Breaking the bamboo ceiling

With the highest education rate, why are Asian Americans still relatively behind in their careers?

By Irfan Shariff
Northwest Asian Weekly

Image by Stacy Nguyen/NWAW

The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2008 American Community Survey (ACS) indicates that a gender wage gap still exists. The median income of women is still 77.9 percent that of men.

But what about the “bamboo” ceiling? Are Asian Americans also limited in their careers due to their ethnicity or culture?

In her 2007 career guidebook, “Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling,” Jane Hyun implies that Asian Americans have a say in their advancement — and they need to speak up more. Hyun drew from her experience as an intern at a Wall Street firm.

“As with many challenges, Asians should acknowledge that barriers could also stem from self-limiting cultural influences on their behavior, attitude, and performance in various … settings,” Hyun writes in the introduction of her book.

Tough getting to the top?

David Tang (left) and Martha Choe

David Tang, managing partner for Asia at the law firm K&L Gates, is seeing more Asian Americans in senior positions, but the numbers still might not be adequate.

“It is better today for Asians than 20 years ago,” said Tang. “[But] you still would not be seeing as many as all of us would want, maybe because there aren’t as many in the pipeline.”

According to the 2008 ACS, persons claiming Asian ancestry account for five percent of the total U.S. population, or 15.3 million.

“[Asian Americans] are definitely not overrepresented,” said Tang. “There can always be more, but I’m not disappointed in the number of Asian Americans in organizations today.”

The 2008 survey also shows that 48.8 percent of that number have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher; this is in contrast to the national number of 27.7 percent. Asian Americans also occupy more white-collar jobs, earning a higher median household income and having a lower unemployment rate.

Tang, who is ethnically Chinese and born in Hong Kong, earned a law degree from Columbia University in 1979. By the mid-1990s, he was managing partner at Preston Gates & Ellis, the predecessor of K&L Gates.

He says Asians and Pacific Islanders (APIs) are becoming more visible in senior legal positions and in the nonprofit world. However, there are not as many in the business sector. There are not as many in the public and quasi-public sectors as he would hope.

From 2002 through 2008, Tang served on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. He was its chair from 2006 to 2008. He believes the regional boards well reflect the area’s diversity, including many Asian Americans in the business sector.

“Plus, there aren’t as many [API] in some [geographical] areas as in others,” said Tang.  He cites California and the East Coast as having greater densities of APIs who have, therefore, a much more visible presence in the surrounding mainstream community.

Martha Choe, chief administrative officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, also believes APIs have made progress. “But certainly, [APIs] still have more homework to do,” she said.

Choe, a Korean American and New York native, has worked in a spectrum of industries. Initially a high school instructor, she moved into commercial banking and was a two-term Seattle city councilmember.

Today, she is the chief administrative officer of foundation operations for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Choe has also sat on the board of trustees for Western Washington University.

“I think many of us have been [among] the first Asian women [in senior roles],” said Choe, “but that’s happening less.” Choe thinks that as diversity grows in the workplace, minorities won’t feel as  obligated to speak for everyone in their communities, which Choe sees as a positive thing.

“It was really gratifying when my colleagues [on the WWU board] spoke to diversity issues before I did,” said Choe.

What makes up the ceiling?

Though many Asian American professionals feel integrated into their communities and society, many find that cultural barriers are still an issue in the workplace. Oftentimes, the social habits Asian Americans are taught as children by their first-generation parents come in conflict with what is expected in American workplaces.

“I would always think that my role was to work really hard and be diligent about the output of my work,” Hyun said in a 2009 interview with Northwest Asian Weekly. “I would watch my peers work hard most of the time, but they also took time to go to the boss’ office and chat about life and sports and different topics. I didn’t know how to do this. I never had that kind of experience before. I talked with my peers and learned that they weren’t doing that to waste time. It was very deliberate. They wanted to spend time letting their boss know what they’re about and get to know the boss on a personal level, not just as someone to work for.

They understood the value of relationship building. In Asian culture, that’s not always true. You don’t often think of your boss as someone who could be your friend.”

Ceiling issues on the other side of the world

Tang, who now spends about half of his time in Asia and retains an office in Beijing, says that in contrast to the United States, there is little to no glass ceiling for non-Chinese in China.

“Many running operations for foreign enterprises in China are non-Chinese,” he said. “But a higher percentage of Asians are in charge of their organizations in China because of the language.”

Hyun’s book emphasizes the need for better research on the process from entry-level to senior-level positions for Asian American workers. Hyun cites reports that illustrate that there is little disparity in the number of Asians entering the workforce, but somehow, they don’t quite break past a certain barrier.

Although there may have been some reluctance in the past and cultural bias in certain industries, Tang believes that APIs want to serve in these visible positions. He believes the major reason we aren’t seeing more Asians in these roles is that most of them are still in the “pipeline.”

“As more and more Asian Americans [reach] senior management positions, they will be considered,” he said. However, “the last area to see more Asian Americans would be on the boards of companies.”

Both Choe and Tang see board-level membership in large companies and associations or nonprofit organizations as an indicator of whether diversity exists in the workplace.

“We still have room to reflect our representation,” said Choe. ♦

Irfan Shariff can be reached at

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