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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

February 7, 2013

Written by Justin Lockenwitz

The Bamboo Ceiling and the Role of Identity

First of all I want to say I’m happy to be on board. I’ve been following Asian and Asian American sociopolitical issues for some time now, and I only hope to create dialogue by outlining major points of discussion related both to intercultural issues between the U.S. and Asian countries, as well as specific issues among Asian America. Being an aspiring professional in the field of Intercultural Relations, I want to work towards bridging the aspects that divide us and encourage more respect and observation of all of our unique identities.

Recently I was able to attend a conference focused on diversity and inclusion at universities at MIT. Among many workshops, one was focused on the issue of the bamboo ceiling. I’m sure most of you are familiar with this concept, but for clarification, the term is borrowed from the phrase “Glass Ceiling” and refers to the barriers in the workplace or society that targets Asian people and prevents or impedes on career advancement and inclusion in the workplace. The phrase was coined by author Jane Hyun in the book Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians. Has anyone read it? It’s on my to-do list.

There are a few key points in this discussion to think about. First, what is the problem? When we think of our society and economy we often pride ourselves that the U.S. values hard work and individual tact over racial and other social categorizations. Ideally, we’d like to promote a “Meritocracy”, where one is judged by their merit. When this isn’t the case, it shines a light on how complex and difficult this process is, and why we need to spend time creating action plans to address this in the workplace, just as we’ve made great strides with combating sexual harassment in the workplace.

So what isn’t working and how is this specific to Asian and Asian Americans? There are a number of salient factors that constitute the problem of the bamboo ceiling. Some are well known, in the case of pure racial discrimination – the typical concept of the old boys club, while a few arose that I found interesting.

We talked a lot about how different values contribute. I think this is a controversial discussion with points on both sides, but generally speaking many of the values in the workplace common in America conflict with values taught in Asian countries and vice versa. You can say “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”, but also managers should recognize the worth in integrating values they aren’t so familiar with and seeing the work as a complex and multi-faceted individual.

According to the workshop and from discussion, the major cultural difference in this case was in how the U.S. values traits such as proactiveness (sometimes downright aggressiveness) and being bold, injecting oneself into conversations and not merely contributing, but controlling the conversation when needed. We say “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. However the saying from the speaker, reflecting his Chinese background says “the loudest duck gets shot” and my favorite is “the tallest grass gets chopped”.

It is easy to feel intimidated when the rules of the game put the dominant class at a continuous advantage by virtue of being born into that class. Like so many social systems, the process feels gamed to perpetuate those already in positions of power by a cycle of reinforcement of dominant values and exclusion of others.

However, in the business world, conforming to norms is simply a matter of pragmatism and often success. Although a particular manager may be sympathetic to these concerns, these “rules” are not easily alterable. So what can we do? Who has the responsibility to adjust? The speaker suggested how multiple concepts of leadership can be integrated into the workplace, and how the employee can be counseled specific to the manner they are most comfortable with.

For example (stereotype:beware!) they felt that Asian and Asian American workers tend to prefer technical traits and may prefer positions of leadership that involve training and managing in the technical aspects of the job. This can be a positive step, but I worry about perpetuating the stereotypes and not addressing ones individuality. This would create a class where leadership positions are more attainable, but susceptible to being treated as inferior to the “main” leadership class. I think a good manager can spend time to assess the abilities of his workers and provide more individualized resources and training without creating a new set of labels. Meanwhile the worker should think about how to “own” their career by spending time outside of their comfort zone as much as possible.

In the end the success may be determined by the relationship between the worker and supervisor and how well the worker feels supported while the manager feels the worker is truly concerned for their developing professional skills. Assessing relationships in the workplace in this sense is a key concern in tackling this issue.

Another issue that I never thought about until this event is the concept of “protective hesitation”. This is a backlash of concerns over racism. The manager is actually too sensitized to issues of discrimination that they don’t give criticism when they should. They feel they are doing well to avoid potential misunderstandings that are perceived as discrimination, and as a result the affected employee doesn’t get the support they need through critical feedback. This is support that other workers of the same perceived identity as the manager do receive.

How do we deal with the manager’s apprehension? This relates to the first matter and can be dealt with similarly. Communication needs to be opened up. The employee should be prepared to receive the criticism as any professional would, while the manager needs to perceive their employee not in a color-blind manner, but with regard to the aspects of their identity that contribute to or hinder their progress, despite being categorized in lenses of dominant values vs. outliers.

Again, the relationship matters, and managers themselves should held accountable to bring out the best in their employees. If we really want to talk about equal access (different than equal result) we do need to adjust from a hierarchical process of “working your way up the ladder”, to a perspective that is concerned with maximizing the human resources in an institution. We need to allow for a supervisor/subordinate relationship that also is a mutually beneficial one.

Equal access is about perceiving appropriate roles rather than seeking equivalency that often results from striving for egalitarianism. I first learned of this concept in a Chinese history class in fact. Mutually (ideally, of course) beneficial roles have been a part of Chinese society for quite some time, and can be seen as an alternative to our obsession with equivalency in this country.

The last topic was brought up in discussion by a colleague and relates to identity. At the end of the day, a lot of advancement in the workplace results simply from the rapport one has in their workplace community. It is easy for people who perceive their identities as similar to build rapport and quite frustrating and intimidating for people born outside of the dominant identities at play in the workplace. My colleague explained how she must initially put on a workplace identity, and slowly introduce her real self over time.

Perhaps this can be said of all of us, but the distance one has to go is far greater for someone with an identity outside of the mainstream. Again, it’s all about relationships. Forming them, acknowledging them and nurturing them from both sides. While it is hard to accomplish as a member of a minority group, it is important to consider how it is that much more demanding to overcome when you face multiple identity barriers, as in the case for Asian American women in the workplace.

This topic can be continued at great length and I encourage you to bring up other key points. The takeaway from this is first to establish this dialogue. I do believe that a lot of what we perceive as ignorance is really lazy obliviousness. Getting these issues out there is the first step. Secondly, for the role of the human resource department, there needs to be a focus on a workplace that nurtures positive relationships, between everyone of course, but more importantly between supervisors and subordinates.

And lastly, both the supervisor and employee should be encouraged to spend time outside of their comfort zone. The whole issue with identity and discrimination is that it is just so much easier to think and work among people you see as “like you”. But this often doesn’t, and sometimes even opposes, progress and positive results.

What about you? Have you faced this concept of bamboo ceiling in your own life. If you don’t identify as someone affected by this, have you considered the issue of protective hesitation? Do you truly treat the subject as an individual or do you just replace one bad discriminatory behavior for another? Have you ever spoken up or wanted to speak up when you observed this from others in your workplace?