Community//

Why Asian Americans Need to Stop Focusing on Breaking Through the Bamboo Ceiling

After a lifetime of expectations, will this be our final ceiling?

East Asian Americans (whose parents migrated to the US in the 70s) graduate from high school, attend elite colleges, enjoy financial freedom, and possess more buying power than the majority population. [1] We own homes, find good jobs, drive fancy cars and raise talented children. Yet in the last year, my conversations with many accomplished Asian American professionals, revealed that many of us secretly feel unsuccessful, inferior and altogether unaccomplished in our careers … a sentiment that far too many recent articles and research reports support.

In 2017, Bloomberg Businessweek reported findings of New York banks, stating that “Goldman Sachs reported that 27% of its U.S. professional workforce was Asian American, but only 11% of its U.S. executives and senior managers, and none of its executive officers, were.”

The Ascend Foundation, a pan-Asian organization, found that while over 20% of the associates in many of the larger accounting firms were Asian American, very few were being promoted to the partner level. The shocking statistics spill over into the public section with Asian Americans representing 9.8% of the federal professional workforce in 2016, though only 4.4% of the workforce at the highest federal level. It goes on to report that Asian American women are the least likely group to be promoted. [2]

How can there be this discrepancy despite our lifetime of achievements?

Reading these statistics leaves us feeling like we can rationalize our self-doubt and lack of confidence. It gives us a false sense of having found a cause and a cure. What we read into these points is a belief that breaking through to the C-suite will finally grant us the success we desire.

Without meeting that expectation, I’m left to feel as though something is lacking. But in reality, I’ve been meeting others’ expectations my entire life, and it hasn’t made me feel successful yet … so why would things be any different now?

Immersed in the cultural norms of filial piety, academic achievement and emotional restraint, I grew up with the expectations to:

  • Be a doctor.

  • Obey my parents and elders.

  • Subjugate my true desire to that of my community to save face.

  • Be a doctor.

  • Stuff my emotions for the sake of harmony.

  • Work hard and excel in school.

  • Be a doctor.

  • Make decisions that my parents have already decided for me.

In the face of this, I delivered: I got a 4.0 GPA, attended Stanford, ignored my emotions, studied pre-med, took the GMAT, gave my grandfather not 1 but 3 grandsons… With each achievement I silently wondered, Are you proud of me yet? Though the real question was: Am I proud of myself yet?

It seems incredibly unjust that mid-career Asian American women who have met every expectation we were given … scratch that, we overachieved (my GPA was actually a 4.8) … are constantly being told that we have further to go.

They’re not proud of us yet. We’re not enough yet.

What is the Real Problem?

In 2005, Jane Hyun coined the term “Bamboo Ceiling” – the invisible barrier that keeps us out of the C-level suite, opening the door to Bamboo Ceiling discussions at every leadership conference. We think the solution to our elusive need for success, accomplishment and worth is to break through the Bamboo Ceiling … though this is NOT the right conversation. Chasing never-ending expectations only perpetuate our low self-worth, and keeps the attention on our individual success (that is always out of reach).

The perceived ceiling is simply a reflection of our own lack of 

confidence.

Is that how we want to live? Remaining suppressed by a perpetual set of ceilings?

Breaking through another ceiling won’t make us finally feel “enough.” It will not magically transform us into true leaders or improve our self-worth. We already know this achievement-oriented pattern all too well.

What is the answer to Asian Americans getting promoted as leaders?

The RIGHT conversation is acknowledging our priorities and expectations were given to us, and how this has influenced our confidence and leadership potential.

I am where I am in my career because, as a child, I was taught to set a goal and meet it. Be #1, study math, ace exams, ditch sleepovers. I delivered. These trainings created within me the focus and tenacity I have today — two valuable traits that help me forge ahead in my business and life.

In our quest for academic and career success, we’ve gained skills that are transferable beyond our individual success, allowing us to grow in our leadership capacity in all facets of life … that is, once we have the right principles to transform them.

Leadership is not a list of skills that can be attained in a 3-day seminar, but rather the attitude of caring about others – making other people feel heard, valued, and supported through empathy and understanding. If we can begin with this principle alone, we’re well on our way to transferring our existing skills.

Though here’s the catch: None of us truly have the capacity to coach and lead others until we learn to hear, value and support ourselves — skills that are not usually emphasized in Asian American households. No one taught us how to support or encourage ourselves and to discover our worth. Most of us coped with low self-worth by trying to achieve more … though that never seemed to result in the confidence we desired.

Learning the value of self-confidence will free us to truly exhibit

 our innate leadership qualities.

Here are the steps to find lead with confidence, in your journey on a successful career.

  1. Reframing Shame stemming from Filial Piety: Change self-criticism to compassion. Ask yourself, “How can I support myself in getting to this new level?” instead of “Why am I still stuck here?” Understand that perfection is a myth and a trap that keeps us forever unsatisfied.

  2. Reframing Achievement: Change competition orientation to creating value. Focus on creating value through what you can uniquely offer vs. competing with others to get ahead. Shift your focus to place the greatest value on who you are, not in what you do.

  3. Reframing Emotional Restraint: Change constraint to connection. Connect to your real desires and goals — ask yourself what YOU want in life/your career.

When you take ownership of your leadership design in the above steps, you free yourself to:

  1. Focus on giving to others, not getting from them. Flip the power switch. Instead of seeking approval and recognition, give to others from a position of already having approval and self-respect. Instead of looking for others to give you a sense of worth, know that giving to them from the place of your unique value IS ENOUGH.

If we no longer want to tolerate the number of negative labels and representations given to us as Asian Americans, what really matters is knowing that we are enough – enough to be a leader, enough to make our own choices in life and enough to be proud of ourselves. That is the foundation for authentic success.

Personally, I want to know that what I have already created in my life is a lot to be proud of. I also want to have the freedom to decide if becoming a C-level exec (not a doctor) is what is best for me.

The last thing I need is another expectation that I can’t meet or a ceiling I can’t break through, because I’ve already been there and done that.


[1] “Asian Americans: Digital Lives and Growing Influence,”

Nielsen report

[2] “The Illusion of Asian Success,” Ascend Foundation http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.ascendleadership.org/resource/resmgr/research/TheIllusionofAsianSuccess.pdfu

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres. We publish pieces written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Learn more or join us as a community member!
Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.