There are no simple answers to cracking the ‘bamboo ceiling’

The facts show that Asians hold disproportionately fewer jobs at the highest echelons of corporations in the English-speaking world, yet it would be naive to blame ethnic traits or racism to explain the disparities

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 November, 2017, 1:26am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 November, 2017, 1:26am

A new report about corporate leadership in the United States has, once again, raised questions about the so-called bamboo ceiling. Citing data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the US, the non-profit group Ascend claims the problem is serious.

Asians held 47 per cent of professional jobs in Silicon Valley tech companies in 2015, slightly more than Caucasians. But at top levels, they were far outnumbered, holding only one in four executive positions, compared with almost 70 per cent taken by Caucasians.

Across other major corporate sectors, the numbers tell the same story. Though not mentioned, Hollywood is another industry where Asian actors have complained about being marginalised.

‘Bamboo ceiling’ seemingly keeping a lid on Asians in top ranks of corporate America

Back in 2014, a similar claim was made in Australia by Tim Soutphommasane, the country’s race discrimination commissioner. Among statistics he cited was that only 1.9 per cent of executive managers and 4.2 per cent of company directors had Asian origins, but one in 10 Australians had an Asian background.

Are Asians discriminated against in the English-speaking business world? “Asian” is a broad category that could cover anyone originally from the whole region. But in the context of “bamboo ceiling”, it’s often referred to those of Indian, Chinese or Korean descent.

Whenever this debate is raised, two opposing answers inevitably shout out loudly. One is that Asians are disciplined, studious and make good students and employees. But these are not necessarily qualities that make good leaders, creative risk-takers, pioneers or business founders. The opposing argument can be made in one word: racism.

Asians hitting ‘bamboo ceiling’ in Australia, discrimination commissioner says

The first position doesn’t hold water. After all, ethnic Chinese dominate the business world across Southeast Asia. Of the 35 tycoons and company founders profiled by journalist Joe Studwell in his 2007 book Asian Godfathers, 29 are of Chinese origin. The ethnic Chinese upper class owns disproportionate amounts of country assets in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines.

The opposing argument – racism – was certainly true throughout the last century but is less valid today. While racism exists everywhere, the claim that it is systemic across the English-speaking corporate world is hard to sustain. Many ethnic Indians, after all, head major US corporations: Satya Nadella of Microsoft, Sundar Pichai of Google, Indra Nooyi at Pepsi and Ajit Jain, head of reinsurance at Berkshire Hathaway. There is also Vikram Pandit, former CEO of Citigroup.

The statistical disparities cited are troublesome, but people will have to accept there are no simple, single explanations.