How Asian-Americans Can Keep Climbing the Corporate Ladder

bamboo forest

There’s a vicious cycle of disappointment from each passing generation. Hopeful Asian- Americans face the dissatisfying reality that their dreams of corporate-management success are being overlooked by the outspoken and eccentric. Corporate America is playing a different game and most Asian-Americans aren’t even aware of the rules.

While Asian-American males are strongly represented as professionals in the workforce (23%), they’re underrepresented in executive managerial positions (14%). Asian-American females represent 17% of professional jobs, but are less likely to be represented as executives or managers (12%). In Silicon Valley, CA, where Asian-Americans comprise 30% of technology professionals, a 1993 study showed that they only make up 12.5% of managerial positions.

In a 1999 study by the University of California at Santa Barbara, psychologists identified 14 Asian values that come from Confucius’ teachings. They include collectivism, deference to authority figures, self-control, self-effacement and avoidance of family shame. Although these values do have their strengths in a team setting, they have also limited characteristics that conflict with career advancement. The study also revealed that these values were not found to significantly differ across each passing generation. This means that unless there is a new shift in thinking, the disappointment of the past will continue to dictate the future.


Education isn’t the only key

According to the 2002 data from the US Census Bureau, 44% of Asian-Americans over age 25 have graduated from college, compared to the 27% average for the U.S. population. About 25% of Stanford University undergraduates are of Asian descent, and Asians make up more than 40% of undergraduates at the University of California at Berkeley. In California, while Asian-Pacific Americans comprise 8% of all elementary students, they represent 17% of those in schools in the top 10%. Only 4 percent of Asians in those schools are in the bottom 10%. Far too often, Asians are pressured so heavily to enter certain professions, it may be at the expense of completely neglecting their own aptitudes, personalities, and, most importantly, passions.

Dan Goleman, in his book Working with Emotional Intelligence, calls “emotional intelligence” a greater value in American companies. Unfortunately, the unwavering emphasis on education in Asian culture overshadows the need to develop emotional intelligence. The American values of assertiveness, networking, and self-promotion by Asian-Americans are overwritten with “the loudest duck gets shot” Confucian way of thinking.

Bamboo Ceiling

There is some good news, however. In her book Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling, author Jane Hyun gives deep insights on how Asian-Americans can finally get the well-deserved spots in the corner offices.

“The bamboo ceiling is clearly a nod to the term glass ceiling, a term that has historically been used to address barriers that women and multicultural professionals have faced in the workplace,” she says. “It is the combination of personal and organizational barriers that keep someone from advancing inside an organization. For organizations, it is both the lack of awareness about these differences and the resulting subtle biases that may occur. Another aspect of the bamboo ceiling is deeply imbedded cultural values and norms that impact Asian professionals’ interactions with others and cause others to make judgments about them.”

In many Asian countries, too much eye contact is a sign of disrespect and can come off as rude. The lack of consistent eye contact and a firm handshake may be misunderstood by recruiters and hiring managers.

Hyun suggests finding an experienced mentor. This cannot be stressed highly enough. Great mentors are very much linked to having a great network. As cliché as it sounds, in order to reach the top, it really does matter more who th

Speak your way up

To win more clients, gain recognition, and be selected for more interesting topics, you must be constantly looking for ways to make your accomplishments known. This can be done by taking on high-visibility corporate tasks overseen by senior management or by speaking up in meetings to establish credibility and connect you with others in the company.

Traditional Asian influences such as respect for authority (reluctance to question an expert), emphasis on harmony (backing down when challenged), can profoundly impact Asians’ effectiveness at work with co-workers, clients, managers, and subordinates. Asians need to ensure that their workplace behaviors aren’t being misinterpreted.

For example, the Asian employee’s deep-rooted value of respect for authority may lead colleagues to view him as a “yes man.” While you don’t want to be known as the perpetual devil’s advocate either, you should be able to question someone’s decision without disrespecting his or her authority. If you know the meeting will be a difficult one, you should prepare double-time by checking your sources and prepping the key participants prior to the day of the meeting.

Missing Out

Hyun thinks corporate America is missing out if it doesn’t figure out how to work with Asians. “If there are Asians opting out of firms before they reach their full potential because of a bad manager, or other cultural workplace misunderstanding, we lose out because we miss out on the unrealized contributions they could have offered,” she says. “As more young Asian- Americans enter corporations, I’d like to see more Asians use their cultural attributes as assets in their leadership — to be impacting their organizations positively with their skills, knowledge, and leadership capabilities.”

Perhaps, the future generations of Asian-Americans will be able to leverage the best of both cultures embedded in their upbringing and America to give Asians a chance. You can’t change your skin color, but you can disprove any preconceived prejudices by outwardly living up to your full potential. Some pioneers are already leading the way. It is up to the upcoming generations to break the unkind cycle of the past.

“The key to upward career mobility is self-awareness, recognizing what leadership gaps you need to fill in order to advance your career and taking the time to fill those gaps, and developing relationships with mentors who will help you navigate inside your organization,” says Hyun.

About Peter Nguyen

One of the foremost authorities in Internet marketing and specializes in performance-based direct response using the Internet. Peter has created several multi-million dollar Internet campaigns and is the creator of Advertiser360, which is now being taught at the 2nd ranked entrepreneurship university in the US.