The Bamboo Ceiling: Asian Americans and the Myth of the Model Minority


By Debra Kawahara, PhD
Associate Dean of Academic Affairs & Professor for the California School of Professional Psychology

Asian Americans are the fastest-growing, best-educated, and highest-income racial group in the United States according to a new study by the Pew Research Group. The recent study also found that Asian Americans place more value on marriage, parenthood, hard work, and career success when compared to other groups. But while Asian Americans have attained this status in these various areas, they still experience challenges in reaching executive and management positions in corporate America, higher education, and other organizations.

Similar to the term “glass ceiling” for women and other historically oppressed groups, the term “bamboo ceiling” has been used to describe the specific obstacles and barriers that Asian Americans face in reaching the upper echelons of leadership and management. The result of this “bamboo ceiling” is the lack of leadership representation amongst Asian Americans, even though they, as a group, are far more likely to have a college degree than the general population, according to a 2011 study by the Center for Talent Innovation. Further, they have little trouble getting hired, but representation is significantly reduced at the senior management levels—for instance, Asian Americans account for only 1.4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and 1.9 percent of corporate officers overall.

In recent years, it has become even more apparent that Asian American women may face even greater difficulties because they belong to two marginalized groups.  For these women, the dominant or majority group for race in the US is White, while they belong to the marginalized racial group as Asian American. They also belong to the marginalized group for gender in being female.

Barriers and obstacles are often created within societal organizations, structures, and processes, intentionally and unintentionally, by those who are in the dominant or majority group.  The impact of belonging to two marginalized groups has been studied by researchers, who labeled the effects as “double jeopardy”, which focuses on the dual effect of discrimination based on race and gender.

Numerous examples can be seen in the news regarding various legal suits that have been brought forward by Asian American women in the technology sector.. For example, Ellen Pao brought legal action against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a venture capital firm, for not promoting her due to gender and then retaliating when she complained. Being one of two chiefs of staff, she recalls her boss asking her to do things such as helping with his emails and other less befitting work for a chief of staff such as babysitting his daughter. The other chief of staff, a male, mostly focused on investing.  In the case of Chai Hong, she sued Facebook in 2015 for being told she looks and talks differently, was belittled or ignored during meetings, and was asked to serve drinks to male colleagues. However, she eventually dropped the case.  Although these cases were not won, they did bring attention to the discrimination against women, particularly Asian American women.

At Alliant, we believe that Education is the great equalizer and when it comes to the Asian American community, the high levels of education should be translating into high levels of positions of leadership. That is why our California School of Professional Psychology (CSPP) will be exploring this topic through our CSPP Lecture Series.

On May 16th, from 9:30 am to 11:30 am, we will be hosting a webinar entitled Elevating Asian American Women in the Workplace: What You Need to Know. In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, this webinar will focus on the unique challenges and barriers that Asian American women face in maximizing their potential in terms of advancement and achievements. The presenters will also share their experiences working as organizational development professionals and discuss steps individuals and organizations can take to elevate Asian American women in today’s workplace. We hope you can join us in this vital discussion.

RSVP here.

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Debra Kawahara, PhD, is the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs & Professor for the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University.