Tearing Down the Bamboo Ceiling

I had a wake-up call last week while attending the Conference Board’s 2012 Corporate Diversity and Inclusion Conference in Chicago.  The two day event included informative sessions led by nearly every contingent of the American workforce.  Except one.  The Asian voice was missing.  I couldn’t figure out why, and I couldn’t let the question go.

As I started looking for answers, I began to think there was probably some connection with the fact that, sadly, Asians make up roughly 20% of the workforce but hold less than 2% of executive jobs at Fortune 500 companies.  And, according to the Alliance for Board Diversity Census, Asians hold just 2.1% of all Board seats in Fortune 500 companies.

This phenomenon, known as The Bamboo Ceiling, is part of a national dialogue being discussed in Fortune Magazine, Crain’s New York, The Atlantic, and numerous other publications.  The consensus seems to be that the numbers above are partly due to a cultural discomfort with, essentially, “tooting one’s own horn.”   While the absence of “voicing” one’s accomplishments may be typical in the Asian workplace, it’s the complete antithesis of what’s expected of rising stars in corporate America.

As consultant Jane Chang of Global Novations put it,

“Asian-Americans don’t grow up promoting ourselves; our parents do that for us. Most of us are uncomfortable with the idea of marketing and pitching our work, let alone building a network or having internal champions, common strategies for career advancement. We’ve been brought up with the ethics of keep your head down, work hard, and you will make money….We are not accustomed to speaking up. Thus, we are seen as lacking leadership skills – we can’t lead if we don’t offer our opinions.”

Jane Hyun, author of the book, Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians” sums it up nicely by comparing two common idioms.  The first is the Chinese expression, ‘The loudest duck gets shot’; the second is the American saying, ‘The squeaky wheel gets the grease.’

Accent challenges compound this problem.  It makes sense.  Being constantly asked to repeat oneself is hardly incentive for demonstrating leadership skills like being outgoing and engaging in healthy conflict.

There are, however, helpful tools for acquiring the skills needed to “speak up” in ways that leadership takes note of and rewards.  One, of course, is participating in an accent neutralization professional development program.  The other is participating in a local Toast Masters (or similar such) organization.  Many corporations have in-house chapters and some are designed specifically for non-native English speakers.  A little bit of constructive coaching goes a very long way.

ARI’s objective is to help non-native English speakers “speak up” with clarity and confidence.  The only way to reap the benefits of an inclusive environment is to tear down the bamboo, and every other, ceiling.  How else can we see those rising stars shine?