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  • Writer's pictureSharon Chau

Bamboo ceiling and racism

This is part of a series I call 'daily espressos', where I write down a stream of thoughts on a random topic!

Yesterday, I had a nice chat with one of my best friends, Trevor, an incredibly clever economist who has an equally clever blog (check it out!). When discussing whether I’d choose to work in Hong Kong or the UK after graduation, he mentioned the ‘bamboo ceiling’ as a possible consideration. I burst out laughing upon hearing that, thinking it sounded mildly racist and made-up - but Trevor protested it was an actual term and we looked it up. He was indeed right, with the term ‘bamboo ceiling’ popularised through ​​a 2005 book by Jane Hyun, a Korean-American leadership strategist and author. It refers to barriers excluding Asians and Asian-Americans from executive positions based on subjective factors such as ‘lack of leadership potential’ and ‘lack of communication skills’.

I think this term accurately pinpoints the ‘ceiling’ Asians face, particularly by East Asian individuals, because of certain predominant stereotypes - think of the cliché of the nerdy Chinese student doing Maths/Physics/CompSci/some quantitative degree, who is quiet and soft-spoken, excellent at their academics or job, but definitely not who would come to mind if you wanted a CEO or C-suite executive. The ‘positive’ traits of being studious and clever and mathsy ascribed make us model workers, but the opposite of a leader. This is not to say Asians can’t break free of such stereotypes; it’s just an uphill battle where you have to be extra outgoing to step out of the mould. I remember when I first went to school in the UK and everyone was asking each other about their A-Levels, people would be surprised when I said I was doing Philosophy, and then be like ‘ah yes, checks out’ when I said I did Further Maths. That irked me to no end, and I constantly felt like I had to do more humanities stuff to break through their preconceptions. It was also difficult asserting myself in meetings, especially when guys would talk over me even when I was chairing - I suspect that was more of a gendered than racial thing, but I don’t think being in a school where ‘Chinese internationals’ meant ‘you never spoke to anyone who wasn’t Chinese’ (which was not true, btw) helped.

Another less-pointed-out issue is that these stereotypes are also incredibly harmful for cohesion within your own group as well. A common thing people say is ‘well, but you’re not like other Asians because you’re so extroverted and fun’, which should be viewed as a microaggression in the same way as ‘oh you speak English so well!’, because both are ‘compliments’ for defying harmful stereotypes about your race. When someone says that to you, you are in a double bind and forced into an in-group/out-group dilemma, whereby you can either distance and disavow yourself from your group, taking the compliment, or defend your group, which will simply put you back into the stereotype you ‘successfully’ broke out of. I think there should be more recognition of the fact that these stereotypes are a form of microaggression, and frankly, not helpful at all to people who are already under the ‘model minority’ burden.

On a lighter note, another interesting thing we discussed was ‘08 and opportunities for arbitrage based on the distribution of risk - but that’s one for another day!


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