Asian Americans have made tremendous progress over these past few years, from Obama doubling the number of Asian American federal judges to Kevin Tsujihara becoming the CEO of Warner Bros. So, one has to ask, “Is the bamboo ceiling finally broken?”
Five years ago, there were only a handful of Asian American actors playing supporting roles on film and television, never mind leading roles. Now there seems to be an abundance of them – Lucy Liu (Elementary), Maggie Q (Nikita), Ki Hong Lee (Maze Runner), Steven Yeun (Walking Dead) – and they’re all starring as main characters.
Later this year, we’ll be seeing even more AAPI faces on network TV with CBS’ detective shows Battle Creek and Stalker as well as ABC’s comedies Fresh Off the Boat and Selfie, in which John Cho is not only the leading man but also the love interest. Now, if this were five years ago, Hollywood would have scoffed and said, “What, an Asian man playing the romantic lead? But Asian men aren’t sexy enough!”
Obviously, Hollywood hadn’t met Godfrey Gao back then.
Aside from seeing more Asian American actors, AAPIs are now taking on more leadership and senior executive positions at big name companies.
In entertainment, we have Kevin Tsujihara, the first Asian American to ever run a major Hollywood studio. Tsujihara was responsible for closing deals for the Oscar-winning film Gravity and the blockbuster The Lego Movie. From digital media, we have Laura Lee, the Director of Entertainment East Partnerships at YouTube.
Joyce Chang was promoted to editor-in-chief at Self magazine this past April; and the year before, Eva Chen became editor-in-chief at Lucky magazine. And in the fashion world, Korean adoptee Marissa Webb recently became Banana Republic’s creative director and executive vice president of design.
With all these success stories, is the exception now the rule? Have we finally broken through the so-called bamboo ceiling?
Before you answer, let me ask you this: how many Asians did you see at the Golden Globes this year? Or name one current Asian American NBA player other than Jeremy Lin.
The sad reality is that despite the breakout roles AAPI actors are landing, they represent less than 4% of all film and television roles. For sports, AAPI athletes represent only 2% of the NFL, 1.9% of the MLB, and less than 1% of the NBA.
According to Pew Research Institute, Asian Americans comprise almost 6 percent of the U.S. population and are the highest-income, best educated, and fastest-growing racial demographic in the country. They also account for 15 to 25 percent of the student population at Ivy League schools. Yet, Asian Americans lead only eight of the nation’s 500 largest companies and hold only 2.6 percent of the corporate board seats in Fortune 500 companies.
Forget breaking the bamboo ceiling, we’ve barely chipped it.
In fact, a 2013 report written by Tulane University assistant professor Lei Lai stated that Asian Americans have the lowest probability to be promoted to managers among all racial minorities in both public and private sectors.
This ratio is most notable when applied to legal professions. According to National Association for Law Placement (NALP), Asian Americans are getting hired as associates at law firms, representing 10.5 percent of all associates. However, only 2.7 percent are making it to partner. That’s a lower percentage than those of African American or Hispanic attorneys.
Now, it’s ludicrous to assume that Asian Americans aren’t as hardworking, qualified, or ambitious as their non-Asian counterparts. We have enough battle scars from our tiger moms to prove it.
So, what’s stopping us from reaching the top?
There are countless underlying reasons: model minority myths, racial bias, and a difference of communication values between U.S. and Asian societies. What it all boils down to, though, is perception.
Asians are often passed over for promotions because we are perceived to be quiet workaholics with no leadership or networking skills. We are consistently told that we don’t self-promote or take enough risks. In addition, we are often mistaken as techies or foreigners, even when we don’t have accents. As a result, Asians are pigeonholed into roles that are more technical or behind-the-scenes, and are not given opportunities to prove our superiors wrong—to prove that we can lead and that we do have a voice.
What the bamboo ceiling indicates is a social power gap—a difference in expectations about cultural progressiveness.
It’s employers saying that Asian Americans are only capable of accomplishing to a certain extent and not acknowledging the individual’s potential beyond his or her ethnicity, which robs qualified AAPI candidates of the chance to grow, succeed, and inspire. Glass ceilings essentially exist because the world changes faster than people change. It takes years, sometimes decades, for people to change their ideals regardless of the fact that those ideals have been proven wrong innumerable times.
Take the women’s workforce for example. There are managers and executives today who still believe that a woman’s place is at home and not the office, despite the fact that roughly half of the workforce is comprised of women. Business owners who are prejudiced against women most likely won’t change their skewed principles or promote women in their companies. The same goes for business owners who discriminate against Asians.
It’s unfortunate, but the bamboo ceiling will always exist in some form as long as there are people who believe it should exist.
If we can’t break the bamboo ceiling, then how do we bypass it?
Ever wondered why Asian Americans dominate YouTube? It’s because YouTube provides a platform for Asian talents to be innovative and to create their own roles without Hollywood politics. YouTube artists are self-made, and therefore, have the freedom to find success outside of glass ceilings.
Entrepreneurship has always been a back door for Asian Americans whether it’s a small family-run business or a Silicon Valley tech startup. “If [Asian immigrants] are smart, they usually will work for a while and decide that they don’t like the environment,” Mei Xu, co-founder of Chesapeake Bay Candles, explained, “They know they won’t be able to get to C-level, and they start a company. They would rather not play the politics.”
For generations, Asian Americans have played a key role in driving entrepreneurship and small business growth in the U.S. As of 2011, more than 1 million Asian American entrepreneurs generate $300 billion in sales, creating jobs for more than 2 million workers.
Some of the most successful Asian Americans today are entrepreneurs including Steve Chen, co-founder of YouTube; Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos.com—an online shoe retailer that was sold to Amazon for a billion dollars; and Eddie Huang, the best selling author of Fresh Off the Boat and co-founder of the New York City restaurant BaoHaus.
In an interview with Entrepreneur, Eddie Huang stated:
“I saw an opportunity to use a restaurant to identify a lot of my issues and concerns with being an immigrant in America, an Asian in America, and a young person in America. I wanted to inspire people not to work under a bamboo ceiling.”
Though self-employment alone does not dissolve the bamboo ceiling, it takes away economic control from the people who enforce it. As more Asian American entrepreneurs find success, the employers who are willing to explore beneath the surface of the ceiling will see that Asian Americans can be risk-takers, leaders, and self-promoters. And the not-so-open-minded employers will gradually fade into the background as their prejudices become less and less popular.
If there is any hope in shattering the bamboo ceiling, it lies with the risk-takers on all sides—the managers who reach out, the workers who speak up, and the entrepreneurs who break out.