it is a result of the hidden bamboo ceiling.This is a huge problem for Asian Americans in the industry and we need to address this ASAP. If we want to succeed and for our children to have an equal opportunity, we need to get rid of this stereotype and the bamboo ceiling.

Can Confidence & Humbleness coexist?

One thing that I found to be hard to believe is that Confidence and Humbleness are considered polar opposites. I don’t see a problem with being confident while also being humble at the same time. These two traits don’t necessarily have to clash with each other but they can be synergies. If we are to truly succeed in the corporate setting, we need to build on our cultural values and blend it with those of the American leadership model. As Jane Hyun, the CEO of Hyun Associates, a coaching firm and the coiner of the term “The Bamboo Ceiling” once said “The traits that got you to where you are won’t necessarily take you to the next level.” We can’t rely on the skills that got us into the entry-level positions to take us even higher up in the corporate ladder.

Be a leader

Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling

For those of you who are in the business or technology sectors, to break the bamboo ceiling and enter the management level, we have to continuously improve on our leadership skills such as being confident, assertive, and taking the initiative. Along with improving our leadership skills, we also have to self promote and network with other people in our industry. You are not alone when you look for ways to improve yourself. There are many more Asian Americans in the business and technology sector such as myself who are trying to break the bamboo ceiling.

Fear not because there are many organizations out there such as the Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics and Hyun Associates who try to coach Asian American business professional to become leaders. Although I may not have the same level of experience as Hyun does, I do have some experience after going through a co-op search. At Northeastern University, we are very career oriented and I have learned many things on how to be successful in the workplace. I felt like many of these skills and qualities are lacking in Asian Americans because of the way we are raised, but if I had to sum it all up into 5 steps, it would be the following.

Here are my 5 steps to becoming a great leader in the business workplace:

    Smile and build relationships with your coworkers and superiors

Unfortunately, many promotional decisions are based on the relationships between you and your superiors. If your superior is biased and likes you, you have a greater chance of being promoted.

    Be Confident and Assertive – Speak Up in Meetings, it doesn’t hurt to give your opinion

Don’t fit into the stereotype and speak up in meetings. It is a great way for you to build confidence as well as show others that you are competent. More often than not, Asian Americans don’t speak up and they get labeled as the shy one.

    Promote yourself: You can talk about your accomplishments without appearing arrogant

It doesn’t hurt to talk about your accomplishments. Just be honest and humble about it. If people don’t know what you are doing, it isn’t acknowledged as an accomplishment.


I can’t stress this enough. Networking is so important because it allows you to get better opportunities. Networking will get you to where you want to be later in life whether it is finding a job or just asking for help from others. Businesses are built on relationships and they are what hold people together.

    Lead by example – Be respectful, Nobody will want to follow someone who doesn’t do the right thing.

For me, this is the golden rule. What type of leader do you want to be? Be a leader that somebody will want to follow by showing your competence and confidence. Become someone who is respected and treated as a role model in the workplace.

So What Now?

corporate ladderThe point is we can’t change the values that we grew up with and don’t try to do so. Work with what you have right now and build on it to become even better. The corporate workplace is growing more and more globally diverse and your cultural values may add value to the company. As you start your search for co-op and your first job, keep this in mind: We can’t change who we are but we can always improve on the skills to reach the position that we want. Don’t be afraid to show your managers who you are. 85% of the skills needed for a promotion are social skills rather than technical skills. Show the professionals in higher ranking positions that you’re capable of being a quality leader and that the stereotypes they have are false. Last but not least, promote yourself whenever possible and network network network!

Works Cited

Chin, Jean Lau. “Introduction: Special Section on Asian American Leadership.” Asian American Journal of Psychology 4.4 (2013): 235–239. ProQuest. Web. 9 June 2015.

Fisher, Anne. “Is There a ‘Bamboo Ceiling’ at U.S. Companies?.” Fortune Magazine. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 June 2015.

Hewlett, Sylvia Ann. “Asians in America: What’s Holding Back the ‘Model Minority?.’” Forbes. N.p., 28 July 2011. Web. 9 June 2015.

Li, Peggy. “Recent Developments: Hitting the Ceiling: An Examination of Barriers to Success for Asian American Women.” Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice 29.1 (2014): n. pag. Web.

Mundy, Liza. “Cracking the Bamboo Ceiling.” The Atlantic Nov. 2014. The Atlantic. Web. 9 June 2015.

Tsoy, Daniel. “Deconstructing the Bamboo Ceiling.” Asian Fortune. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 June 2015.

Yang, Wesley. “Paper Tigers.” N.p., 8 May 2011. Web. 9 June 2015.


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