Let’s Eliminate the Bamboo Ceiling
In recent years, it’s become common for organizations to advocate for diversity and inclusion. And that’s a cultural turn for the better.
As part of that growing awareness, it’s imperative to recognize and call attention to the persistent underrepresentation of Asian leaders in corporate environments. Despite general progress toward inclusivity and equal opportunities, Asian Americans encounter unique experiences and challenges in the workplace.
Let me share how my cultural background and experience as an Asian American woman shape how I feel about myself as a leader and fuel the tension I often feel as a minority in the workplace.
Cultural differences can create misperceptions
I grew up in a traditional Chinese household with parents who were first-generation immigrants. During a conversation with my parents about my career goals, they advised me to play it safe, keep my head down, and focus on doing a good job. This surprising guidance stood in stark contrast to my perception of my parents as risk-taking immigrants who overcame myriad challenges coming to the United States.
Looking back at my childhood now, I see how my parents—and our wider Chinese American community—taught me that leadership looks like humility, respect for authority, and doing more work than expected without any recognition.
This image of leadership created some dissonance when I entered professional settings where most of my coworkers were white. I witnessed my coworkers who were more assertive and outspoken receive more recognition, face time with supervisors, and opportunities. I often felt my voice was ignored or forgotten.
It felt like I was at an impasse. Would I still be myself if I tried to act more like my white coworkers? Does leadership need to look a certain way? Do my coworkers even value my opinion? How can I lead while holding true to who I am—to my cultural identity, which has been indelibly shaped by my particular life experiences and perspectives?
Glass ceilings and unconscious bias
As my workplace journey continued, I couldn't help but notice the glaring absence of Asian American leaders. Despite the increasing emphasis on diversity and inclusion, most organizations have a significant lack of Asian American representation at leadership levels.
Glass ceilings—invisible barriers that prevent certain demographic groups from reaching top positions—are no exaggeration. Subtle biases and prejudices, often unconscious, can hinder the advancement of Asian Americans, who experience stereotypes including the “model minority” myth: the perception that Asian Americans uniformly excel in academics and the workplace. That misperception and others can create unrealistic expectations that unintentionally, but unmistakably, limit the recognition of individual talent and potential.
“Bamboo ceiling” is an offshoot expression of glass ceiling that refers to the unique challenges faced by Asian Americans in leadership positions despite excellent qualifications and first-rate experience—especially as they aim to break into top-level executive roles.
In fact, according to a 2022 McKinsey study on Asian American workers, “Asian Americans account for 9 percent of senior vice presidents but just 5 percent of promotions from senior vice president to the C-suite. Asian American women make up less than 1 percent of these promotions.”
Implicit biases, unconscious and unexamined judgments shaped by societal norms and cultural perceptions, can result in skewed evaluations and promotions. For example, early in my career during a yearly evaluation, my supervisor advised me to be more casual and to share more of my personality.
It was hard to identify and articulate at the time, but that felt unnatural to me and almost disrespectful. After time and reflection, I realized I may have appeared distant due to the power dynamics I absorbed through my cultural background. My ingrained respect for authority and hierarchical structures may come off as reserved to others and can cause me to hesitate to engage casually with superiors. But for my supervisor, I seemed disengaged or unapproachable.
Lack of representation and leadership role models
Representation matters. We hear the phrase often these days. From lived experience, I can report how deeply representation impacts how an individual sees themselves and what goals and dreams they pursue.
When individuals see others who look like them in positions of leadership, it not only inspires them but also helps debunk stereotypes and biases. The scarcity of Asian American leaders perpetuates the misperception they’re not suited for top positions, limiting the aspirations of aspiring Asian American professionals.
What can we do?
If they haven’t already, companies should actively promote diversity and inclusion by prioritizing the recruitment, development, and retention of Asian talent. Opportunities to connect with other Asian American leaders who understand the nuances of my own experience have been so valuable for me. Establishing spaces dedicated to Asian American employees to network, share experiences, and support one another is essential to nurture a sense of belonging and find paths forward.
One of my best work experiences, a time I felt seen and understood, was when a supervisor sought to understand our cultural differences and advocated for me in spaces where I struggled to make my voice heard. This support took many forms—sending out a sign-up sheet in advance of team meetings so everyone could claim an opportunity to be heard; actively recommending me for higher-level projects that I was interested in; gently reminding clients who automatically defaulted to communicating with my male coworkers that I was their point of contact; and others.
If you’re in a leadership position, it’s imperative that you do the hard work of building awareness and understanding of different cultural perspectives. For example, ask yourself: How we can adjust our meetings so everyone has an opportunity to contribute? Or, how can we standardize performance reviews so the process is fair for all employees?
Finally, if you share my cultural background or have had a parallel or resonant experience, work on internalizing that your thoughts and opinions are valuable. We need to raise our hands, figuratively and literally. Those voices in your head—the voice of society or your upbringing or another internal barrier—that say “maybe next time” or “follow what the group wants” are often wrong. Push out of your comfort zone.
It can be helpful to remember that it’s OK to be wrong. Growing up, I was taught failure is not an option and that being wrong brings shame and embarrassment. But taking risks in the workplace is vital to leadership. Understanding that I don’t need to be perfect, and that failure isn’t the end of the world, helps me step outside my comfort zone.
As I continue this developmental work within myself, I find it hopeful that the underrepresentation of Asian American leaders in corporate environments continues to be called out and acknowledged. To address this persistent gap, organizations must prioritize diversity and inclusion, create spaces for Asian employees to connect and support each other, and challenge unconscious biases. Meanwhile, as Asian American leaders, we can embrace our own value, take risks, and not be afraid of failure. By working together, we can create a more equitable and inclusive corporate landscape where Asian Americans excel as leaders.
Lily Merritt is a senior account executive with The Lacek Group, a Minneapolis-based data-driven loyalty, experience, and customer engagement agency that has been delivering personalization at scale for its world-class clients for more than 30 years. The Lacek Group is an Ogilvy company.