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Mary Mazzoni headshot

How Asian Americans Can Break the 'Bamboo Ceiling' By Turning Cultural Experiences Into Leadership Superpowers

Asian Americans are least likely to be promoted at work. Global leadership strategist Jane Hyun coined the term "bamboo ceiling" to describe the experience in her bestselling 2006 book. Nearly two decades later, she's sharing insights from the leaders she's seen break through.
By Mary Mazzoni
board room with glass windows and city skyline in the background

(Image credit: Yibei Geng/Unsplash)

Women and people of color are still far less likely be promoted to senior ranks in their workplaces compared to white men. Though they are the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States, Asian Americans face outsized challenges in being promoted at work, a phenomenon sometimes called the bamboo ceiling.

A widely cited 2017 study from the Ascend Foundation, which analyzed employment data from across the U.S., found that Asian Americans were the least likely group to be promoted to top roles. Years later, Asian Americans are still significantly less likely than their white, Black and Latino peers to say "there are others like me in leadership positions" at their organizations, according to a 2023 survey

Jane Hyun, a global leadership strategist and coach for multinational companies, schools, and nonprofit organizations, coined the term "bamboo ceiling" to describe the Asian-American workplace experience in her bestselling 2006 book, “Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians."

Akin to the "glass ceiling," a term used to describe the largely invisible but ever persistent barriers that hold women back from career advancement, the nuances of the bamboo ceiling touch on complex factors like individual identity, cultural experiences and company values. 

"Many Asian Americans have been socialized in a more collectivistic and group-oriented family background," Hyun explained. "But in a largely individualistic setting, such as the U.S., companies tend to value individual expression. They like the people who speak first in a room and take initiative. That's very much valued — so much so that even introverts feel they're at a disadvantage because they're not the first to speak up. It’s not just Asians who are disadvantaged in that kind of setting." 

While seeing the world differently than those around you may at first seem like a hindrance, it can actually be an asset for business leaders. That's the focus of Hyun's follow-up book, “Leadership Toolkit for Asians: The Definitive Resource Guide for Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling,” which hit the shelves this spring nearly two decades after her seminal research on the topic.

Jane Hyun — leadership coach and author of Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling
Jane Hyun, a global leadership strategist and author of “Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling."

Understanding the bamboo ceiling 

Hyun interviewed 100 leaders across backgrounds for her 2006 book to understand how they advanced from entry-level to senior roles at their companies. She identified three distinct phases each passed through on their rise to the top.

The first: the producer. "They worked a lot of hours, they put their heads down, and that was the only expectation of what they had to do," Hyun explained. Next up is building relationships and credibility. In other words: "Are you liked and trusted by people in the organization — not just in your own department, but also other groups?," Hyun said. Finally comes an influencer and owner mindset, she explained: "Do you think about the good of the whole company and lead with that kind of organizational mission and values in mind?"

Reviewing the stories she heard from leaders, "what I found was that Asians spent a lot of time in that first stage — not only because they didn't know they had to do the other stuff, but also because of some of the cultural reasons: the whole idea of putting your head down and having discipline," Hyun said. "The need to promote yourself and get out there was not something they thought they needed to understand." 

The leaders' experiences also confirmed the ubiquity of what she saw firsthand. "This was a book I wish I had when I was entering corporate America," Hyun said. "My parents did not grow up in the American system. They didn't know the playbook for how to navigate inside this Western setting. They never worked here before. So, everything I had to learn when I worked in corporate America, I had to learn for myself. And it was hard. I learned the hard way."

Bamboo Ceiling Books — Jane Hyun
On the left, Jane Hyun's bestselling 2006 book. On the right, the follow-up published this spring. 

Breaking through the bamboo ceiling by leveraging cultural experiences as leadership assets 

Hyun's second book draws on her time spent coaching thousands of leaders across five continents to help them build their skills and grow their careers. "When you work with people for 10, 12, 15 years, you see growth and you see transformation," she said. "I wanted to share some of the secrets they learned and insights they learned about how to bring all of themselves to the table as leaders versus trying to hide." 

Indeed, Asian Americans on average “feel less able to be themselves” in the workplace and feel they receive “less support at work than their white peers," according to research from McKinsey

Much of this traces back to cultural identity and how different cultures define high performance and success, Hyun said. "I grew up in South Korea. I went to school there for a couple of years, which is a very different system," she remembered. "Even in that early third-grade classroom, when I was going to school for the first time in the U.S., I realized: 'Wow, this is a whole disorientation for me. Now I'm going to be rewarded for a different set of behaviors. How do I make that work in this new culture in a way that I can be myself?'" 

The struggle to belong and understand what's expected often translates to how Asian Americans, and others from underrepresented or immigrant backgrounds, show up at work. 

In her second book, she aims to inspire professionals who feel stuck with the stories of others who've broken through. "Early on in their careers, they felt like, 'If I'm going to be successful at this company, in this kind of an aggressive and competitive culture, I need to twist myself into this shape or fit into this shape in order to be accepted and be taken seriously,'" she said of the leaders she featured. "They realized they were going along to get along versus thinking about, ‘How do I lead in a way that's culturally authentic to me, and what does that look like?’ I wanted to share those stories because I wanted to show people it was possible." 

The concept of leveraging cultural experiences as leadership assets is a recurring theme in what these leaders learned. "People might be wondering: What does that mean?," Hyun said. "The first thing you need to do is examine what your cultural values are and what makes you who you are, beyond just what you look like."

This includes things like "how your early socialization and how cultural values and messaging has affected the way you lead and influence," she said. "Instead of suppressing them, instead of putting them aside, how do we start to awaken some of that?"

For example, having a more collectivist mindset in an individualistic workplace may not seem like an asset, "but it could be helpful for consensus-building, for knowing how to resolve conflict and being skilled at marrying the perspectives of the people in the room," Hyun explained. "You’re not the one making an individualistic decision and everybody hates that decision. We all know people like that — my way or the highway, really outspoken. They get out there, they're in charge, but they don't really make a lot of friends. They're not good at bringing people along with them when they have a difficult decision to make."

Leaning into what makes them different, rather than "going along to get along," has helped some of the leaders featured in Hyun's book rise to the highest levels of their organizations. "I've seen Asian leaders really do this skillfully, but they have to tap into what they have and not see their cultural values as something to be ashamed of," she said. "It's something that could be a cultural strength." 

While individuals wield more power over their workplace experiences and career trajectories than they often realize, of course there is only so much an individual can do in the face of a system that is not inclusive. A growing number of employees, particularly younger generations, would rather quit their jobs than struggle in a company culture they find toxic — which poses a real recruitment and retention risk for companies that don't take inclusion seriously. 

"The reason why it's hard to create inclusive cultures is that people often struggle to even see the differences that need to be understood," Hyun said. "We need to work on our own cultural biases and lenses in order to see things from another person's lens." 

Launched last year by her leadership consultancy Hyun and Associates, the Culturally Fluent Leader Academy is a virtual and in-person learning experience that aims to counter these longstanding challenges and foster more inclusive cultures that allow for people of all backgrounds to truly thrive. 

For Hyun, it's the latest step in a personal mission to make the workplace transition easier for people who face experiences similar to her own. "My life has always been about navigating from the foreign to the familiar, and then from the familiar to the foreign, and helping others to do that," she said. 

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni