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Researchers answer a diversity puzzle: Why Chinese Americans but not Indian Americans are underrepresented in leadership positions

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New studies identify the boundary and causes of the “Bamboo Ceiling”

Cambridge, Mass., February 17, 2020 – Asians have achieved considerable success in the United States.  They are better educated and wealthier than other ethnic groups. Despite these achievements, Asians appear to be disproportionately underrepresented in leadership positions in the U.S., a perplexing problem known as the “Bamboo Ceiling.”

For the first time, researchers from, MIT Sloan School of Management, Columbia Business School and the University of Michigan rigorously examined this problem to understand the scope and root causes of the “Bamboo Ceiling”. Their research, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, finds that East Asians (e.g., Chinese, Japanese) are less likely than South Asians (e.g., Indians, Pakistanis) and whites to attain leadership roles in American organizations. Importantly, the leadership attainment gap emerged for both US-born and foreign-born Asians which controls for English fluency, meaning that the gap is not merely a function of the greater prevalence of English in South Asia.

The research, the first to examine the scope of the Bamboo Ceiling across culturally distinct Asian subgroups, arrives at a time when issues of ethnicity, leadership, and inclusion in American society – and Asians’ place within these issues – dominate national conversations.

“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,” says Jackson Lu from MIT Sloan. “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 U.S.”

“In the two months since our paper was written, South Asian CEOs have been announced at prominent American companies like Google’s parent company Alphabet, IBM, and WeWork. In contrast, there are few prominent East Asian CEOs, even though there are 1.6 times more East Asians than South Asians in the U.S.” says Michael Morris, the Chavkin-Chang Professor of Leadership at Columbia Business School. “This comparison of Asian subgroups is important because it helps us understand why the Bamboo Ceiling exists and how it can be remedied.”

To understand why the Bamboo Ceiling exists for East Asians but not South Asians, the researchers conducted nine studies with a variety of research methods, including historical analyses of S&P CEOs over the last decade, surveys of senior managers in large U.S. organizations, and studies tracking the leadership attainment of entire MBA cohorts. The researchers explored three potential causes – prejudice, motivation, and assertiveness – while controlling for demographic factors, such as birth country, English fluency, education, and socioeconomic status. Across their studies, the researchers found that:

  • Prejudice: While prejudice affects all minority groups, it does not explain the leadership attainment gap between East Asians and South Asians. In fact, the studies consistently found that South Asians face more prejudice than East Asians in the U.S.  For example: in one of the studies, non-Asian Americans evaluating job candidates preferred to befriend East Asians (e.g. share an office; live nearby), but endorsed South Asians more for leadership positions.
  • Motivation: East and South Asians both scored high in motivation to work hard and motivation to attain leadership positions, indicating that insufficient motivation is not the main cause of the Bamboo Ceiling.
  • Assertiveness: Importantly, cultural differences in assertiveness consistently explained the leadership attainment gap between East and South Asians. Across different kinds of studies, East Asians scored lower in communication assertiveness (i.e., speaking up, constructively disagreeing, standing one’s ground in a conflict), and this difference statistically accounted for the leadership attainment gap.

Morris adds: “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 organizations become more diverse, they need to diversify the prototype of leadership and look beyond assertiveness for evidence of leadership aptitude.

The MIT Sloan School of Management

The MIT Sloan School of Management is where smart, independent leaders come together to solve problems, create new organizations, and improve the world. Learn more at mitsloan.mit.edu.

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