The Bamboo Ceiling in Tech

Bamboo ceiling refers to this phenomenon where Asians—here, defined to be a combination of South Asian (majority Indian), East Asian (majority Chinese, Korean, and Japanese), and Southeast Asian (a more diverse set of countries)—are underrepresented in the higher echelons of the workplace, particularly at the senior management levels. In the tech industry, where by some reports Asians make up the majority of workers, the same lack of proportional representation beyond entry- and low-level positions as further evidence of some truth to the notion that Asians have trouble climbing the ladder past a certain rung.

This article, on the exodus of Chinese tech employees back to China for greater opportunities, touches on the bamboo ceiling:

Chinese Workers Abandon Silicon Valley for Riches Back Home

And this comment ties the two together even more explicitly.

Having been working at tech companies for almost 1 ½ decades and a manager now for a third of it, I’ve worked with and alongside, managed and have been managed, by Asians. The statistics pass the eye test in my own experience and anecdotes; there is a healthy representation of Asians at the tech lead and first-level management levels, but at the higher management ranks, the absolute number of Asians thins out precipitously. It’s even worse if exclude company founders who place themselves into senior management positions.

The cliche explanation is culture, and the usual culprit is a predisposition towards deference while lacking in “leadership”, however that is defined. On that subject of culture, I suspect that a major part of the difference is just the lack of simple social commonalities which makes establishing relationships more difficult. Since management explicitly requires the ability to establish rapport and connections with others, this is already an additional hurdle to overcome1.

With the number of Asians working in tech on visas, this population is also overindexed on STEM and technical skills, which is a great fit on for technical IC roles, but does not immediately translate to management ability particularly beyond a tech lead level. From a visa renewal and job opportunity standpoint, it also doesn’t make a lot of sense for these folks to invest too much into the management career ladder, as the available roles are much fewer in number and in many cases more difficult to obtain with consistency. E.g., if you know you’re awesome technically you can be confident in getting job offers; awesome managers are very much hit-or-miss through each company’s interview process2.

Even though there may yet be a ceiling that keeps me at a certain level—and there have been plenty of bumps along the way—I feel like where I can most help this cause is by acting as a mentor and role model for those who feel stuck or are charting out their own career paths. If this resonates, please drop me a line.

  1. Not that this isn’t just as big of an issue for minority populations working for companies in other countries as well. America just happens to have a good ethnic mix working in tech, and enough political openness to label this phenomenon.

  2. Ping me if you want to know how I know this.

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