The Bamboo Ceiling Could Be Costing Business

Woman-on-a-ladder-searchingBy Aimee Hansen

As we enter Asian-Pacific American Heritage month, we can say this about the bamboo ceiling: no matter the myriad of individual, cultural, and organizational factors holding it in place, it’s likely to be costing businesses.

As we look to Asian American women at the top of corporate leadership, Indra Nooyi, Chairperson and CEO of Pepsi Co (for a decade now), ranks #2 in Fortune’s 50 “Most Powerful Women in Business”and #15 in Forbes’“The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women”.

But Nooyi is the only Asian American woman represented in the Fortune ranks and joined only by Chinese-born Weili Dai, Cofounder-President of Marvell Technology Group Ltd, at #95 in Forbes list.

Catalyst data has shown that Asian women make up only 4.4% of manager and above level positions and under 2% of executive positions in S&P 500 companies and 3.7% of board seats. If you really want to know about successful Asian American women business leadership in the U.S., you have to look at a different list.

Self-Made Women Who Grow Businesses

In May, 2015 Forbes introduced a new women in business success list – “America’s Richest Self-Made Women” – which tells a different story about Asian women at the top of successful business ventures in the U.S.

Asian American women claim nine of the 50 spaces across various industries – including #4 (Jin Sook Chang – retail), #13 (Peggy Cherng – food), #14 (Thai Lee – tech), #15 (Neerja Sethi – tech), #21 (Weili Dai – semiconductors), #29 (Jane Hsiao – biotech), #30 (Jayshree Ullal – tech), #34 (Vera Wang – fashion), and #41 (Sachiko Kuno – pharma).

Nearly one in five of the richest self-made women are Asian Americans. Thai Lee’s SHI International is the largest female-owned business in the US according to Forbes and one of the largest minority-owned businesses.

The Wall Street Journal also sums up, based on a new report from the Center for Global Policy Solutions, that minority-owned businesses were “a key driver of business and job-creation”between 2007-2011, responsible for 72.3% of new jobs. The most dramatic shifts were among female entrepreneurs – and most of all, Asian Americans.

The number of Asian American women owned businesses increased by 44% and those hiring paid employees by 37.6% during that time, and these businesses also witnessed an uncommon growth in sales.

According to the center, catalyzing the share of businesses lead by minorities to mirror the minority share of the labor force would result in 1.1 million more businesses, nine million more jobs, and $300 billion in income for workers.

The under-representation of minority female leadership, and resulting missed financial opportunity, is not limited to entrepreneurship. It’s also present with the missing Asian American leaders in corporate America.

The Employee-Executive Gap

Last year, a diversity study across five companies entitled “Hidden in Plain Sight: Asian-American Leaders in Silicon Valley”by Ascend demonstrated that, as put by The Atlantic, “Asian Americans professionals aren’t being promoted”and that showed especially true for women.

The study found that while 27% of professionals across five major tech firms were Asian American, fewer than 19% of managers and less than 14% of executives were. But for Asian American women in the sample, only 1 in 285 were an executive (versus 1 per 201 for Asian Men, 1 per 123 for white women, and and 1 per 87 for white men).

The report states, “The ‘Asian effect’ is 3.7X greater than the “gender effect”as a glass ceiling factor. The Asian effect was measured at ~154% for both men and women. The gender effect was measured at ~42% for both whites and Asians.”

According to The Atlantic, “Rather than blatant discrimination, report coauthors Denise Peck and Buck Gee (and Janet Wong) say, this disparity is a result of implicit biases. They say that Asian Americans need to learn the leadership skills that corporate America values, such as adapting public speaking skills to fit their company, while the executives themselves need to learn how to best retain and promote Asian American talent.”

The Glass Hammer has previously written about the barriers of success for Asian women facing two ceilings (glass and bamboo) that add to a greater whole – barriers such as cultural differences and culturally internalized norms, cultural stereotypes and expectations, social perception and self-perception, and the imposter syndrome.

The report authors identify “three major Asian leadership gaps: a gap in awareness and expectations, a gap in role models, and a gap in behavior”and asserts that both Asian American professionals and companies need to take steps in closing these gaps that contribute to many professionals in “most successful racial group in the United States”from being promoted to leadership roles in tech businesses.

Jane Hyun, author of Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling, speaks to the misperceptions that can come from cultural factors such as holding back to show respect, as well as the importance of self-promotion. “…I realized it’s not just about working hard, but knowing how to communicate what you’re doing, having the right mentors and sponsors, and connecting with people in a way that people understand what you’re doing and the value of what you’re trying to achieve as well.”

Closing the Bamboo Gap

Forums such as The Asian American Business Roundtable, which held its inaugural summit in January, help to address the gaps. One of the specific objectives is to increase the visibility and presence of Asian Americans in the U.S. business area, and the summit included panel discussions with women trailblazers sharing insight on their success.

Where strong cultural gaps exist, the work needs to come from both sides, but one thing is clear: If nearly 1 in 5 of the most monetarily successful self-made women (read: bosses) are Asian American, then the potential for leadership in the corporate world is greater than what is being realized, and that’s a gap that could be costing businesses more than they think.