Cracking the Bamboo Ceiling

Can Asian American men learn from Lean In?

Yuko Shimizu

By design, last year’s publication of Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg, the famous and powerful COO of Facebook, launched a women’s movement: more than 20,000 Lean In Circles have since been formed, where members talk about getting ahead in a business culture dominated by men. Surely among the more unusual was the one started by Mark Feng about a year ago. For one thing, Feng, as his name implies, is a member of the sterner sex. For another, the six members of his circle—most of them men—were then second-year students at Harvard Business School.

The idea that six high achievers already enrolled in the country’s most prestigious business school would feel that they needed to lean in harder might seem either preposterous or terrifying, depending on one’s disposition. Yet there they were, meeting once a month over dinner—and, as it turns out, with good reason.

All of the members of Mark Feng’s group are of Asian heritage. Born in China, Feng emigrated when he was 10 and grew up in California, in a largely Asian American community that placed a premium on good grades as the ticket to a successful life. After college, Feng did well as an engineer but then took a job as a management consultant, a transition harder than he had imagined. In his mid-20s, he found it excruciatingly difficult to move from behind-the-scenes number crunching to front-office glad-handing, and to project gravitas when working with CEOs much older than he was.

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.

And yet a sort of low-boil battle is now being waged between those who believe that personal adaptation is the answer and those who think this prescription misses a larger problem in American business today. Hyun herself has recently grown more sympathetic to the other side of this debate. In Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling, she told me, she “definitely put a lot of the onus” on Asians to manage differences between their cultural style and the style—hard-charging, jocular, nondeferential—that tends to lead to corner offices. But as she’s continued to advise organizations and coach individuals, she has rethought matters. More and more, she is convinced that the onus should also be on managers and corporations to understand that there is more than one way to be effective—and that while many Asian American employees would gain from such a shift in understanding, most companies would gain even more.

Leaning in is undoubtedly a good career strategy for many individuals today. But a world in which everyone is leaning in—continually negotiating, jumping in on conversations, valuing chutzpah over experience—is exhausting to contemplate. And the idea that millions of Asian Americans who trace their roots to scores of countries—Japan, China, Vietnam, India, Sri Lanka, Korea, the Philippines—should collectively change their behavior to conform to a single norm seems neither desirable nor possible. In Flex: The New Playbook for Managing Across Differences, a recent book Hyun co-authored, she talks about cultivating “fluent leaders” who have a powerful curiosity about, and comfort level with, people of other genders and cultures. “The workforce is rapidly becoming younger, more multicultural, more female,” she told me, “and businesses are really feeling the effect of that.” The businesses that do not become more culturally fluent, she says, will lose out, because they will waste the potential of so many of their employees.

Mark Feng has read much of the literature, including Hyun’s work. To him, Sandberg’s book offers the clearest path forward, with its exhortation to push yourself and speak up. But his Lean In Circle members weren’t always convinced. “I’ve learned that the way I am can be very valuable,” says Yi Chen, who also was born in China, and who came to the United States at age 8. He believes that he’s absorbed American values like competition and resilience; even so, he’d like to think there is an Asian way of leading that is equally valid: “That calm style of leadership, thought-process-focused leadership, can also be very valuable and be a balance.”

Others have gone back and forth. Carrie Fei, who found her Harvard Business School class in negotiation to be exceptionally hard, reflects that her culture places a premium on building relationships rather than on onetime transactions: “We know it’s a long-term game.”

After graduating last spring, the members of the circle dispersed but did not disband; they now meet via Google Hangouts, supporting one another in their careers. Feng’s own job choice was counterintuitive. Having assiduously schooled himself to thrive in the hypercompetitive American culture, he signed on with a Chinese company. Now 33, he is one of four people in the U.S. office of the Internet-service company Baidu, where he says he has more responsibility than he would get at a bigger place. He hasn’t abandoned the precepts of Lean In; Chinese or American, he told me, to be a leader, you need to be Sandbergian, to constantly improve yourself. His comparative advantage, as he sees it, is understanding both the norms of his new company and those of the U.S. market it is trying to expand into: “By being American, I can bring a lot of cultural insight from day one.”