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Shattering Asian American Stereotypes In Corporate America
Despite Asian Americans making up almost 12% of the professional workforce whilst being only 5.6% of the U.S. population, studies show that they are the least likely racial group to be promoted to executive positions. The Org talked to Asian American executives about their experiences breaking through the bamboo ceiling.
The Misconceptions of Asian American Success in the United States: Breaking through the Bamboo Ceiling. Image Source: Unsplash.
6 minute read

As a young girl growing up in a small Malaysian town, Dianne Lee never imagined that she would one day live in the United States, let alone become one of the only Asian women leaders in the construction industry.

Dianne moved to the U.S as an international student at 17. She studied Broadcast News and Journalism at Indiana State University and was offered a position after graduating at property management firm, Charles Dunn Company.

"My initial response was, no - I'm not interested, I don’t know anything about the real estate and construction industry," Dianne said in an interview with The Org. “Then deep down inside, I heard my mother say, ‘Dianne - if you can read, you can cook. How well you cook is up to you."

Dianne ended up accepting the offer and has not looked back since. She now holds the title of Transformational Leader and Executive in Business Development, Client and Stakeholder Engagement at construction and project management company, Kitchell. Over the course of her career, Dianne has been credited for multiple billion-dollar contracts both nationally and internationally and is currently the President of The Asian American Architects and Engineers Association (AAa/e) For Dianne, her success did not come easy.

"When I walked into any meeting or any room, people assumed I was an admin or a coordinator, or just there to take notes," she said. "I think because as an Asian girl, we tend to look younger than most, that automatically affects our credibility. I've learned that the only way to really counter that perception is to know your stuff."

Dianne Lee Kitchell

Dianne Lee is the Transformational Leader and Executive in Business Development, Client and Stakeholder Engagement at Kitchell. Image Source: Dianne Lee.

Despite Asian Americans making up almost 12% of the professional workforce whilst being only 5.6% of the U.S. population, studies show that they are the least likely racial group to be promoted to executive positions.

Many Asian Americans are probably familiar with being labelled as the 'model minority.' A myth that stereotypes them as law-abiding citizens with high academic and career success, formed through years of strict parenting, where children are taught to keep quiet and work hard.

On one hand, these stereotypes praise Asian Americans for their hard work, discipline, and intelligence, but on the other, they paint an image of Asian Americans being quiet, reserved and submissive -- qualities that do not fit the typical archetype of a C-suite-executive.

The term ‘bamboo ceiling’ has often been used to describe this problem. Similar to the glass ceiling, a metaphor that refers to the invisible barrier that prevents women from being promoted to executive roles, the bamboo ceiling relates to the cultural barriers and stereotypes that often hinder Asian Americans from being promoted to managerial positions in companies.

Although there are signs of change in large corporations such as Google, Microsoft and Adobe, which are all led by Asian-Americans, an Ascend study suggests that this is far from the norm. One in 87 white men in the U.S. will hold an executive position, this number drops to one in 123 for white women, and one in 201 Asian men. Asian women are among the least likely to be promoted, with only one in 285 likely to hold an executive position.

The only exception to this rule is when a company is in crisis. A 2018 study suggests that Asian Americans are more likely to become CEOs when a company is struggling. In times of uncertainty, the research indicates that Asian American employees become ideal candidates for their 'self-sacrificing' qualities. Previous research suggests that this phenomenon is not only applicable to Asians, but also holds true for women and other ethnic minorities who are often hired into risky situations and provided less freedom than white men when leading their firms out of a crisis.

As President of the AAa/e, Dianne is also actively working to combat stereotypes in the construction industry by providing a platform that allows young women to see other females in leadership positions, she regularly organizes webinars that feature women in leadership positions.

"I hope when young women see other women in top leadership roles, they can then envision themselves in those roles. None of us got there easily, not a single woman I've met in my life in a leadership role has said it was a piece of cake," Dianne said.

Virtual event

Dianne Lee and other keynote speakers at AAa/e virtual event in March. Image Source: Asian American Architects/Engineers Association.

Like Dianne, Indrajit Majumdar, the Executive Vice President and Head Of Sales at Zee Entertainment Enterprises, a global media and entertainment conglomerate headquartered in Mumbai, India with a presence in over 173 countries, hopes to make strides in changing the racial landscape of the marketing and advertising industries in the U.S.

Indrajit moved to the United States from India in 2008 and is currently the President of the Asian American Advertising Federation (3AF). He is the first person of South Asian descent in 3AF's history to take on this position. In this role, Indrajit is actively working on initiatives to advance Asian Americans in his industry.

"We are starting a mentorship program, where senior people from companies, business leaders, and influencers will give college students tips on what could make them more successful in the field," Indrajit said in an interview with The Org.


3AF 2019 Asian Marketing Summit. Photo Credit: 3AF.

A 2019 study by Catalyst, a global nonprofit that helps empower women in workplaces, agrees that it is important for senior leaders to help Asian women to seek out mentors, and help them build out their external networks. The study also suggests that companies could potentially sponsor their employees to join professional associations, which will allow them to share common experiences in the workplace and learn to overcome obstacles.

In Indrajit’s case, the media executive is also looking at ways to facilitate more conversations around breaking down racial stereotypes. He believes that much of the reason Asian Americans are not being promoted to executive positions come from a lack of understanding and awareness.

"We are organizing a town hall and working on different awareness campaigns,” he said. “As long as we are able to generate that dialogue among people, I think we are successful. That's what is important."


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