Why Asians Hit the "Bamboo Ceiling"

Last Updated Jul 28, 2011 5:43 PM EDT

Despite their status as a so-called "model minority," Asian-Americans are under-represented in the top ranks of American companies. A new report, from the Center for Work-Life Policy, says subtle cultural factors carry at least some of the blame. But it also finds that a relatively large number of Asians say they have been discriminated against at work, even as the vast majority of people of other races say discrimination against Asians is non-existent.

Ambitious, but stymied
Although Asians make up just five percent of the U.S. population, they're highly represented at some of the most prestigious universities: They make up between 15 and 25% of Ivy League enrollment and 24% of the student population at Stanford University. And the study found that 64% of Asians aspire to hold a top job at a company, compared to 52% for Caucasians. Yet only about two percent of Fortune 500 corporate officers are Asian.

The "bamboo ceiling"
The study presents several explanations for Asians' difficulty in cracking the so-called "bamboo ceiling":
  • Bias. Twenty-five percent of Asians say that they face workplace discrimination because of their ethnicity. But their co-workers don't necessarily agree: Only 9% of Hispanics, 8% of African-Americans, 4% of Caucasians believe that Asians are discriminated against at work. Asians are much more likely than other races to work fewer hours or to scale back their ambitions because they believe discrimination is hindering their career. And Asian men are more likely to feel stalled in their careers than any other group. Some 63% of Asian men report that their careers have stalled out, compared to 51% of Hispanic men and 48% of Caucasian men.
  • Cultural preconceptions. Nearly half of Asian men and women say that having to look, act, and sound like established leaders in their workplace is a problem for them. Only 28% of Asians say they are comfortable "being themselves" at work, compared to 40% of African-Americans, 41% of Hispanics and 42% of Caucasians.
  • A lack of mentors. Only 46% of Asians say they have a mentor in their professional life, compared to more than 60% of Caucasians.
  • Cultural issues. The study found that Asians, particularly Asian women, are less likely to share new ideas or to challenge a consensus in group meetings. It also mentioned that Asians may be reluctant to go into fields such as sales or marketing-which often lead to top leadership positions-because Asian families and culture place much more value on technical expertise.
  • Eldercare responsibilities. Far more Asians than members of other races report that they are taking care of an elderly relative. Nine percent of Asians are living with an elderly relative; 30% support their parents financially.
Have you seen or experienced discrimination? What factors do you believe were at work?

RELATED Image courtesy of flickr user annieo76
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor, and editorial consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.

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