Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling

(Originally published for Psychology Today)

“If you are male, above 6 feet and white, those are the 3 factors that help you be successful in America.”

Sam, a Korean American in San Francisco who is Vice President of a software start-up, says this to me without a hint of doubt in his voice. He has spent enough time in corporate America to know that this is just the way it is.

According to a recent survey with Asian American men across the country, 62% surveyed believe that there are race-related obstacles blocking their own career advancement.

To be clear, Asian Americans have a high representation in white-collar, professional work settings, unlike Black and Latinos who are still a slim minority. But research shows that while Asians make up almost 30% of the workforce in Silicon Valley, only 13% are represented in management and executive levels.

In the media, they call this the “bamboo ceiling.” In a city as diverse as San Francisco, with an Asian population that has surpassed 33%, one would assume there would be proportionately higher Asian leadership. But this is not the case.

Asian Americans are seen as great employees, but still have a long way to go to be the leaders. As a psychotherapist in the Bay Area who works with Asian American professionals, I decided to interview other men to find out how this image may impact their lives.

Sam is fortunate to be 6’2, yet he nevertheless has had his share of being judged by his Asian “younger” appearance, especially when he was first starting out in his career. “I used to be rounder and baby-looking. I was always being asked how old I was, and having to justify my experience and qualifications.”

As he spoke, I couldn’t help but nod in silent understanding. Asian Americans of all genders can relate to the irritating “How old are you?” question. From time to time, getting carded at the bar or asked if I’m still in school can be an annoying, yet harmless, interaction.

But at work, it’s different.

Being perceived as young and asked how old you are by your coworkers and managers can also be felt as a demeaning insult to your intelligence and competence, as well as cause considerable doubt in yourself. Now, just imagine how much more difficult it might be in a work setting where all of your superiors are white.

For Martin, a Chinese American who works in finance management at a law firm, his frustration is clear.

“My biggest trouble is trying to tell these people that I’m capable of the same things as the managers. I’ve asked to be promoted 3–4 times already. I get the feedback, but nothing really comes. At times it really got to me and I wondered whether it was worth it to continue.”

Martin wants to be a manager and later run his own company, but feels there is little opportunity for him to grow. The law firm where he works has very few Asian employees, and all of the managers are white.

Like Sam, Martin noted his young appearance and short height as a limitation and obstacle in being recognized for his talents. Additionally, he has a quiet, reserved personality that doesn’t fit with the culture of social extraversion among white leadership.

Martin isn’t hopeful that things will change. He told me, “If I didn’t have a family to provide for, I’d pack my bags and leave.”

If Sam and Martin feel that white men are the image of success, then they are each likely to wonder how he, an Asian American man, can prove his worth, despite the fact that he does not look the part.

Proving yourself can become an infinite struggle.

Several men I interviewed described how they tend to “overcompensate”, to feel they have to work harder than white men in order to gain the same credibility and chance to level up. This can lead to resentment, increased anxiety, fits of anger, and disruption to work-life balance and personal relationships.

The Solution?

Is the struggle worth it? Maybe.

But instead of working yourself to death to get the respect you seek, it might be more efficient to change what you do have control over, which is how you see yourself. Beliefs about yourself are powerfully influential, driving your thoughts and actions on a mostly unconscious level. While it’s important to validate the reality of race and discrimination, being able to examine your own role in shaping that reality is where empowerment begins.

Here are a couple steps you can take to break out of the bamboo ceiling:

1. Find Your People. You are not alone! Connect with other Asian American professionals and seek out role models and mentors who can relate to your experience.

2. Be Seen and Heard at Work. Sit at the table, as Sheryl Sandberg advises women. Take risks to do things you’ve never done.

3. Go Deeper. It is often frustrating to hear others say that the onus is on you to take responsibility when the larger society gets let off the hook. If left unaddressed, these feelings can seep their way into your personal and professional life, secretly sabotaging opportunities for success. In these times, speak to a therapist to examine the thoughts and feelings that hold you back.

Asian men (and women) have the potential to be great leaders, managers and CEOs. But first, they must see it within themselves.

To learn about building confidence and developing leadership skills or share your own story, email I’d love to hear from you.