Breaking The Bamboo Ceiling: Advancing Asian Women To C-Suite Leadership

By Shelley Zalis

Companies continue to actively restructure their leadership teams through an inclusive lens. However, research shows that Asian Americans are the least likely to be promoted to management positions, with this gap even steeper for Asian women. It’s important to note that this so-called “bamboo ceiling” exists even despite the fact that the pay gap (although still existent) is actually smaller among Asian women than any other racial group.

So, how do we ensure Asian women are included in the leadership narrative?

The truth is: much work is still needed to create a workplace where Asian women can thrive. In honor of AAPI Heritage Month, The Female Quotient recently brought together powerhouse female Asian leaders to appropriately unpack myths and stereotypes to authentically address the diversity of needs present within the AAPI community. Based on their insights and advice, here are 5 proactive ways to close this promotion gap and propel Asian women forward to C-Suite and top leadership positions.

1) Take Steps to Combat Harmful Stereotypes

The model minority myth is often attributed to Asian Americans, and is a stereotype that suggests that success in this community is due to a strong work ethic, family values, and an emphasis on education. This term almost sounds like it isn’t harmful, but in fact it overlooks the challenges and barriers that Asian Americans and other minority groups face, and can be used to downplay or dismiss systemic racism and discrimination. It also positions Asian Americans as good workers, but not necessarily good leaders.

To combat this and other harmful stereotypes, the first thing that organizations can do is recognize that they exist and then intentionally develop policies and programs to eliminate these biases. Snehal Waghulde, Investment Management Analytics/AI Leader at Deloitte, explained how her company is taking a step in the right direction by “…embedding DEI representatives as part of the promotion consideration process to catch biases at the source.” There is no one size fits all when it comes to great leadership, and generalizations are only limiting what’s possible for your organization.

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2) Celebrate What Makes You, Authentically You

We should be elevating and celebrating all that makes AAPI women unique, including their diverse heritage and identities. “Historically, performance and potential has been measured based on a leadership framework which is very driven by western values,” Margaret Chu, CFO at Infillion said. “We as Asian leaders have a different culture. We have a different socioeconomic background… So, when we try to fit into that mold, it becomes very challenging and that’s why at the start you have pretty good parity in terms of the number of females, Asian females, in the workforce, but then, as time goes on, we keep getting left behind.” Don’t try to fit into a mold. We need to understand that our differences are our greatest strength. Don’t apologize. Own it.

3) Provide Culturally Resonant Career Coaching

According to Cathy Butler, CEO of Organic, the pathway to leadership must take into account individuals’ unique backgrounds. In her own words,“Recognizing the culturally relevant values that we’ve all grown up with and that have shaped our world views, but also looking at and helping us develop side-by-side the executive skills is such an important part of these conversations.” This is especially true for those in the messy middle, who’re overcoming both cultural and systemic barriers every day as they rise up into leadership positions. “My hypothesis is that if organizations could holistically support that period of time for Asians, we could see an increase in promotions level after level,” she said.

4) Find the Courage To Own Your Voice

As women, taking our careers to the next level is often dependent on us understanding our own worth and knowing how to advocate for ourselves. Joanna Young, Global Chief Strategy Officer, Commonwealth and McCann Worldgroup, explained that this can be especially difficult for Asian women due to certain cultural factors. I think a lot of times we aspire to be the A+ candidate, or the perfect fit for the job description that’s at hand,” she said. “Culturally, we aren’t conditioned to push up against parameters to go after what we want.” Let’s stop using the term imposter syndrome and instead, focus on our ability to retrain our thinking, quiet that voice, and shine. Get comfortable being uncomfortable, and give yourself permission to step into the spotlight. Be bold, be brave, and don’t settle for less than you deserve.

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5) Give AAPI Women Equal Access To Sponsors

Of course, speaking up and asking for what you want and deserve are important. But, we can’t place all of the onus on women. It’s also important for organizations to make certain changes to the traditional sponsorship model, which is full of biases because people tend to only pull up others who look like them, talk like them, etc. We need to move to what I like to call proximity-ship, where we empower employees to decide who they want to be their sponsors – not the other way around. Giving Asian women equal access to leadership allies is game changing when it comes to getting noticed and breaking into the C-suite. Joyce Chang, Chair, Global Research, JPMorgan Chase & Co. put it beautifully. “It’s not just about having role models,” she said. “It’s about fostering real connections and finding allies, or people who can help you, work with you, be a confidant, but also actually bring you up to the next level.”

We can’t keep doing things the way we’ve always done them and expect different results. We’re at a perfect inflection point for change. This isn’t just about paving the way for AAPI women everywhere to rise and achieve their goals. This is about creating a legacy and uplifting the next generation of AAPI voices. Through collaborative conversation and intentional action, we will change the equation for equality in the workplace and beyond. You can relive the magic that was our virtual AAPI Heritage Month programming here.

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