And so, when he read Lean In, it was with recognition and relief. Feeling insecure professionally? Yes. Finding yourself reluctant to speak up in meetings, for fear of saying the wrong thing or being ignored? Yes. Watching self-assured colleagues—mostly men, mostly white—take charge of the workplace conversation, while wishing you could project their easy bonhomie? Thinking you should have played a team sport in high school? Fearing that no matter how hard you try, your intelligence and drive will never get you to the top, because you lack the innate, Teflon-coated self-confidence of the men around you? Yes, yes, yes. Every word in the book, says Feng, “spoke to my heart.”
Feng’s Lean In Circle includes four men and two women. Most, like Feng, are first-generation Asian Americans, of Chinese or Korean descent. To varying degrees, they had Tiger Mom–type parents who valued individual achievement, self-reliance, and quiet respect for authority. The classmates wondered whether and how they needed to tweak, or even abandon, the values they had grown up with, and debated Sandberg’s recipe for success.
The fact is, Asian Americans, male and female, do face challenges not unlike those faced by women writ large, in that they are better-educated than many of their colleagues but do not advance as fast or as high. According to a 2011 study by the Center for Talent Innovation, Asian Americans are far more likely to have a college degree than the average person, and while they make up just 5 percent of the population, they constitute 18 percent of the student body at Harvard and 24 percent at Stanford. They have little trouble getting hired, but the picture changes as they move toward senior management; despite their numbers and achievement level, Asian Americans account for just 1.4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and 1.9 percent of corporate officers overall. According to the study, 63 percent of Asian men feel stalled in their careers, a higher rate than what’s reported among African American, Hispanic, or Caucasian men.
Even at tech companies—which are stereotypically hospitable to Asians—they are notably absent at the top. “This is definitely something I think about,” says Carrie Fei, a member of Feng’s Lean In Circle who aspires to work as a tech executive but sees that function as typically “very, very white-dominated and male-dominated.” She participated in a pilot circle while working at Facebook; before that, at Intel, she had attempted to fit in by joining a fantasy-football league: “I definitely had to put myself out there.” Only 28 percent of Asian Americans say they are comfortable “being themselves” at work, compared with roughly 40 percent of other American workers.
None of which is exactly new: Feng’s feeling of unease has been echoed in a growing body of research. Jane Hyun, an executive coach, coined the phrase bamboo ceiling to describe Asian Americans’ puzzling lack of leadership representation. Her 2005 book, Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling, was proto-Sandbergian in that it exhorted individual workers to adapt in order to rise.