As Asian Americans continue to climb the corporate ladders, something continues to prevent them from breaking through to the top.
By Harsh Vathsangam
Stereotypically Asian Pacific Americans are known to enter careers as meticulous engineers, life-saving doctors, and mad scientists. But how many Asians become CEOs?
Although Asians make up only 5 percent of the U.S. population, according to a study by the Center for Work-Life Policy, they’re highly represented at some of the most prestigious universities, making up between 15 and 25 percent of Ivy League enrollment.
Yet the impressive credentials and achievements that have caused them to be dubbed “the model minority” aren’t reflected in senior leadership positions.
Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, Inc., recently released a report that stated Asian Americans constitute only 2 percent of board members in Fortune 500 companies, and within these companies there are only nine Asian American CEOs.
The numbers point to a phenomenon known as “The Bamboo Ceiling,” a term that refers to the fact that while Asian Americans find no problem in acquiring prestigious academic degrees, they find it difficult to take the next step up and into senior managerial roles at top companies.
Why can’t Asians break through that bamboo ceiling? It’s certainly not for lack of interest. The CWLP researchers found that 64 percent of Asians compared to 52 percent of their Caucasian counterparts aspire to hold top seats at a company.
Asian family values have stressed hard work, avoiding confrontation, and humble respectfulness. Although these characteristics are positive on their own, these cultural values don’t necessarily match up with success in the cutthroat corporate world.
A popular argument is that these very same characteristics that put Asians on the top of college admissions stacks can work against them when gaining a foothold in corporate America. With these values as the cornerstones of their academic successes, thoughts such as putting one’s ideas forward in meetings, self-promotion, or taking credit for achievements end up being alien concepts.
The result? Often, silence is mistaken for arrogance and unwillingness.
A reason could be lack of mentorship. The CWLP study also found that only 46 percent of Asians say they have a mentor in their professional life compared to more than 60 percent of Caucasians. You can find strategies to help with breaking the bamboo ceiling here.
Another possible cause is that Asian culture places emphasis on eldercare, an activity that could for better or worse take time away from career advancement.
Taking a look at the issue from another perspective reveals more. There are now 61 Chinese and eight Indian companies in the Fortune 500.
With that said, companies with a largely Asian top brass are steadily rising up the rankings and making their presence felt. These numbers are only slated to increase. Conversely, according to Fortune magazine, the number of American companies on this list has been declining from 197 in 2002 to 133 in 2011.
I find myself asking how is it that these companies with Asian CEOs who have the similar cultural values are thriving. But, there is a key difference. It is important to note the distinction between Asians working in Asian companies and Asian Americans working in U.S. companies.
Thus, I argue that it has more to do with the clashing of cultures than any innate inability to perform. Asian Americans need to understand these significant cultural differences and recognize the corporate atmosphere in which they operate if they hope to break through the bamboo ceiling.
Or perhaps we should all book one-way tickets to corporate Asia?
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