Asian Americans face 'bamboo ceiling' in corporate America

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Jun 12 2012 02:42 PM | Updated as of Jun 12 2012 10:42 PM

NEW YORK - Asian American families churn out doctors, engineers and graduate students, but their high-achieving image hides a "bamboo ceiling" that marginalizes the fastest growing US minority, experts say.

Jonathan Saw, Asia Society's senior advisor for Asian Pacific American Research, said Monday that a new survey demonstrates an odd mixture of success and disenchantment, with 83 percent of Asian Americans feeling loyal to their company but only 49 percent feeling they belong.

"Asian Americans don't really see themselves as belonging to corporate America, even though they are very successful," he told AFP.

The reason is that while Asian Americans tend to start strongly, graduating from prestigious schools and quickly winning good jobs, they later hit the so-called "bamboo ceiling."

"You don't see a lot of Asian Americans in senior leadership positions," Saw said.

The problem, according to Saw and others at an Asia Society conference in New York, is deeply ingrained bias within wider US society against treating Asians like other Americans.

"There's this notion of Asian Americans as the perpetual 'other,'" Saw said.

"Asian Americans are always seen as great doers, which is great, but it only gets you to middle management. At that critical juncture between middle manager and senior management, where relationships matter more than what you do, those perceptions matter."

Plenty of racial and ethnic groups in the United States -- most obviously African Americans -- have suffered because of prejudice.

But what makes Asian Americans' problem unique is that they are trapped in the cliche of having to be clever -- clever to the point of being nerdy, out of touch, and unable to represent mainstream American life.

That's why the outbreak earlier this year of "Linsanity" -- the media hysteria over Asian American basketball player Jeremy Lin leading the Knicks to a string of victories -- was a landmark moment, said Saul Gitlin, with Kang & Lee Advertising.

Here was yet another Asian American who started on the expected track of studying at Harvard University but, in a rare twist, emerged as a charismatic sports hero rather than an anonymous doctor or programmer.

"It's a turning point of what happens when you go against the stereotype," Gitlin said, identifying Lin as a beacon for young Asians who have "suffered at the hands of this stereotype of being the smart guy, the geek, the tech guy."

However, actor Sendhil Ramamurthy, who was also once on track to become a doctor, told the conference that typecasting in TV and studio films is as strong as ever.

"Asians play certain characters," he said. "They play the doctor, or they play the smart guy. That's very much still the case. I don't know what it takes to change that, otherwise I'd be doing it."

Experts say change may eventually come, as it often does in the United States, through market forces -- namely the fact that the 17.3 million-strong Asian American population is shooting up and growing rich.

"Asian Americans are the fastest-growing multicultural segment in the US," Thomas Tseng, co-founder of New American Dimensions, said.

Although the Hispanic market is three times bigger and "tends to get most of the attention," the Asian sector is wealthier and higher tech.

Eighty percent of Asian Americans have broadband at home, compared to 60 percent of the general population.

Eighty-seven percent go online every day, compared to 73 percent of the general population, and laptop ownership is 74 percent versus 52 percent, Pew survey figures show.

"You'd think marketers would be falling over themselves to talk to this population, but that's not yet the case," Gitlin said.

"This is a beautiful marketplace, really attractive, but it doesn't really always get invited. I always describe this market as the Cinderella."

© 1994-2012 Agence France-Presse