Breaking Down the Bamboo Ceiling

The intersection of Eastern and Western cultures in Silicon Valley has brought to light the nuanced, tangled issue of Asian-American representation in leadership.

April 19, 2017

“Passion is one of those things that people can express in different ways,” Mikaela Kiner recounted. “I might not be physically jumping out of my chair, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not passionate about something. I think what she had was a sort of quiet and serious affect, and they couldn’t interpret that as passion.”

Kiner, the founder and CEO of a consulting company in Seattle called uniquelyHR, recalled an experience that stood out to her when she was working in recruiting several years ago: The company was in the process of interviewing a woman for their new project in China. Jessica, whose name has been changed, was more than qualified, but the board of white, male interviewees didn’t think she was demonstrating enough “passion.” Kiner tried as hard as she could to advocate for her, but she was never hired.

Jessica’s story seems to be playing out across Silicon Valley boardrooms and leadership teams today. Data show that Asian Americans face a barrier in advancing to leadership positions in the workforce. While many have heard of the glass ceiling, a term widely accepted to encapsulate the invisible barrier that millions of women face to further themselves in their careers, few have heard of the bamboo ceiling, a term that describes the barrier that many Asian Americans such as Jessica face.

This lack of representation in leadership roles is shocking simply because of the large number of Asian-American professionals in the industry. According to a study conducted by Ascend Foundation, Asians represent approximately 27% of professionals in Silicon Valley-based companies — in an ideal world, this would mean that 27% of executives at these companies would be Asian Americans, but the reality is that only 5.6% of these high-level positions are held by this demographic.

This can leave researchers and Asian-American employees wondering: Why is there a gap? There isn’t one clear culprit, but research shows that a number of major cultural factors perpetuate the disparity between Asians and their white counterparts.

Sangeeta Relan, who is Indian-American, has worked in the tech industry in the Bay Area for 22 years. While Relan, a senior director at software company Nutanix, has never experienced explicit discrimination, she acknowledges that, as an Asian-American female in the workforce, she has faced certain barriers in moving forward during her career that relate to interpersonal relations and communication.

One of the core values we’re brought up with is to work hard, study hard. We did not learn the skill of presentation or connection-building.”

— Sangeeta Relan, senior director

“Throughout my career, some of the relationship-building which required people to socialize and have common interests — I was a little different in that sense. My focus was to get things done … versus going and playing golf and going out for drinks. That definitely was a barrier.”

In India, Relan states that the belief was that hard work would be rewarded with success, and this has held true to a certain extent for many Asian Americans. When it comes to income, Asians have fared significantly better than the rest of the American population; while the US national median income is $49,000, the national median income for Asians is $66,000.

In fact, Martin Carnoy, a professor of education at Stanford, believes Silicon Valley is very welcoming toward Asians. “It seems that Silicon Valley has somewhat of a preference for Asian Americans. There are higher, larger numbers of them, and it isn’t that they’re hired with lower salaries — their salaries have gone up, relative to white males.”

However, when it comes to higher management positions, meritocracy is less emphasized, while people skills and Western leadership ideals become far more important. Unfortunately, the preference for these traits often deter Asian Americans from becoming executives simply because of the cultural and educational values instilled during their upbringing.

“Coming from an Indian background, one of the core values we’re brought up with is to work hard, study hard. Results will automatically come — let the work speak for itself. We did not learn the skill of presentation or connection-building or the importance of working on that,” Relan said.

Janet Wong, one of the authors of the research paper conducted by Ascend, is a board director of a publicly traded company, and from her research and experience, communication and relationship-building are skills Asian Americans have to work harder at improving.

“Asians don’t always realize being smart and being the most technical person will not help you get to the top … We need awareness, [we need to] rely on relationships and social skills that will help cross-functionally,” Wong said.

Differences in tolerance for risk have been shown to distinguish Asian-American and white employees as well. Carnoy believes that this disparity between Asian immigrants and Americans exists because of differences in education. The education in many Asian countries, specifically China, Japan and Korea, is highly driven by examinations, which may account for the general aversion to risk-taking among Asian-American employees.

“[Eastern Asians] have not been taught to take risks… I think it reflects that the education system simply got locked into teaching people to conform and behave in a particular way and to be completely focused on tests,” Carnoy said.

“If you got yourself into a steady job, that itself was a huge success. Taking risks was not part of the cultural equation only because that atmosphere was not part of the place they [Asians] grew up in.””

— Rekha Pai, product manager

An Indian American and former product manager at Juniper, Rekha Pai explains that in Asia, emphasis is placed on following the most stable career path and ensuring financial security rather than taking risks. Countries like China, India, Japan and Korea have huge populations and large competition, therefore fewer jobs and opportunities are available, even for well-educated people.

“It made sense to be a little more protectionistic about your career,” Pai said. “If you got yourself into a steady job, that itself was a huge success. Taking risks was not part of the cultural equation only because that atmosphere was not part of the place they [Asians] grew up in.”

For many Asians, the desire to lead a stable life comes with a fear of failure. From her experience, Pai has felt that failure may be viewed as a formative, learning experience in Western society, simply because the infrastructure of the economy and the political system allows it to be so. In Asian cultures, however, the scenario is exactly the opposite.

“There was not an entrepreneurial ecosystem where people who took risks were actually being rewarded,” Pai said. “There was sort of a negative discouragement; the environment they grew up in did not encourage people to take risks because the price of failure was huge. It would mean survival.”

Along with risk-taking, a common thread that seems to tie high-ranking officials in the tech industry and beyond is creativity. “I think to be a successful entrepreneur you need creative skills — to think outside the box and to actually think about breaking rules as a good thing,” said Joost Schreve, cofounder and CEO of Palo Alto startup kimkim.

But this seems to be another area in which Asian Americans are holding back. According to Carnoy, this is also a direct result of the education system: “There’s no time to think creatively or to problem solve, and yet they can solve very hard problems on the math test … When they come to a university that demands creativity, it’s hard for them to be creative. It’s not that they don’t want to be, but it’s almost in their genes now.”

In Western countries, however, Carnoy believes students are given more space to think abstractly and creatively since the school environment is less test-driven. “The European education systems, American systems, give more flexibility on what they consider good academics,” Carnoy said.

Growing up and finishing school in India, Pai had experiences that matched Carnoy’s observations. When Pai came to the US, she noticed her lack of writing and creative skills, which seemed to come more naturally to her peers who grew up in America.

“I think to be a successful entrepreneur you need creative skills — to think outside the box and to actually think about breaking rules as a good thing.””

— Joost Schreve, cofounder & CEO

“I feel like we did not have such a good humanities education back in the country where I came from,” Pai said. “I feel that those specific [humanities] disciplines do give kids an ability to think critically, an ability to write persuasively, an ability to express themselves … People who grew up in these [Asian] countries and then came here in their adulthood did not get those skills and were held back because of that.”

Asian culture tends to instill the idea that authority should be submitted to without resistance far more so than in Western culture, and this deference to authority also plays a role in constructing the bamboo ceiling. Geert Hofstede, the founder of comparative intercultural research, studies how culture influences workplace values using what he calls the 6-D Model, which uses six dimensions of culture to provide a comprehensive view of a country’s social structure.

Power distance, defined as the extent to which “the less powerful members of institutions and organizations expect and accept that power is distributed unequally,” occurs at particularly high levels in Asian countries and is characterized by an appreciation for hierarchy and a top-down structure in society and organizations.

Pai recognizes this in herself, especially when considering her upbringing: “I came from a culture where I was told to follow and listen and told to not question.” She took it upon herself to learn these skills when she realized it was holding her back in the Western workplace. “I had to teach myself to … be an owner, think like an owner of the problem. Instead of looking for other people to give me the solution, I taught myself to think independently.”

Asian Americans in the workforce have had to overcome barriers that their peers may not have faced simply because of the cultural differences between Asia and the Western world, and ultimately, these differences have been shown to hold Asian Americans back when advancing to leadership positions. This brings up the question: Are all the Western ideals for leadership necessarily the most effective?

In the book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” author Susan Cain argues that perhaps the traditionally Western leadership skills associated with individuality and extroversion are not the only valuable leadership styles. Rather, Asian cultural traits relating to harmony, hard work and “quiet persistence” are equally important for leaders to have.

Similarly, the Harvard Business Review calls on CEOs to understand the importance of being “uncharacteristically quiet” in their recent article “Bursting the CEO Bubble.” The article explains that even though CEOs are expected to be outspoken, if executives fail to learn the importance of listening and being quiet, they lower their chances of “encountering novel ideas,” which can either come from their peers or themselves.

In fact, decades of social science research have shown that cultural diversity and diversity in thought vastly improve the creativity, innovation and problem-solving abilities of teams. As Relan said, “Having a diverse group of people working on any kind of project brings much wider and broader perspectives, and they can pinpoint issues and then build solutions before the fact rather than after.”

And it follows that this increased innovation makes diversity an obvious incentive from an economic perspective. “In almost any company you can name, the customer base is going to be diverse, and people recognize that they’re just going to do better financially — they’re going to have better solutions and better products the more they represent their customer base,” Kiner said.

— A D D R E S S I N G   T H E   P R O B L E M —

Yin Ling Leung, Chief Strategy Officer and cofounder at Applied Research Works Incorporated, began to learn Western workplace ideals since she was very young. After her father died, her mother became the main source of income for the family. Watching her mother tackle cultural and language barriers all while ensuring her business was running smoothly — being a “boss lady,” as Leung put it — taught her how to navigate the Western world and helped her cultivate the values she would eventually employ in building her company.

In leading her company, which is partially based in Asia, Leung embraces two ideals in cultivating her company’s culture: “truth over harmony” and “disagree and commit.” These principles come together in a marriage of collectivist and individualist problem solving that allows their workplace to be a “democracy of good ideas.” By thoughtfully constructing a setting in which the intersection of Western and Eastern cultures is accounted for, a “culture of truth and respect” can be established.

In Kiner’s consulting work with her company, which sets up the HR infrastructure for companies that are getting off the ground, Kiner has witnessed the foundations of companies’ cultures forming. She believes it is essential for companies to keep diversity goals in mind right from the start.

“Thinking about it [diversity] early is really important, because if you wait until you’re at 15 or 20 employees, you already have the culture, and you have the workforce,” Kiner said. “If you wait until then to hire your first woman or your first person of color, they may already feel that they’re not being represented at that company.”

Without these kinds of goals in mind, companies can end up establishing impenetrable complexes, making it difficult for minorities to join teams. “The question that we hear so often is, ‘Where do we find people who are underrepresented, and how do we hire them?’ And the question that I think needs to go with that is, ‘How do we have a workplace where those people want to join us, and how do we retain them and help them be successful?’” Kiner said. By making sure that companies are representative of the workforce they’re hiring from, diverse teams can be added to and sustained as the company grows.

“If you wait … to hire your first woman or your first person of color, they may aready be feel that they’re not being represented at that company.””

— Mikaela Kiner, founder & CEO

Although she knows that there is value in these large-scale goals corporations commit to, Kiner sees the power in these smaller steps individuals are making. “I remember Jonathan Sposato, who’s an angel investor, talking about a statement he had made a year or so ago that he wouldn’t invest in any companies that didn’t have at least one woman on the board. So he was taking this very individual stance, but you can immediately see the impact, and I think sometimes that is as effective — or more effective — as big programs.”

Another individual effort Kiner remembered came from a stereotypically Western CEO, loud, male and fiercely confident, leading a discussion about executive presence. Western culture typically highlights executive presence to be powerful and immediate, but this CEO took time to highlight one of the quietest women on the team, making it clear that she had powerful executive presence despite the fact that her leadership didn’t present the same way his did.

The bamboo ceiling, a complex, unwieldy product of this intersection of Eastern and Western cultures, has no single villain or victim.

But if companies and leadership teams are to reach their full potential, it is essential that the definition of good leadership is broadened to include those who may lead with soft-power and “quiet persistence,” those who were raised with Asian cultural values, or those who simply identify with Jessica and her story.

As Kiner said, “We miss out on these other forms of leadership, and I think it just takes education and conversation to help people understand what leadership and confidence can look like.”

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