The Glass Ceiling for Asian Americans in Corporate America

Asian Americans are the best-educated, highest-income earning, and fastest growing racial group in the United States, according to a Pew Research study. UC Berkeley graduate student activists, Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka, first used the phrase “Asian American” in 1968 to bring together the diverse groups that fell under the Asian diaspora. The term “Asian American” encompasses over 20 ethnicities and 20 million citizens in the U.S. According to the Census Bureau, a person of Asian descent is defined as “having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent, including, for example, Cambodia, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam.” Despite the sizable subgroup differences in culture, language, and religious beliefs, Asian Americans are distinctive in comparison to U.S. adults in terms of higher college degree attainment, median annual household income, and median household wealth. And still, a wide gap exists in Corporate America: Asian American white-collar professionals are the least likely group to be promoted into management and executive positions in the United States.

Jane Hyun articulated how barriers, such as stereotypes and racism, hinder Asian Americans from ascending the corporate ladder, and coined the term, “bamboo ceiling” in her book, Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians. These biases are built on structural racism, perpetuated by the “model minority” myth and stereotypical cultural differences. In particular, Hyun discussed how Eastern cultural norms focus on collectivism over individualism, with a particular respect to authority and deference to elders.

Hyun stated, “Unfortunately, this reticence gets mistaken for aloofness or arrogance or inattention, when it is usually just the Asian habit of respecting authority. We wait for our turn to speak—and often our turn just never comes.”

The difference in cultural norms, coupled with research that indicates Asian Americans are perceived as less ideal leaders has affected the group’s leadership advancement. The studies published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that “Asians’ lack of prototypical attributes of masculinity, charisma, and tyranny” affected the group’s perception in comparison to Caucasian Americans in Western contexts. Existing leaders, subconsciously and consciously, seek cultural and personality characteristics that reflect their own styles in hiring and promotion practices. Thus, the current homogenous composition of leadership teams across industries mostly comprised of cis white men further exacerbates this perpetual cycle of non-promotion.

The term “model minority” has origins in the Civil Rights era, when Asian Americans were “inserted as an intermediate group between Black people and whites.” According Berkeley School of Law Professor Leti Volpp, the model minority is premised on the idea that a strong work ethic and family cohesion has led to Asian American success, without the need to rely on government welfare. In turn, the perception that Asian Americans have prosperously attained “the American Dream” as the model minority has stunted the group’s growth and contributed to the widening leadership gap across industries.

Asian Americans’ economic and educational successes have created a blind spot for promotion and attrition rates across industries like tech, business, and law. The Ascend Foundation report analyzed EEOC data on Silicon Valley’s management pipeline and found that Asian Americans are the most likely to be hired into high-tech jobs. However, they are the least likely group to be promoted in management and executive levels. In Asia Society’s Corporate Survey, 27% of participating companies had no AAPI presence in C-Suite, and a report based on data from Google, Intel, Hewlett Packard, LinkedIn, and Yahoo showed that Asians only made up 14% of executives. When further incorporating gender and race, the hurdles become steeper. Ascend’s analysis of Google’s published EEO-I reports revealed that Asian women in leadership at Google has not changed since 2015. These issues, however, are not exclusive to Silicon Valley. In law, Asian Americans have the highest attrition rates and lowest ratio of partners to associates among all racial groups. In the business arena, Asian Americans only account for 1.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs and 1.9% of corporate officers.

Although Asian Americans are not considered an underrepresented minority, making up 12% of the professional workforce, there is a discrepancy in the group’s advancement as leaders in corporate America. It is critical that companies use an intersectional lens to analyze data from diversity reports, accounting for factors such as race and gender, to create initiatives that dismantle the glass ceiling. In doing so, this requires businesses to explore dominant Western standards and attitudes that are embedded in the corporate industry standards that have historically been deemed valuable at the expense of Asian Americans, and people of color broadly. As U.S. companies further integrate diversity and inclusion to its business models, they must institutionalize Asian American leadership to close a gap that has gone unchanged for too long. The elevator should not stop just before the upper echelons of the corporate realm for Asian Americans.