Bamboo Ceiling: When and Which Asian Americans are More Likely to Rise to the Top of Organizational Hierarchy

Asians make up a substantial and increasing portion of the workforce. In the United States, Asians, known as the model minority, typically exceed other groups in SAT scores, achieve higher levels of education, and display higher levels of agreeableness (i.e., cooperativeness and trustworthiness), conscientiousness (i.e., responsibility and achievement-orientation), and emotional stability (i.e., less anxiety; see Roth et al., 2017 as a met-analysis). Despite remarkably high levels of education and income, Asian Americans remain underrepresented at the top of organizational hierarchies, a problem known as the “bamboo ceiling.” To provide a deeper understanding of this problem, management scholars have revealed two interesting patterns.  

The “Glass Cliff” 

The term “glass cliff” describes the tendency that women are more likely to be appointed to leadership positions in risky and precarious situations (Ryan & Haslam, 2007). Similarly, Asian Americans are more likely to smash the bamboo ceiling and rise to top executive positions when their organizations are struggling. In an archival study of 4,951 CEOs across five decades, Gündemir and colleagues (2019) discovered that Asian Americans are two-and-a-half times more likely to be appointed to positions of leadership during periods of decline than during periods when their organizations are not in decline. A main reason for this may be the biased belief in the stereotype that Asian Americans are inclined to sacrifice their own interests for the benefit of others. Considering that organizations experience decline only 12% of the time, this provides an explanation for why Asian Americans’ rise to top leadership positions is infrequent and short-lived. 

Not All Asian Subgroups Are The Same

Interestingly, the bamboo ceiling does not apply to all Asians, but only to particular Asian subgroups. Jackson Lu from MIT and colleagues compared the leadership attainment of the two largest Asian subgroups in the U.S.: East Asians, e.g., ethnic Chinese, and South Asians, e.g., ethnic Indians. Among 11,030 samples of chief executive officers, managers from large U.S. companies, student leaders, and participants in experiments, East Asians were much less likely than South Asians and Whites to attain leadership positions, while South Asians were more likely than Whites to be top leaders. The finding is not surprising given that Indian-origin CEOs are leading industries across the world. Arvid Krishna of IBM, Sundar Pichai of Google, Satya Nadella of Microsoft, Revathi Advaithi of Flex, Leena Nair of Chanel, and Anjali Sud of Vimeo are just a few examples on the growing list. To reveal why East Asians hit the bamboo ceiling but South Asians do not, further analysis from Lu and colleagues (2020) showed that East Asians are less assertive, which contradicts Western norms regarding leaders’ communication styles. Relatedly, a study of 19 class years of MBAs who accepted full-time job offers in the U.S. showed a striking gap between their subgroups among Asians: East and Southeast Asians received the lowest salaries of all ethnicities, but South Asians were at the very top. This gap was explained by East and Southeast Asians’ unwillingness to negotiate due to higher concerns for relationship harmony (Lu, 2022).  

Taken together, management research evidence has shown that the bamboo ceiling that prevents Asians from reaching the top of organizational hierarchies exists in normal times but only for East Asians, not South Asians. As such, the bamboo ceiling is an issue of fit between the norms of what effective leaders should do and the qualities and styles that individuals of different cultures display. 


References 

Gündemir, S., Carton, A. M., & Homan, A. C. (2019). The impact of organizational performance on the emergence of Asian American leaders. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(1), 107–122. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000347  

Lu, J. G., Nisbett, R. E., & Morris, M. W. (2020). Why East Asians but not South Asians are 

underrepresented in leadership positions in the United States.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117 (9), 4590-4600 

Lu, J. G. (2022, May 5). Asians Don’t Ask? Relational Concerns, Negotiation Propensity, and Starting Salaries. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication.  

Roth, P. L., Van Iddekinge, C. H., DeOrtentiis, P. S., Hackney, K. J., Zhang, L., & Buster, M. A. (2017). Hispanic and Asian performance on selection procedures: A narrative and meta-analytic review of 12 common predictors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(8), 1178–1202.  

Ryan, M. K., & Haslam, S. A. (2007). The Glass Cliff: Exploring the Dynamics Surrounding the Appointment of Women to Precarious Leadership Positions. Academy of Management Review, 32 (2), 549-572.  

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.