Asian Pacific American Heritage Month: Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling

Two months ago I found myself participating in a Diversity & Inclusion Council meeting where committee members asked for recommendations on topics. I was the only Asian-American in the room and didn’t want to come off as being self-centered by suggesting a possible panel discussion focused on Asian-Americans. But in my 12 years as a HR professional in the PR industry, I’ve been to dozens of diversity focused events from round-tables, recruitment fairs, awards dinners etc. and I have never once seen an event focused solely on the Asian-American population. So with May being Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, I felt strongly that a discussion should be hosted by Ketchum and recommended it to the D&I Council.

They agreed it was a great idea and encouraged me to take the lead and run with it. Hesitation set in and I started to question if it was a good idea to focus on Asian-Americans in the PR industry.

Thinking back, I now realize that it’s that questioning, the hesitation to “put ourselves out there” and have the dialogue, is part of why the discussion was so important. I found myself debating in my mind on whether to do it or not. I don’t often engage in conversations about my ethnicity, especially at work and double especially since I work in HR. The more I thought about it that day, the more I realized it just had to be done. This was our chance to have a platform and to be a part of the diversity conversation and to show pride in our heritage. There was no better time to show it than during the month which celebrates the culture of more than 48 Asian countries.
While I had finally arrived at the point that this was an important discussion to have, it was clear from my initial outreach for panel ideas and participants that other Asian-American employees had my initial hesitation to speak out on these prevalent themes:

  • The media is still guilty of perpetuating stereotypes for all minority groups and Asian Americans should feel empowered to challenge this thinking.
  • In the US, we’re seeing that Asians and Asian Americans are fairly well represented in the non-managerial and mid-level management roles, however are highly underrepresented at the C-suite. How does the “bamboo ceiling” play into this?
  • In order to understand who we are today, Asian Americans need to understand the context and how our upbringing stands in our way.
  • We are all guilty of unconscious bias, even within our own minority groups. It starts with self-awareness and understanding where your beliefs initially came from.

I began “big-game hunting” for panel participants and met with a handful of people on a one-on-one basis and each one of them had such fascinating stories and experiences to share (all differing from each other but with common themes) for our thought-provoking panel conversation that I moderated entitled, “Breaking the Silence: The Asian-American Experience.” The goal of the panel was to raise awareness on experiences/challenges faced by the Asian-American community and offer consideration points on ways to co-create an environment where people can bring their true selves to work.

I was extremely proud of the panel discussion, which included Asian-American employees from diverse practice areas and disciplines. I believe these key take-aways are not only critical for Asian-Americans to consider as they grow in their PR careers, but also for every communications professionals committed to advancing the diversity of thought in our industry.

Public relations is the career of opportunity.
Whether an immigrant or 2nd generation, like most kids of Asian parents, these six panelists were encouraged by their parents to pursue careers that for them had familiar paths to success: medical, law, engineering and finance. Fortunately, these six first-gens chose to follow the beat of their own drum. Still, the limited awareness of the career opportunities in public relations has led to lack of Asian Americans in our field.

“We (the PR industry) are not as diverse as we can be partly because our parents didn’t know all the options, but that is changing,” said Cheryll Forsatz, SVP, Corporate Communications.

Our call to action is to think of how to educate Asian American communities about the management function of public relations, framing it as a social science with emphasis on research and strategic planning, and increasing recruitment of Asian American students in public relations education to provide them with training and education necessary to succeed in the field.

It takes more than hard work to advance your career.
Our parents raised us to work hard and success will come to you. Hard work alone, however, isn’t helping Asians break through the “bamboo ceiling,” which refers to the combination of individual, cultural and organizational factors that impede Asian Americans’ career progress inside organizations.

Panelists shared their experience and advice on how to break through this career barrier, which included being comfortable communicating your achievements to senior leaders, sharing your career aspirations with superiors, networking with industry influencers, and working with mentors.

“It is mentorship when we as Asian leaders are out there. To see it, to believe it, is really important,” said Gabrielle Low, Manager, Business Development.

Build your dream and help others achieve their dream, too.
While our parents taught us to reach for the American dream, and we are all working to find it in our own way, we should also look for opportunities to help others achieve their career aspirations. It is our responsibility to not only seek out mentors but also choose to be mentors and share our career advice with other Asians and minorities who want to grow in the public relations industry. This is how we can collectively create a culturally representative industry that will deliver break through work that is relevant to multiple audiences.

“You come over and work hard and now you have an opportunity to build your dream,” said Han Ma, Associate Director, Digital Strategy.