Beyond the bamboo ceiling: Breaking barriers and overcoming stereotypes
Visible yet invisible. That’s often the situation Asians and Asian Americans find themselves in within the tech industry in the United States. They are heavily represented in large companies and startups, but often as employees rather than employers or managers.
Discrimination isn’t obvious, but when you’re passed up for an opportunity, it’s easy to wonder whether race, culture, or ethnicity — and the stereotypes surrounding those identities — has something to do with it.
Breaking the “bamboo ceiling,” as some people refer to this phenomenon, is not just about finding a different path toward leadership. At a recent panel discussion in New York City sponsored by Samsung NEXT, Asian Americans working in the tech sector attested that it had as much to do with navigating the pros and cons of being perceived as a model minority as it does with questioning the assumptions and generalizations of different Asian identities.
Rejecting the myth of the model minority
The “model minority” stereotype asserts that because of so-called “innate” Asian characteristics, such as diligence, obeisance, and deference, Asians are able to learn more, earn more, and therefore have a higher aptitude toward success.
But that myth is driven by white supremacy, says Christiana Ting, partnerships manager at Facebook. It wedges different communities of color against each other and reinforces a hierarchy and ideas of who is a “good immigrant” or is part of a “good community.”
“In its own weird, veiled way, it kind of it puts Asians on a pedestal, while also ignoring a lot of the challenges that we continue to face, like lack of representation in media and lack of leadership positions in large companies,” she says.
Defining who is Asian
Even the question of whether Asians are a minority in tech is a loaded one. Statistics may show they are not unfamiliar faces, but their presence in leadership and decision-making roles is relatively small, which hints they have less influence and authority compared to their white counterparts.
There’s also a breadth of diversity within the term “Asian,” Ting says. But in Silicon Valley, the superficial understanding of Asian might be East Asian or South Asian, she says. To then say Asians have a strong presence in the Valley, without considering whether that includes Southeast Asians, for example, ignores a huge swath of the demographic.
The Silicon Valley definition of Asian also doesn’t account for the multitude of histories and experiences enveloped in sub-regional Asian identities.
“Whether your parents came in the wave of immigration in the late ’60s, early ’70s, or whether you came because you were fleeing your country through war, those are two very, very different positions,” says Gary Chou, founder of Orbital, a studio for building networks. “I consider Asian Americans to be minorities in tech, but I also see that Asian Americans have a fair amount of privilege and power that they need to exercise. And I think that is where I see a lot of challenges.”
Death by a million paper cuts
A phrase known to women that many minorities also experience is “death by a million paper cuts,” says Ting. It’s hard to prove discrimination. Yet the gut reaction that a person experiences in the workplace, buoyed by self-doubt, can be a warning sign. Moreover, the model minority stereotype feeds on the general awareness that some Asians do come from privileged backgrounds. Living inside this myth often leaves people silent about what to do when faced with subtle forms of discrimination.
Chou says the experience forces people to build up their radar over time to identify signs of stereotyping. Some Asian workers also adapt by relying on their ability to adjust their communication based on culture and familiarity, says Eugene Lewis, a founding member and partner at Republic, an equity crowdfunding spin-off of AngelList. This technique, called “code switching,” may occur at home as well, but in the workplace, one must understand what is culturally acceptable and validated to succeed, and code switch accordingly.
For example, when Lewis was working in Beijing, he says, it was normal to defer to senior colleagues regardless of how you felt. “You typically wouldn’t voice active dissent, or vehemently disagree with others” as a junior employee, he says.
His experiences in China gave Lewis culture shock when he returned to the U.S. In the American workplace, he saw that people uninhibited to show dissent were often rewarded, because it showed they had strong opinions. When it came time to consider who to promote, or who could be considered a leader, a strong personality seemed to matter more than respect for seniors.
It was a blow to his “cultural confidence,” Lewis says, when he realized he had to adjust from his training in China. “But that’s an important challenge that I had to overcome, in the sense of being confident that my opinion was equal to someone who may have had five or 10 more years of experience, but I may have a different angle,” he says.
Alternatively, some Asians who leave Silicon Valley to work for Asian tech companies may encounter the opposite experience Lewis had: They’re so used to the western way of working that an Asian environment is a culture shock, even if it seems like it could be some kind of homecoming on the surface.
“As an American-born Asian person, and someone who is very westernized, and who has lived in China, and now works for a Korean company, I can also probably guarantee that there is a huge gulf between western culture and East Asian culture,” Ting says. “Language differences aside, communication styles are very different. The way that you treat your coworkers, your colleagues, your teachers is very different. So I don’t know if that’s a fix.”
It’s a challenge for people of color who are born in western countries to then determine what kind of cultural environment can help them grow, she says. “I don’t feel maybe necessarily at home in America, but then… I go back to wherever my homeland is, and I don’t feel fully part of that culture either. So I think it’s both a blessing and a curse, you belong to two cultures, but you also belong to no culture.”
Building a network
Navigating a specific identity, or multiple identities, will always carry burdens and privileges. Ting says she tries to act on a local, rather than industry-wide, level, to make that process a little easier.
“I look at my day-to-day interactions with people, things that I have control over,” she says. “If there are introductions that I can make. If there’s ways that I can make my own office more inclusive, or favors that I can do people, or connections that I can make. I try and focus on my individual impact as opposed to looking at these big problems and kind of despairing.”
A pay-it-forward attitude also helps to build the networks necessary to mainstream changes and acquire influence — whether it’s for your community or others, Chou says.
“Success is a function of whether or not you have access to the networks that you need,” he says. “Money, information, power, are all derived from access to networks. And so, often the thing that you need to do is not go build the thing, it’s to go build the network that will enable you to build the thing.”
Breaking the bamboo ceiling won’t come immediately, he says. But a network offers a platform for people to put signals out into the world, and find the people who share the same ideas and concerns, or are asking the same questions.
“And it often takes a lot of courage to put those flags out into the world, because you don’t know if anyone else is going to respond to that,” Chou says. “But if you put enough of them out there, someone will respond, and you’ll be able to move forward.”