In her book “Breaking Through The Bamboo Ceiling,” author Jane Hyun acknowledges that she places a lot of responsibility on Asians to improve their circumstances in the workplace. But she also acknowledges, in an interview with The Atlantic, that it’s important for organizations to level the playing field as the “workforce is rapidly becoming younger, more multicultural, more female and businesses are really feeling the effect of that.”

In other words, businesses should tap into diverse employees such as women and people of color — groups of people who are marginalized in society. Those that choose not to are losing out on valuable talent, perspective and the potential to increase innovation and productivity. This bamboo ceiling (a derivative term from the glass ceiling) is critical to acknowledge; doing so, opens up opportunity and dialogue that can help break apart the model minority myth, and encourage others to examine the barriers that Asians Americans face in workplaces across the United States.

For example, data shows that East Asians (like Taiwanese, Japanese and Korean) have been found to be more privileged than their Southeast Asian counterparts and other marginalized Asian groups. Southeast Asian refugees (such as Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians) have been pushed into a migration-to-school-to-deportation pipeline. Southeast Asian Americans have some of the highest dropout rates in the United States. About 34.3 percent of Laotians do not have a high school diploma, as do almost 40 percent of Hmong people and Cambodians. This is a stark contrast to the 90 percent of the general American population who either have a high school diploma or a G.E.D. And this disparity is not just an issue of education inequality, but also income inequality — where lower-income individuals may feel less incentivized to pursue higher education given the cost. But in our society, there’s a common misconception that all Asian Americans are highly educated and well off. And those who don’t fit this mold fall into an endless and dangerous cycle of trying to attain this ideal image. 

The Model Minority Myth

The model minority myth is based on cookie cutter, docile stereotypes that erase individuality and diversity in the Asian and Asian American community. The myth works by presenting people of Asian descent as perpetual foreigners and positing that if Asians assimilated they’d be welcomed into a higher social standing in America. Asians are also positioned as a model group to use for the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mentality which dismisses the history of legal and social discrimination, and even violence against people of color. This often drives a wedge between Asians against Black and Latinx communities. It’s truly a toxic belief that not only isolates Asian Americans from other people of color, but also rips apart any Pan-Asian solidarity.

These disparities are reflected in careers and salaries for Asians too, thanks to a toxic combination of racism, sexism, and harassment that women of color face in the workforce in any field. Asians are less likely than their white counterparts to be promoted regardless of education. Being a woman already puts one at a disadvantage from the gender wage gap. Being a woman of color makes it worse to get paid for your work. Being an Asian woman means being coupled with being either a target for harassment, or being infantilized. These negative perceptions and prejudice all work against Asians and Asian Americans in representation, work, and even violence.

How to Break the Bamboo Ceiling

Dismantling the bamboo ceiling as well as the glass ceiling takes effort to restructure a workplace for the better and to find long-term solutions. Here are a few methods to empower an employee, and for employers to consider incorporating to their organizational structure:


Communicate and discuss with management about problems and inequalities in the workplace. Keep records of communication and messages for evidence. Propose workshops and training for gender equality or micro-aggressions. Invite speakers or facilitators for meetings on how to improve the company’s work structure and dynamics, and implement or enforce policies about sexual harassment.

Pay Transparency

Your right to talk about salaries is protected by the National Labor Relations Act, and talking about it with people and co-workers is beneficial to you. Know the going rate for your work and position. Being informed helps you negotiate a fair wage for yourself and your work to help close wage gaps, so it’s harder for companies to take advantage of you. You deserve to have a living wage for your work in order to eat, afford transportation, pay your rent, and to build your own savings.

Work Flexibility

Job sharing, work flexibility and remote work allow people to have time with their families. That’s not just to accommodate motherhood, but for employees to be happy and enjoy their personal lives. Why is it that when men with families work they are seen as the “bread-winners” but when mother apply for work they are seen as a risk because they’ll be too busy? Advocate for flexibility in your workplace.

Promotion and Leadership

Promoting marginalized people or placing them in leadership positions them at an equal level. Women of color are the most underrepresented in the corporate pipeline. Only by treating marginalized folks as a priority, can businesses modernize and progress.

With this awareness we must be empowered to combat discrimination and improve bias awareness. Ask questions, speak up or have a candid conversation with upper management. Don’t be a bystander. Institutional racism and sexism is systematic, and microaggressions are part of the pyramid of it. Be part of the change you want to see. By staying alert and active in your organization, you can help businesses promote inclusive workplaces with policies that treat each individual employee fairly.

Photo credit: Mimi Thian//Unsplash


  • Born and raised in Lenapehoking, also known as NYC, Kai Xing Mun (she/they) is Malaysian-Chinese American, and an ace and nonbinary actor and writer. Kai is a freelance writer whose essays focus on intersectional feminism and Pan-Asian American issues. Their writing has been published in HelloGiggles, Mochi, April, and Here You Are. Their original monologue “Anna May Wong: PERSONA” was published in "In Full Color: The First Five Years Anthology."

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