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Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling

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In the American workplace there’s a well-known phenomenon called “the glass ceiling,” a structural barrier that keeps women from climbing to the top of the corporate ladder. Asian Americans also face similar barriers as they struggle to land leadership positions.

Studies have shown that Asian Americans are far more likely to have a college degree than the average American and have little trouble get- ting hired. Yet the picture changes as they move toward senior-level positions. According to national statistics, they are noticeably absent from the top of Fortune 500 companies, universities and the tech industry.

What’s causing them to stall in their careers? It isn’t that they lack the ambition to make it to the corner office, says Charles Lu, director of the Gateway Scholars Program in the Longhorn Center for Academic Excellence. A large part of the problem, he says, stems from cultural norms.

“Culturally we are taught to behave in ways that are not conducive to what leadership looks like in America,” Lu says. “We’re taught to have a lot of humility, to shake off compliments and not show emotions. During my career I had to learn how to shape my behaviors—to smile and say thank you when someone gives me recognition.”

Early into his career, Lu was reminded of the “bamboo ceiling” at a business lunch when he engaged in an age-old Asian American custom called the “polite check fight.”

“In our culture, we are taught to never accept a free lunch,” Lu says. “It was a big learning experience when my mentor pulled me aside and said, ‘You’re the only person in the room to refuse a free lunch, and that shows you don’t believe you’re good enough or valued enough to deserve a free lunch.’”

Though refusing to let someone pay for lunch may seem like a mundane issue, it’s a big part of the reason why Asian Americans aren’t advancing into leadership roles, Lu says. In today’s business world, leaders are expected to stand out in the crowd.

To help students break through the bamboo ceiling, Lu and Dr. Suchitra Gururaj, assistant vice president for the Longhorn Center for Community Engagement, taught an undergraduate course called “The Challenges of Asian American Leadership.” In addition to teaching the nuances of corporate leadership, the course dispelled common misconceptions about the “model minority.”

“A lot of people assume that Asian American students are doing fine academically and we don’t need to worry about them,” Lu says. “It’s true that they typically do very well in school, but once they get out in the working world, we’re not seeing them in roles where they could make a big impact. To me, that’s unacceptable.”

Another important lesson that will take them far, Lu adds, is to ask for help.

“We’re taught to operate off of such a merit-based model,” Lu says. “Asian American students believe that working hard and making good grades is all they need to get to the top. What they don’t realize is that they need to build a good network with people in positions who can advocate for them. They need mentors who can guide them through their careers.”

The leadership class is currently on a hiatus, but Lu and Gururaj are always available to any student in need of guidance and mentorship. They also encourage students to head over to the Counseling and Mental Health Center and participate in a new informal discussion group called “Asian American Voices.”

“A lot of students across the board are dealing with anxiety and perfectionism, but for Asian Americans, they sometimes have this pressure to over perform because of the ‘model minority’ myth,” says Dr. Mona Ghosheh, diversity coordinator and psychologist at the Counseling and Mental Health Center.

“We created this informal discussion group so they can connect with others who are facing similar experiences.”

Though Lu rarely has Asian American students come for advice, he hopes more of them will seek support from advisors, counselors and their peers. In time, he is confident that they will leverage their strengths to break through the structural and cultural barriers in school and in the workplace.

“As the Asian American population grows, we will see more of them in leadership positions,” he adds. “And as we see more of them emerge—in the mainstream media, Fortune 500 companies and top administrative positions in higher education—the Asian American community will be much stronger in the future.”