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What is the 'bamboo ceiling'? Here's what Asian Americans want you to know

With a recent rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, the term "bamboo ceiling" has taken on new meaning.
Historically, the term "bamboo ceiling" has been used to refer to the limitations and discrimination Asian Americans face in the workforce.
Historically, the term "bamboo ceiling" has been used to refer to the limitations and discrimination Asian Americans face in the workforce. TODAY Illustration / Rich Fury / Getty Images
/ Source: TMRW

When Esther Park saw the headline on Monday morning, she was immediately annoyed.

“Oscars: Diverse Field Sees Asian Actors Shatter Bamboo Ceiling,” The Hollywood Reporter headline read, celebrating a record number of performers of color being nominated for an Oscar this year — with minorities forming the majority in both actor categories.

Park bristled at the phrase “bamboo ceiling.” The Miami-based Korean American, who runs “The Fake Podcast,” took to Twitter.

“'Bamboo Ceiling’?!? Why not go further and write: ‘Diverse Rice Fields see Asian Actors Shatter Bamboo Ceiling with Kung Fu’?!?” she posted.

Park later explained to TMRW that she took issue with using the phrase right now, but “any other time it would’ve been fine.”

“But knowing what's happening in the last year or so with the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and it's just, like, you know, as they say, read the room,” she said.

She wasn’t alone. Dozens of people were also voicing their disapproval of the phrase.

“bamboo ceiling discourse in twenty twenty one?” journalist E. Alex Jung wrote with the disapproving Oprah meme.

“I would like to call for a moratorium on the phrase ‘bamboo ceiling,’” Noah Cho, a Korean American food writer based in the Bay Area, tweeted.

So what even is the so-called “bamboo ceiling"? Historically, it has been used to refer to the limitations and discrimination Asian Americans face in the workforce. It’s a play on the phrase “glass ceiling" — a turn of phrase with which most English speakers are very familiar — which refers to the limitations and discrimination women face in the workforce.

As the online complaints reached a fever pitch, the reporter on the story, Rebecca Sun, changed the headline.

As the senior editor of diversity and inclusion for The Hollywood Reporter, she explained in a later tweet that she understood the history and usages of the term “bamboo ceiling" when she chose it, but could understand why people were upset.

“I totally understand why many people are offended by the headline given media's lengthy history of problematic headlines about Asian culture. I had hoped to make a legitimate reference despite that context, but you may think I judged wrongly. That's fair!” she posted, in part. She said she’d added a sentence explaining the history of the phrase to the story.

“You may or may not find it acceptable, but at least you have an explanation,” she wrote. “And as always, I appreciate it when people care about words, particularly when they are used in reference to marginalized people.”

In an email to TMRW, she further explained: “The ‘bamboo ceiling’ has been part of my conceptual framework for so long that I instinctively used it to describe this incidence.

“I was aware of the possibility that the term might be conflated with the all-too-many instances of anti-Asian racist puns in headlines, but I overestimated the wider public’s familiarity with both the term and the concept,” she wrote in the email.

She added that she hopes the debate over her headline doesn’t distract from “celebrating the historic and groundbreaking achievements of the nominees themselves.”

“I hope this brings greater visibility and awareness to the systemic barriers that Asian Americans face in Hollywood and across industries,” she said.

The history of “bamboo ceiling”

Asian immigrants and Asian Americans have long faced discrimination and violence in the United States. From a riot that killed 10% of the Chinese population of Los Angeles in 1871, to the Chinese Exclusion act in 1885, to the historic Japanese internment camps during World War II, to the ongoing attacks against Asian elders and Asian-owned businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic, it is no surprise that many Asian Americans also face discrimination in the workforce.

Ellen Wu, a professor at Indiana University and author of "The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority," told TMRW the term “bamboo ceiling” has been used to describe that workforce discrimination for years.

She said the earliest concrete example she’d located was in a Wall Street Journal story from 1991 that called it an “emerging term.”

“I'm pretty sure the Wall Street Journal didn't invent it so it's safe to say that, you know, if it made it into the Wall Street Journal that means people are already using the term,” she explained. “I can't tell you exactly where it began. But I can tell you that for sure by the late '80s and early '90s … it became common enough to be used in a mainstream outlet.”

In the years that followed, the phrase became more commonplace and in 2005, Jane Hyun published a book titled “Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians,” cementing its place in American nomenclature.

In an interview with TMRW, 15 years after her book was released, Hyun said she thought everyone had the right to their own opinion about the phrase “bamboo ceiling,” but the bigger issue for her is the actual discrimination Asian Americans face in the workforce.

“Regardless of the term, I know some people are not crazy about it and, you know, that's fine,” she said. “People have their opinions around it, right? And it may not be the favorite term for everyone.

“When I was writing my book, I was coming up with a couple of titles for it and the way it came out it was that we needed to do something meaningful," she continued. "Back in the early 2000s, nobody was talking about this … the only thing people were talking about were the glass ceiling.”

Hyun said her team had even done focus groups with Asian American students about which term describes the problem best and the “bamboo ceiling” title had always come out on top.

“We talked about it being (an issue) and needed to be something that was kind of a statement; it needed to be a manifesto that this was an issue,” she said.

On Twitter, several people came to the defense of the phrase, including Bo Young Lee, who runs Uber’s diversity and inclusion efforts.

“Honestly, if today was the first time you encountered the term ‘bamboo ceiling’ then it means you’ve never spent a day before thinking (about) the structural racism AAPI professionals face in the workplace,” she posted. "And well, that’s a hell of a bigger problem than the term 'bamboo ceiling.'

“And if you’re more bothered by the term than trying to understand why AAPI professionals are the least likely to get promoted into management of all racial/ethnic groups, you’re focused on the wrong d--- things,” she added.

Margaret M. Chin, a professor at Hunter College and author of “Stuck: Why Asian Americans Don't Reach the Top of the Corporate Ladder,” told TMRW that she believes many Americans weren’t aware of discrimination against Asians in the first place.

“I think people were offended by (the phrase 'bamboo ceiling') because they didn't understand that Asian Americans actually face discrimination everywhere in the professional world,” she said. “So I think combined that just made for the larger outcry, people just assume that Asian Americans do well, no matter what they do.”

But since the end of many affirmative action programs at the end of the 1990s and even in the years since Hyun’s 2005 book, minorities and women have not made much progress, Chin said.

“We’ve actually seen a backslide, not just for Asian Americans, but also for African Americans, for Latinos and for women (in general),” she explained. “I think institutionally people just think, you know, we don't need to do this anymore. (There’s been) a backlash on, you know, ‘Should we really be looking at people of color? Should we really be counting down?’ but in reality, they should be because the pipelines aren't getting any bigger.”

Chin interviewed more than 100 corporate executives to write her 2020 book and found that those at the very top say “trust” is paramount.

“And it's hard for Asian Americans to build trust and I think part of it is this long-time stereotype of being forever foreign,” she explained.

To her point, there are several studies that show the barriers that people of Asian descent face in the United States workforce.

A 2017 study from Yale Law School and the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association found that despite Asian Americans being well-represented in law as more than 10% of graduates from the top 30 law schools, they have the "highest attrition rates and lowest ratio of partners to associates among all (racial) groups."

New York banks have a similar problem, Bloomberg reported in 2017. In one example, Goldman Sachs reported a 27% Asian American workforce overall, but only 11% of U.S. executives and senior managers were of Asian descent. There were no executive officers of Asian descent, Bloomberg reported.

This is a trend even in the federal government. A 2016 report found Asian Americans made up 5.8% of the federal professional workforce but only 3.5% made it to the senior level.

What can employees and managers do?

In the past two decades, Hyun has been working with corporations to increase equity in the workforce. She told TMRW that their suggestions include getting organizational leaders to "observe the insider and outsider dynamics in their own company (and) in their own team."

“It's hard for Asian Americans to build trust and I think part of it is this long-time stereotype of being forever foreign.”

Margaret M. Chin, author of “Stuck: Why Asian Americans Don't Reach the Top of the Corporate Ladder”

She said it is important for managers to get to know everyone on their team so they don't just go to their tried-and-true favorite employees for assignments.

"It's not important just to stay in your role, but you need to have exposure in a lot of areas," she explained. "And the more you have exposure to a lot of areas, you're likely to get promoted."

She added managers should be sure to mentor someone who is "not like you who may need an opportunity."

The overall goal of companies should be to create "psychological safety" in the workplace, Hyun said, and be culturally competent.

"It's not just managing people the way you want to manage people but integrating other approaches," she said. "Understanding how you can disagree with someone when the person you're working with is more indirect in their approach. How you can start to recognize differences?

"And the truth of the matter is," she added, "most organizations are not at the place where they are adaptable."

Where do we go from here?

Cho, who earlier tweeted he thinks the phrase "bamboo ceiling" should be “retired,” told TMRW he understands the phrase but still “just immensely” dislikes it.

“I think Rebecca was unfairly blasted by people who hadn’t heard the term, but I also wonder about its application to the film world, as it was meant to be a business term,” he said. “It’s also just … not a good metaphor in relationship to the original glass ceiling one, since glass is transparent and bamboo is, uh, not.”

For Cho, however, it's less about the wording and more about the mindset behind tackling racism.

“Why are we desiring access to something that only serves to repeat the same structural inequities?” he asked. “Why we aren’t just remaking things to begin with? We’re clinging on to structures that caused all this suffering in the first place.”

Cho said he thinks the Asian American community should work on “grassroots organizing, finding strength together and not in hoping a few outliers can break through systems put in place by white supremacy.”

“Like, is that real progress or just surface-level fixes?” he asked.

Chin agreed, adding that the recent attacks on Asian elders and businesses during the pandemic have really brought things full circle.

“It's all connected to xenophobia, you know, and not being able to move to the top,” she said.

“Until we can actually do that you have to talk about it in such a way that people can realize that that's what's going on, you know, that you actually have to kind of nudge or change the system in one way or the other,” she said, adding her suggestions for systemic changes include teaching Asian American history in schools and including Asians in statistics about diversity.

“And lastly, let Asian Americans know too that they're part of this American story,” she said.