The Bamboo Glass Ceiling

Asian American women face particular challenges in the workplace. And they’re not getting the attention they need.

An Asian American woman climbs a ladder into the sky but hits a glass ceiling, above which white men in suits do business amongst themselves.
Doris Liou

A woman in marketing says she finds herself toning down her assertive personality around white male colleagues. Another, a photographer, says she’s never assumed to be the one behind the camera. A university professor says she’s regularly mistaken for a student on campus. Others, such as Ellen Pao and Charlyne Yi, have found themselves in the headlines for workplace sexism stories familiar to many women. But these women, all Asian American, may find the usual “glass ceiling” explanations of what they face miss the mark. But neither does the idea of a “bamboo ceiling” quite capture the ever-present obstacle hanging just overhead. In the year following the multi-industry #MeToo reckoning, Asian American women are still struggling to bust the “model minority” myth and to have their professional setbacks recognized and addressed.

The model minority myth overshadows the real hurdles Asian Americans face, from career advancement to poverty. Although some see the myth—which stereotypes the entire demographic as hard-working, educated, and successful due to their quiet discipline—as something that protects Asian Americans from the hatred and targeting experienced by other racial minorities, others argue that it assumes Asian Americans don’t face barriers—and even have an edge thanks to their Asian-ness.

A recent report on Silicon Valley from the Ascend Foundation revealed that Asians, though the largest racial cohort in the industry, are the racial group least likely to be promoted to manager and executive positions. In the legal field, Asian Americans have the highest attrition rate and rank at the bottom in the ratio of partners to associates, according to a report from Yale Law School. “If you look at the junior levels of any type of industry, you can see quite a few Asian Americans, but as you get more and more senior, they’re not [there],” says Yung-Yi Diana Pan, an assistant professor of sociology at Brooklyn College–City University of New York.

Statistics citing higher earnings for Asians compared with their white counterparts often lead to broad generalizations about Asian American prosperity and feed directly into the model minority myth. They ignore that nearly 1 in 4 Asians in New York City live in poverty, according to the Mayor’s Office of Operations, and erase differences between Asian Americans—for example, Indian and Taiwanese women drastically out-earn Hmong and Burmese women.

But for Asian American women, the model minority myth manifests itself in especially ugly forms that derive in part from our cultural fixation on Asian women as sexual objects. In a 2015 study for RacismReview, author and activist Sharon Chang researched public perceptions of women of color, including Asians, through Google’s search algorithm. Chang found that Asian women were the least likely to be viewed as leaders and most likely to be fetishized.

The infantilization of Asian women, who report being treated as younger than they are, is another cultural barrier. “We’re seen as younger, more naive, less experienced, on top of less American,” says Lata Murti, an associate professor of sociology at Brandman University who researches the experiences of female Indian doctors.

The very public reckoning against sexual harassment of this past year has revealed very little about what Asian American women endure in the workplace. Earlier this year, BuzzFeed News noted that Asian American women in Hollywood are less likely to report harassment for fear of retribution or further marginalization in the industry. Not to mention reporting can be met with derision and dismissiveness, as in the case of comedian Charlyne Yi, who alleged that David Cross was racist toward her a decade ago. Just as the #MeToo movement expanded past Hollywood, Asian women face the same hurdles across all professional industries.

Harassment in the workplace looks different for women of color, including Asian women. Racial prejudice can present itself in the form of stereotypes and microaggressions, some of which are directly contradictory with one another. On the one hand, stereotypes can stem from notions of Asian women as too intense or aggressive, such as the tiger mom or the dragon lady, says Murti. On the other hand, the stereotype might be just the opposite, the submissive—“a good follower, but not a good leader,” she says.

“Neither of those images bode well for upward mobility,” Pan says. “If you’re perceived as passive, you’re not going to be groomed to be a leader. … But if you’re perceived as too assertive, you can then alienate your colleagues.” Silicon Valley, for instance, provides evidence of this clash: Asian women are the least likely to become executives of all groups divided by race and gender. And Murti says that the female Indian doctors she interviewed were often mistaken for nurses. “In nearly any context, the assumption is that they couldn’t be the doctor … and they had to keep asserting their medical authority in that realm,” she says.

“I’m a very assertive person,” says Maria Cruz Lee, a 31-year-old Filipino American digital marketing director for the City University of New York. “The idea that Asian women are more quiet [and] won’t push back as much, I think, is what throws off a lot of my colleagues when I’m no holds barred.”

And even as Asian American women advance in their careers, they continue to feel like outsiders. “There have been times where I have been mistaken for either a student or an intern and not as a faculty member due to assumptions about who is typically a faculty member,” says 34-year-old Kimberly McKee, an assistant professor at Grand Valley State University and Korean American adoptee.

Regarding work as a constant battleground is an “emotional tax” on workers and can take a toll on one’s mental and physical health. A Yale Law School study found that Asian American attorneys tend to experience mental health issues at higher rates. “I think it’s often the stress of never really feeling professionally fulfilled or satisfied,” Murti says. “Income doesn’t tell the whole story.”

The Yale study also reported that Asian Americans lack access to mentors, an important resource in almost every field. Great mentors can set you up for success, while the abuse of mentorship can have lasting damage on women’s careers.

State Rep. Stephanie Chang, the first Asian American woman elected to the Michigan Legislature, was asked to run by her predecessor and friend, Rashida Tlaib, the first Muslim American woman in the Michigan Legislature. Thirty years old during her first campaign, Chang says she experienced skepticism from voters and wonders if her gender, age, and race made her vulnerable to attacks. “If not for her [Tlaib’s] mentorship and willingness to be persistent, I probably would never have even thought about doing it,” Chang says.

Advocacy groups are actively working to improve both racial and gender parity across multiple sectors, while others are starting conversations on the impact of sexual harassment on Asian American female professionals. But there’s more to be done. “Numbers can only tell us so much,” Pan says. “What we haven’t really talked about is how institutional cultures need to also change. If they’re bringing in scores of Asian American women or just folks of color in general, but the culture’s still straight, white, male culture, it’s not going to be hospitable to people who don’t align with those identities.”