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Mental Conflicts Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling

To honor both Mental Health and Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM), I’ll be diving into how these topics go hand-in-hand with our lives. Asian Americans have come a long way up the workforce ladder moving into large corporations. According to Asia Society, their 2018 Corporate Survey Study shows 32% of participating companies having no presence of APA (Asian Pacific American) in the C-suite. In 2017, Scientific American reported 75% of the Fortune 500 companies are led by white men. Why is that?

2018 Asia Society Corporate Survey Executive Summary

When thinking about the characteristics of an executive leader, we think assertive, powerful, confident, and outspoken. These traits are all that society generalizes Asians as not. The reputation of a model minority has become a rising issue for Asian Americans as they face cultural conflicting values known as the double bind. How does one stay true to their heritage while breaking the bamboo ceiling?

Subconsciously, the low number of Asians in top positions send us the message that it will be a difficult climb- not an impossible climb, but one that will work out.

Jane Hyun

Jane Hyun’s book, Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling, acknowledges various facets of Asians who share the same struggle in their professional careers. Asians are taught humility rather than tooting their horn. As a result, many of these individuals are passed over for promotions and recognition which is why it is important to verbalize their desire to move into a more senior role early on. Many Asian Americans also come from families with little education which makes it difficult to have any sort of role model or mentorship in obtaining a C-level position.

There are three degrees of filial piety. The highest is being a credit to our parents, the second is not disgracing them; the lowest is being able simply to support them. - Confucius quote

Another factor to consider is filial piety – aka Confucianism. Most Asians are rooted in this background of a collectivist society that values respect for elders. It is ingrained into them that manners such as questioning authority, eye contact, and showing assertiveness are perceived as disrespectful because it causes an imbalance on harmony. Asia Society defined assertiveness as, “the capacity to make requests, actively disagrees, express positive or negative personal rights and feelings, initiate, maintain or disengage from conversations, and stand up for oneself without attacking another.” Thus, AA’s are faced with the double bind of either maintaining one’s heritage or acculturate which puts their mental health at risk because of the inability to express their conflict to family and others as it would show shame, embarrassment, and loss of face.

Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this issue, it is in the best interest of companies to remain mindful and forthcoming of their workplace to rationalize AA talent. Although there is no quick fix to this issue, the stress can be minimized through communication, proper mentorship (they don’t have to be Asian), open-mindedness, and understanding towards the latter.  

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