Why are there so few Asians among America’s business elite? And if a bamboo ceiling is to blame, why do South Asians break through more easily? These questions are the focus of a study by Jackson Lu of MIT Sloan School of Management and colleagues, who surveyed hundreds of senior executives and business-school students. They found that while discrimination exists, it is not destiny. South Asians endure greater racism than East Asians but still outperform even whites (if success is weighed against share of population). Their research also rules out lack of ambition: a greater share of Asians than whites strive for high-status jobs.
That leaves culture. The researchers conclude that South Asians tend to be more assertive than East Asians in how they communicate at work, which fits Western notions of how a leader should behave. The same propensity for confident discourse featured in “The Argumentative Indian”, a book by Amartya Sen, a Nobel-prizewinning economist. The researchers attribute East Asians’ reticence to Confucian values of modesty and respect for hierarchy. Sometimes boldness and bombast are needed to break bamboo.■