Women, it's time to break the bamboo ceiling

5 minute read

The close of Women’s Month has been smeared with the murder of six Asian-American women.

It’s hard to divorce race from the ostensibly ‘sexually motivated’ nature of the attack. While racially motivated attacks in the US are down from last year, attacks against Asians have trebled, with nearly 70 percent of them against women. It’s also hard to divorce aggressions against Asian women in social settings from what’s happening in the workplace. Asians are America’s highest-earning and best-educated demographic, yet Asian women are forgotten in the fight to break the glass ceiling. What’s going on?

I am a Filipina, Chinese and American woman with an international career, working toward an executive degree in the world’s most prestigious University. And I have a confession to make: I am terrified to even think I could do more.

Ambition is a four-letter word

I say this not to spotlight myself, but to hold up a lamp for other Asian women who may be feeling the same way. As Michelle Tang rightly states, we have been conditioned not to rock the boat. When I re-entered American society as an adult, I quickly learned what was expected of me as a model minority. Focus on stellar performance but keep your head down. Quietly work your way up the ladder, but your ladder only goes so high. Perform, assimilate, moderate.

Many of us have experienced being passed up for higher-level opportunities because we aren’t perceived to be leadership material, despite having the experience and expertise to rock it. It can be easy to pull the race and gender card on the decision-makers. It wasn’t until I arrived at Oxford, supported by a community of women in my position from across a spectrum of cultures, that I realised I needed to pull the race and gender card on myself.

The world’s expectations of us program us to temper our ability to lead, with modifiers like ‘you’re the boss’ and ‘I’m here to support your vision’. I also found that I had no Asian peers to process my leadership conundrum with, maybe because we have been conditioned to be ashamed for daring to want more. I found solace with sisters from African backgrounds, who relate strongly to the expectations drilled into us that, perversely, self-effacing hard work is how we ‘thrive.’

Why representation matters

As a woman, it’s heartening to see so many sisters celebrated for their talent, daring and grit. But as Women’s Month rolled on, I felt farther and farther removed. I saw virtually no East and Southeast Asian women in the C-Suite. What started as a hurrah for women everywhere turned into a doom-scroll of mostly white women we should be inspired by, and women of colour we should save. Any minority woman who broke through the ranks seemed an outlier.

It reminded me of what many of us Asian (and other minority) women felt like as girls with our blonde and blue-eyed Barbie dolls. We loved being their friends, we admired them. We wanted to be them. But we couldn’t because we didn’t look like them. As teenagers we experimented with makeup to make our eyes look bigger, noses slimmer and hair lighter. So while white sisters were fighting hard to conquer their rightful places in the arenas of men, we were stuck just trying to be like them. Because maybe if we did, we would be able to do what they could.

Of course as adults we are now more comfortable and alive in our own skins. We are navigating our way, but as we rise to the top, we bump up against the bamboo ceiling – real and perceived. Without role models who look like us, it is hard to imagine what we can be, what it looks like to spread our wings closer to the sun. 

A bigger tent

Many have argued that diversity without inclusion is tokenistic. Women must not only have a seat at the table, they must have the power to use that seat. But which women? I would argue that empowered representation is a more useful frame than the optics of diversity. We must elevate a wide-enough spectrum of women and their unique experiences - Black, Asian, Arab, Latina, and Indigenous alike.

Research strongly suggests imagination is key to elevating women’s careers. Representation stokes imagination. This matters because it not only shows the world what people who look like us can do, but it also shows us what we can do. This matters in the fight to #StopAsianHate, because it doesn’t just end with changing the attitudes of the Other toward us; it begins with igniting the possibilities within us. 

More Asian women visible in positions of power signals to anyone looking at an Asian woman’s face – whether an Other, or herself in the mirror – that she isn’t to be pitied, passed up, or worse, indignified. No, she is a woman to be reckoned with.

We must #ChooseToChallenge the bamboo ceiling, now. Colleagues: question your assumptions about Asian women and how that might play into the decisions you make about our role in the workplace. Allies: help create an environment where Asian and other minority women feel empowered to speak up and dream big. White sisters: let’s build a bigger tent. Leverage your privilege to back us, just as we have backed you and will always do.

And Asian sisters, never forget we were born with the thunderous majesty of a tiger’s roar. It’s time the world heard.

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