Corporate America’s bamboo ceiling

The time has come to break the “bamboo ceiling” in corporate America. Similar to the glass ceiling that exists for many women in the workplace, the bamboo ceiling is felt by Asian Americans seeking leadership positions within America’s most successful companies.

Despite the achievements and contributions of Asian Americans, we are significantly underrepresented in corporate leadership. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are the fastest growing ethnic group in the U.S., but are being appointed to corporate boards at a paltry rate. According to Heidrick & Struggles Board Monitor, Asian American Directors accounted for only 4.8% of new appointments in 2015. At this rate, how will we ever catch up?

{mosads}Asian American success is often impeded by the “model minority myth,” the false stereotype that we exist in a monolithic community defined by graduate degrees, affluence, and success. In reality, there is inequality across the range of AAPI subgroups; many families have low incomes and struggle financially. The model minority myth contributes to the existence of the bamboo ceiling. It is a fallacy that AAPIs do not need access to opportunities, because they are already successful enough.

The bamboo ceiling contributes to keeping AAPIs in middle management. We are successful at joining companies at entry and mid-level positions, but are underrepresented at senior levels. This is known as the leadership “pipeline” problem. Pipeline issues are self-perpetuating because most boards strongly prefer candidates with prior board or CEO experience, making the pool of AAPI candidates even smaller.

AAPIs make up almost 6% of the U.S. population, but they hold a meager 2.6% of the Fortune 500 board seats, according to Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics. Astonishingly, 77.2% of Fortune 500 companies have no AAPI board representation whatsoever. Even in industries where AAPIs are highly represented, like in Silicon Valley technology companies, they comprise a disproportionately small percentage of leadership. Ascend Foundation reports that AAPIs account for 27.2% of the Silicon Valley workforce, but only 13.9% of the executive and board positions. Corporations bear a responsibility for addressing this disparity and cultivating a pipeline to leadership that allows AAPIs to succeed. 

A commitment to diversity must start at the top and permeate through all levels within a corporation. Presently, the CEOs of Nielsen and Toyota must sign off on executive compensation tied to diversity benchmarks. At New York Life, all of the company’s top-level executives, including the CEO and his direct reports, participate in a mentoring program. The company formally trains mentors on cultural awareness and sponsors high-potential employees from underrepresented groups. Within corporations like Target and Dell, employee resource groups help diverse team members connect and develop relationships. More companies should adopt such models.

It is financially advantageous to have a diverse set of corporate executives. Corporations benefit from the growing strength of the AAPI workforce, but are not offering enough opportunities for growth. Not until more corporations build the pipeline for success and understand the “model minority” myth will the bamboo ceiling break.

Rep. Grace Meng is the first Asian American member of Congress from New York State and the first female Member of Congress from Queens since 1985. 

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