EXECUTIVE IMPACT

How Leaders Today Can Acknowledge Their Biases When Managing Asian Employees

By Sharon Yi

Does your organization have a higher percentage of Asians in your staff than your leadership team? 

In honor of AAPI Month, we want to take a closer look at what is holding the professional Asian community back today. For corporate America, that reckoning should begin by assessing whether Asians are disproportionately underrepresented in management — and question why.

While Asians are more likely to get hired than any other racial group, they are consistently barred from the executive suite. This phenomenon is so prevalent, it's been coined as "the bamboo ceiling." A question for leaders is whether they are willing to acknowledge the biases that may be preventing more of their Asian staff from being promoted. Ahead, the necessary steps to dismantle this ceiling.

A Culture Clash

The "bamboo ceiling,” which disproportionately keeps Asians underrepresented in leadership positions, isn’t a new concept. While Asians are more likely to get hired than any other racial group (we make up 12% of the professional workforce and only 5.6% of the U.S. population), we are "the least likely group in the United States to be promoted into management" beyond every other race, including Black and Hispanic, according to U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity workforce data. This is true in every sector, including tech and finance, where Asians theoretically thrive: A 2017 study by non-profit Ascend found that of the five largest tech companies, Asians and Asian Americans represent 27% of the staff, but only half that on the executive teams. And this doesn’t even touch on the problem of categorizing all Asian subgroups as a monolith. This article also doesn’t delineate the unique professional experiences of the Pacific Islander community versus South Asian or Southeast Asian.

To try to understand why the "bamboo ceiling" persists, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of USA conducted nine studies in February 2020 analyzing the mechanisms and scope of why East Asians seem to be hitting a ceiling sooner. They found that East Asians were less likely than white people to attain leadership positions, due to being considered "less assertive."

The study suggests a cultural dissonance, as East Asians "emphasize humility, conformity, and harmony" over assertiveness when it comes to interpersonal communication. Moreover, they view assertiveness as a threat to the common good. The study concludes that "the bamboo ceiling is not an Asian issue, but an issue of cultural fit. A mismatch between Asian norms of communication and American norms of leadership."

For Asian women, the cultural aspect is even more challenging: We’re up against both racial and gender stereotypes. While viewed as intelligent, we are simultaneously perceived as too deferential or unassertive to be leaders. But when we speak up and are "too direct," we can be seen as aggressive and unlikable — which goes against the expectation that women should exhibit "nurturing" qualities as leaders. This is our behavioral double bind.

For Leaders: Ask the Hard Questions

Leaders should think about their own implicit biases as they consider enacting DEI plans. Here are some questions to help executives analyze whether they are using stereotypical bias to avoid promoting Asian employees:

1. Does your organization have a higher percentage of Asians on your staff than your leadership team?

If the percentage is disproportionate, and there aren’t any job performance or qualification-based issues, then there might be implicit bias at play. Are you using reasons like "not a cultural fit" or "unassertive" to impede promotions? If so, you may be penalizing a group of qualified people for their innate cultural differences. Instead of asking employees to adapt to conventional ideas of American leadership, ask yourself and your executive team to evolve what leadership could look like. The more diversified a leadership team is, the more the company benefits from innovation and inclusivity — which is always good for business.

2. Does your organization acknowledge different Asian subgroups, or are they lumped into a single employee resource group?

The Asian diaspora is made up of hundreds of cultures, heritages, and languages. If organizations want to be a part of enacting an exhaustive DEI plan, they should understand the differences among Asian subgroups and offer tailored resources. Analyze your organization’s DEI plans: Does it include resource support for East Asians separately from South Asians? Or does your organization have a single employee resource group for all Asian employees? Assuming all their trials and experiences are the same is a misconception to be addressed.

3. Do the managers of your organization provide clear career development?

At Chief, we know how powerful a network is for career advancement, with our executive members saying that an extensive professional network is the number-one resource for career mobility. It is also the resource Asian women say they lack most. Managers, therefore, are that much more critical in developing and championing Asian female staff within their organization. According to a 2003 study by non-profit Catalyst, 53% of Asian women said their managers strongly consider their goals, yet only 33% map out clear developmental goals. Managers should work with their HR teams to clearly define plans for long-term development and establish performance expectations upfront while making sure those expectations aren’t hinging on cultural or personality-based definitions of leadership.

There is pain and discomfort whenever we evaluate our own biases. But as leaders, there are many benefits for your organization and society at large when we can dismantle not just the glass ceiling but the "bamboo" one, too. Actually, let’s start by rethinking the phrase "bamboo ceiling," which is in itself a play on a stereotype.