Researchers from MIT Sloan School of Management, Columbia Business School and the University of Michigan examined this problem to understand the scope and root causes of what is referred to as the ‘Bamboo Ceiling’ — as bamboos have played an economic and cultural role across Asia.
The research focused on three key aspects — prejudice, motivation and assertiveness, and found that East Asians lose out on leadership roles as compared to South Asians due to the cultural differences in communication and assertiveness.
“Strongly influenced by Confucianism, East Asian cultures encourage humility, harmony, and stability. East Asians may be culturally less inclined to speak up and assert their opinions,” said Jackson Lu, Mitsui career development professor at MIT Sloan School of Management.
“By contrast, South Asian cultures encourage debate and argumentation, as discussed in Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s book The Argumentative Indian. Mainstream American culture encourages assertive communication too. So even when East Asians are just as competent and interested in leadership opportunities as their South Asian and white counterparts, they may come across as less suited for leadership in the US,” he said.
Lu said the Asians are known as the model minority in the US. They have the highest education, highest income, lowest crime rate and lowest unemployment rate and, if that’s the case, one expects Asians to be overly represented in leadership positions in the US. “Then I thought we have a lot of South Asian leaders if you think about the CEOs of IBM, Google, Microsoft, Mastercard, PepsiCo, Adobe, all of these leaders are South Asians. I couldn’t really think of any East Asians. That’s puzzling for me. For example, if both East Asians and South Asians are doing so well, why is it the case that we don’t see any East Asians? There is such a large amount of research on the glass ceiling faced by women. But we know so little about the Bamboo ceiling,” Lu told TOI, while explaining the reasons for undertaking the study.
To understand the issue, nine studies were undertaken by the researchers and data was collected from 2010 to 2017 on the CEOs of S&P 500 companies. According to one study, in the population of S&P 500 CEOs, there were on an average 10.38 South Asian CEOs compared to about 3.5 East Asian CEOs.
“The fundamental culprit here is that East Asians’ communication style is misaligned with American leadership expectations. A non-assertive style is perceived as a lack of confidence, motivation, and conviction. People can learn multiple styles of communication and how to code-switch between them. As American organisations become more diverse, they need to diversify the prototype of leadership and look beyond assertiveness for evidence of leadership aptitude,” Michael Morris, the Chavkin-Chang Professor of Leadership at Columbia Business School, one of the authors of the study, was quoted as saying.