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Does The 'Bamboo Ceiling' Shut Asian Americans Out Of Top Jobs?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We'd like to start the program today talking about a term you may or may not have heard; the bamboo ceiling, like the so-called glass ceiling, which refers to women who, despite their qualifications, don't seem to get to the top ranks of their fields. Bamboo ceiling refers to the barriers some Asian-American professionals believe that they face when trying to reach leadership roles in the workplace.

According to DiversityInc, Asian-Americans make up only 2.6 percent of the corporate leadership of Fortune 500 companies; this despite the fact that Asian-Americans have the highest levels of education and income in the country. We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called upon Linda Akutagawa. She is the president and CEO of Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, or LEAP. This is a group that conducts leadership training for Asian-American executives and also consultants with corporations on these issues. Linda, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

LINDA AKUTAGAWA: Great. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Also joining us is writer Wesley Yang, who's written at length on this issue. Wesley, thank you for coming as well.

WESLEY YANG: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Linda, let's start with you. I think people are familiar with the idea of the glass ceiling. Is the bamboo ceiling essentially the same idea?

AKUTAGAWA: Yes, very much so.

MARTIN: What's the evidence of it?

AKUTAGAWA: Well, I think if you look in terms of education and, as some would say, the representation just in terms of looking at where Asian-Americans are in corporate America in the workforce, and why is it that if there can be so many people who have the education. As well as, I would say, even the skills and the abilities, why they aren't better represented.

But that applies across the board to a lot of people of color as well, as women as well, too. But definitely I think there's a misperception that Asian-Americans are perhaps much better represented at those senior-most levels. But our numbers really show it. You mentioned the 2.6 percent board representation, yet if you look at population numbers, we're about 6 percent. Then if you start comparing it in - to the representation in an average number at different companies - let's say even if you use 5 to 10 percent, we're still underrepresented.

MARTIN: Could - each of you in your work has asked yourselves some hard questions, so I think that we should be able to do that as well. So, Linda, do you think that this is racism or is it something else?

AKUTAGAWA: I think it could be a combination of many different things. I won't say that it's only the structure, but there is I think a baked-in kind of assumption of what leaders are supposed to look like, what leaders are supposed to act like. And when it's different, then people sometimes have a hard time seeing beyond that and it really takes someone who can look beyond that.

At the same time, when we're working with our populations, our community, we're also asking them hard questions as well too - what are you doing to understand the organizational culture? What are you doing to build the relationships that you do need to have to be able to be seen as a viable candidate?

MARTIN: Wesley, what are you? What about you? What do you think?

YANG: I think that if we sort of - there's a traditional assumption that racism is about overt hatred and or a conscious policy of discrimination that's designed to keep some people out or to keep some people down. And first of all, the sort of - the empirical predicate here is that the further you go in almost any institution in American life - profit or nonprofit sort of, but especially in Fortune 500 corporate America, which is the area where the elite operates - the further you go up within an organizational structure, the more white and male, the less minority and female those organizations almost all become. And to me, it's really a matter of, like, small daily transactions that exact a toll on women and minorities; that we produce a power structure without there being sort of like an overt intention to keep women and minorities out.

So I want to give you a very simple and clear example of how this functions. A friend of mine was an associate at an elite white-shoe New York City law firm. And there was a complicated case the partner was involved in. And he was in the process of dividing up the work between three associates. And he said to my friend Ken - who is Chinese-American - Ken, you were an engineer, right? You take on this part of the case. And he proceeded to give him an enormously difficult and technical set of complicated technical answers - questions to answer. Now, Ken was an English major in college. And one of the associates - a white guy - had been a math major, but the math major was happy to take on the less technically difficult part of the assignment. And Ken had to struggle with the math.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you whether Ken had been an engineer, and you're saying no. I just want to make sure everybody heard that. Ken was not an engineer.

YANG: So was Ken the victim of racism, you know? Probably not in the sense that we think of when we think of Donald Sterling's racism. But it's probably more accurate to say that he was a victim of a kind of misrecognition that was possibly, but not necessarily provably, the result of stereotypes that the partner carried with him.

Now, this is a minor incident, but if you iterate this over time, you can see how the constant iteration of minor advantages can turn into major disparate outcomes when you project it - extrapolate it over the course of 5 or 10 years.

MARTIN: Well, you know, can I ask each of you about this? Because, again, both of you have grappled with this question yourself. Linda, I'll start with you on this. The data most often cited on this question - and if you're just joining us, we're talking about something called the bamboo ceiling. That's the barrier that some Asian-Americans believe that they face when it comes to executive level or leadership roles. We're talking about this with Linda Akutagawa of the Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics and freelance writer Wesley Yang.

The data, Linda, that's often cited in this question of the disparity about what - where Asian-Americans should be compared to where they are when it comes to leadership roles is grades and scores - you know, college graduation rates, standardized test scores, high median income. Couldn't a reasonable person say, so what? I mean, there are a lot of successful people who never graduated from college; I mean, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Peter Jennings, newscasters like Brian Williams, Matt Lauer. Yes, they're all white men. But people would say, well, that's not a one-to-one correlation. So why is that the metric that's being used to say it should be this or that?

AKUTAGAWA: Because I think that that is the narrative of the American way. I mean, it's this whole idea that if you study hard, if you work hard, that you will be rewarded. And I think there's a lot of people who are told, you know, get a good education, and that will lead to success. And, yes, it does lead to a certain measure of success for some people, not all people. And obviously there are examples of those who have done very well without an education.

I think what's sometimes out of context is that we don't know what the background of these people are. You know, where do they come for? I mean, Bill Gates came from a rather privileged background. And he had a number of other, I would say, advantages that perhaps - or privileges, you know. There's a lot of talk about privilege in this society and especially privilege that is accorded to those who are particularly male and white.

MARTIN: Yeah, but we're talking about leadership. We're talking about a very narrow funnel, you know, of leadership. And then the question is whether or not there's a one-to-one correlation between achieving in one realm...

YANG: Well...

MARTIN: ...And being rewarded for it in another. I mean, Wesley, you wrote about this, so talk to me about it. Tell - what do you think?

YANG: So clearly, there is no one-to-one correspondence between grade-based meritocracy, which is a very sort of narrow approach to who is better and who is worse based upon metrics that are easily quantifiable, and leadership, which is based upon metrics that are not so easily quantifiable. And one big part of that equation is, to what extent are you able to give social comfort to the people that are already in dominant positions in American corporations? And a lot of the sort of Asian leadership training, including the work that LEAP does, is all about sort of casting that question as a set of cultural competencies and skills that can actually be taught.

So like any person that wants to be sort of a candidate for elevation into leadership has to have three things happen; they have to attract the notice, they have to receive the mentorship, and they have to win the sponsorship of somebody who is already in that arena. And contrary to any rumors that might be floating around on the Internet about the decline or eclipse of the straight, white American male, this group is still overwhelmingly the dominant force in just about every institution of American life, particularly Fortune 500 companies.

MARTIN: So you're saying that - well, but you also, in your piece, which is quite lengthy and complex - a piece - you wrote a very lengthy piece in New York Magazine about this a while ago. I wanted to sort of mention that it's a very complex and kind of nuanced piece. But you also talk about, there was some upbringing factors that you think also may play a role. Do you want to talk about that? As I said, you asked yourself the hard questions, so I think...

YANG: Sure. No, I think that the way...

MARTIN: ...We should all be asking, what about that?

YANG: I mean, look, this is an explicit part of what LEAP does in its training with Asians professionals, which is that, you know, they sort of involve in this - they involve them in this process of introspection where they ask them to say, what are the sort of terms that come to mind? What are our associations, you know, from Asian culture and what are our - the norms and expectations that we understand to be the case for leaders in corporate America? And what they show is that there's almost no overlap between these two terms. So it may well be the case that many Asian professionals arrive in the workplace with a set of culturally ingrained sets of, what is appropriate behavior, ways to relate themselves to superiors and to elders, that may well be a recipe for invisibility.

MARTIN: Yeah, like not hanging out with people after work, focusing on the substance, not the social relationships.

AKUTAGAWA: Or maybe even...

YANG: All of the above.


AKUTAGAWA: Yeah, and a lot of it is even just not even bragging about how - you know, all the good stuff that they're doing, you know, all the work that they're producing. A lot of Asian-Americans are taught, you know, you just work hard. And you keep your nose to the grindstone, and you will be recognized.


AKUTAGAWA: And you don't have to talk about yourself.

MARTIN: So not wanting to make anybody's head spin off their neck, I'm going to ask you the Oprah question, which is oftentimes when people complain about disparities among African-Americans that people say, well, Oprah, you know, or Barack Obama. And so let me ask you, Linda. Why don't I give you the final word here? What would success look like?

AKUTAGAWA: I think success is, you know, just being able to not make it a surprise that we see someone who is Asian-American or even of a person of color, someone who is diverse, and it just not be such a big deal. I mean it should be just part and parcel of just what we see. And people come, people go - we know that. That's corporate life. But at the same time, we want to be able to see, you know, folks be able to really be able to compete and achieve and really have their chance at leading these companies.

MARTIN: Optimistic or pessimistic about that? Are you...

AKUTAGAWA: I think there are exceptions right now. And I think there are those who are - I won't say fortunate, but have done well. But I think they're - in some ways right now, they're still the exception to the rule. I think there's a lot of ground to be broken. And I think I'm going to try to be as optimistic as possible, but I think it's still going to take a while.

MARTIN: All right, Linda Akutagawa is the president and CEO of Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, or LEAP. She was kind enough to join us from our studios at NPR West, which are in Culver City, Calif. Wesley Yang is a freelance writer. He joined us from his home office in New York City. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

AKUTAGAWA: Thank you.

YANG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.