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Bamboo Ceilings: A 2-way street

Clinton Chan Clinton Chan May 18, 2020 · 10 mins read
Bamboo Ceilings: A 2-way street
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Are passive Asians partly to blame for the “Bamboo Ceiling”?

My mother likes to give me plenty of shit advice — most of it is totally unwarranted and bordering on offensive. But there is one thing she told me as a child that will never leave me: that no matter how smart, strong, or capable I am, in the “real world” I might be overlooked because I’m not “white”.

She believed that when choosing between me and a less capable “white” candidate for a job, I might be overlooked because I don’t fit the workplace “culture” (which might be Anglocentric). She would even go so far as to suggest that there are some activities that Asians should avoid, like politics or contact sports.

I don’t wholly agree with this, but I can see how a lot of Asians (especially those raised in Western cultures) might often feel second-rate as result of limited opportunities, myself included.

In Australian society people of Asian heritage make up only 3% of those in leadership (despite being 12% of the population), and no doubt some of this will come down to some level of silent discrimination and undervaluing, a result of the concept known as the “Bamboo Ceiling”.

But I also wonder — how much of this is also down to our self-deprecating nature, our cultural “passivity”, and unshakeable Confucian notions of piety to elders and family that have been bred into us. This article aims to explore evidence for and against the idea that the “Bamboo Ceiling” is self-imposed. It also talks about how we as Asians might be able to usurp the facade of passivity.

Disclosure: I’m not going to limit what I mean by “Asian”. No doubt I’m speaking from an East Asian (Chinese) perspective but everything in this article could equally be applied to South Asian or South-East Asian experiences too. I also cannot make claims for Asians of different socio-economic backgrounds who will experience more extreme forms of disenfranchisement.

I. What is the “Bamboo Ceiling”?

The “Bamboo Ceiling” is the idea that the Asians living within Western societies are unconsciously dismissed or actively excluded from positions of influence on the basis of considerations like a perceived lack of leadership stature, or poor communication skills. It was first coined by Jane Hyun in 2005 with reference to Asian-Americans but is arguably an experience felt by all Asians living and working in Western societies. According to Hyun, as the majority of Asians don’t conform to Anglo or Eurocentric cultural norms, their potential is unconsciously dismissed by non-Asian members of society.

How’s it different to the Glass Ceiling?

It’s similar in the sense that like women, Asians are effected by a metaphorical invisible barrier which prevents them from reaching positions of power and leadership. Now imagine being an Asian and female… :/

II. How is this a problem today?

You would be forgiven for thinking that countries like Australia or the UK have reached peak multiculturalism. In many ways many Western societies have well-functioning and diverse societies. But the “Bamboo Ceiling” isn’t about Apartheid-style systemic racism, it’s about a more nascent form of unchecked prejudice.

The heralded Australian heart surgeon Victor Chang (right)

Whether it be in politics or in job interviews, individuals of Asian heritage are systemically disadvantaged and overlooked, which sees them prevented from rising the ranks of society or their given field of work. In Australia, we undoubtedly have notable Asian-Australians: Dr. Victor Chang and Anh Do are exemplary individuals heralded as the fruits of multiculturalism, and rightly so. But for the majority of Asians, systemic disadvantages persist. A 2010 study from ANU for example, found substantial racial discrimination against job applicants with a Chinese name needed to submit 68% more applications than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts to reap the same number of interviews. I hope that things have changed in 10 years, but studies like this are evidence that systemic prejudices do exist in society to limit the opportunities for Asians.

Politics is another area. How can Asians become leaders if nobody votes for them? In Australia, out of 227 federal MPs and Senators there are… wait for it, THREE politicians (about 1%) of Asian backgrounds. Of course it’s hard to elect more politicians of Asian heritage if few run for their seat in the first place, but at the same time Australia arguably doesn’t do a good job of encouraging minorities to participate in politics. Recent attacks by the Australian media on MP Gladys Liu for example, aren’t very encouraging for Asian-Australians like myself, if every MP with a Chinese surname is implicated as a mole for the CCP.

Unconscious Biases

Outside of politics, unconscious biases held by non-Asians actively undervalue Asians on a daily basis and form the foundation of a more nascent “Bamboo Ceiling”. Asians living in Western societies are often seen as the “model minority”: we’re hard working, family-oriented, and aren’t known to create criminal or terrorist incidents. But being the “model minority” is a double-edged sword, it can mean that we are also seen as passive and subservient, and not quite manager potential.

Seen and not heard: Asians are considered passive and expected to acquiesce

On a personal level, I regularly experience this undervaluing through unconscious biases with one experience in high school being especially clear. I was a keen actor in senior school and had been part of major productions, but always as a background character. One day during an audition for a leading part, I asked my drama teacher why she’d never cast me in a more prominent role despite my clear “stage presence”. She brushed it aside saying that she’d never really found a leading role that she could see me in. I probed further and politely asked if she might have not seen me in that light because I was Asian, and that she might have harboured hidden biases. Mortified she accused me of calling her racist and ultimately revoked my audition calling me “rude” and “quick to assume”.

Sure a play is a play but my teacher’s inability to recognise her own biases could be considered part of a social undertone of apathy towards the brilliance of Asians. Where I thought I could fill a leading role, she saw nothing but an understudy — undervalued again.

III. Are Asians Part of the Problem?

The pivotal question, however, is whether we as Asians hold up half of this “bamboo ceiling” and in many ways I would say a resounding “yes”.

Sure, society hasn’t given us the best footing, but we also tend to perpetuate unconscious biases and limit ourselves.

The Dead Hand of Confucius

Being unassuming and self-effacing is a major Confucian trait

For many Asians, Confucius isn’t really someone we think about often, but he is the cultural undercurrent of South-East Asian and East Asian societies. From concepts like filial piety to lack of self-promotion, and looking at life from a communitarian lens (thinking of the consequences to your parents and extended family), Confucian social ethics are still an immense part of most Asian migrant families in the West.

But it’s this Confucian upbringing that is partly to blame for the existence of the “Bamboo Ceiling” — this is not to say that we need to do away with Confucian values entirely, but it’s important to recognise situations where we may have blocked ourselves off from an opportunity because of this implicit way of thinking. If you’ve ever made a decision against acting on something (e.g. choosing a commerce degree over studying interior design) because commerce carried more prestige for your parents, that’s arguably implicit Confucian thinking. Similarly, if you’ve ever refrained from questioning someone higher in rank (whether politely or impolitely) because you felt it best to take faith in someone’s authority, that’s Confucianism limiting your potential to think critically and challenge.

I must stress however, that Confucianism is still important in the lives of people of Asian heritage and in many ways it’s the key to a happy family life. But when it comes to outside of the home it might be a good idea to begin recognising how it becomes limiting, and making amends to change.

Introversion by Nature

In a similar vein and arguably stemming from a Confucian upbringing, Asians may often self-identify as “introverted” leading them to voice their opinions less or feel less compelled to draw attention to themselves. There isn’t any quantitative data on this but plenty of qualitative conjecture, that people of Asian heritage feel this way.

There’s nothing wrong with introversion but when it comes to the workplace or opportunities to create influence, and when 63% of Asian men feel stalled in their careers toward middle-age, you have to wonder if Asians in Western societies stagnate their own opportunities through introversion. My own father has done this by shying away from drawing attention or credit to himself in work settings — as such, he’s stayed in the same role for 20 years.

Even if we are not actually introverted, the oft quoted “model minority” lens with which Asians are viewed may compound any mildly introverted tendencies we have. Unfortunately for Asians in Western society it may realistically be the case that we need to work harder to disband this passive facade.

IV. Breaking Bamboo

So what can Asians in Western societies do? No doubt not all Asians are equal and there can be vast social, cultural, and economic disparities meaning the “Bamboo Ceiling” is more prominent for some Asians than others. Here are some smaller actions we can take to start breaking the ceiling:

  • Don’t Doubt Yourself: Confucianism is built on the idea that we shouldn’t self-promote, that we should be critical of our own abilities. Sure a person should be humble but it’s also important to recognise when you are being your own biggest hindrance. When you refrain from doing something, ask yourself WHY you doubt yourself in this why, and how rationally founded that belief is. At the end of the day, what is the worst that could happen?
  • Channel your BWME: You know what Big Dick Energy is, so here comes “Big White Man Energy”. A White man will brush past you in a busy subway tunnel to make the lift, with zero f*cks given. A White man will apply to a job that says 5+ years experience when he only has 3 and is about to be made redundant — he knows “fake it till you make it” will solve the rest. Truthfully, a lot of life’s ascendency is just the ability to sell yourself with unwavering passion and unfounded conviction. I’m not saying you should be untruthful or arrogant but a little self-embellishment at the right moments can’t hurt!
  • Challenge Assumptions: This is particularly important at work. If a colleague or manager makes a claims that you think is a little suspicious, question it. Don’t ridicule them, but it helps to be rational and constructive in your critique of others. Prove to yourself and others that you are not passive, that you are thoughtfully inquisitive, but also pragmatic and realistic in your goals.

V. Last Words

No doubt my experiences here are subjective. However I believe that if people of Asian heritage living in Western societies wish to receive more recognition, we need to understand our own contribution to the perceived “Bamboo Ceiling”.

“Kevin’s Dead” is a blog about ascendancy, ambition, and doing away with passivity. In this blog you’ll find the musings of an Australian-Chinese millennial who is tired of being faceless and being another “Kevin”.

If you’re looking for bold opinions with no f*cks given, and a fresh Antipodean perspective, take the blue pill and follow. Kevin’s Dead

Clinton Chan
Written by Clinton Chan
Guest Poster - Curious about all things tech, economics, philanthropy, and developmental political theory