In just the past three months, executives with Indian heritages have been announced as the new CEOs of Alphabet, IBM, and WeWork.
The appointments were notable because Asians have historically been underrepresented in leadership positions in the United States, despite being on average better-educated and wealthier than other ethnic groups. The perplexing phenomenon is known as the “bamboo ceiling.”
But those three CEO appointments underscore new findings by researchers from MIT Sloan School of Management, Columbia Business School, and the University of Michigan.
That is, although there are 1.6 times as many East Asians (e.g., those from China and Japan) as South Asians (from India and Pakistan) in the United States, far more of the latter are chief executives at prominent U.S. companies.
That leadership attainment gap applies for both foreign-born and U.S.-born Asians, which controls for English fluency. In other words, the gap is not merely a function of the greater prevalence of English in South Asia compared with East Asia.
The research, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, purports to be the first to examine the scope of the bamboo ceiling across culturally significant Asian subgroups. It arrives at a time when ethnicity, leadership, and inclusion in American society are dominant themes in national conversations.
What does account for the leadership gap between South and East Asians?
“Strongly influenced by Confucianism, East Asian cultures encourage humility, harmony, and stability,” says Jackson Lu, an assistant professor at MIT Sloan. “East Asians may be culturally less inclined to speak up and assert their opinions.”
By contrast, South Asian cultures encourage debate and argumentation, as discussed in Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s book, “The Argumentative Indian.”
“Mainstream American culture encourages assertive communication too,” says Lu. “So, even when East Asians are just as competent and interested in leadership opportunities as their South Asian and white counterparts, they may come across as less suited for leadership in the U.S.”
The researchers conducted nine studies with a variety of research methods, including historical analyses of CEOs over the last decade, surveys of senior managers in large U.S. organizations, and studies tracking the leadership attainment of entire MBA cohorts.
They explored three potential causes — prejudice, motivation, and assertiveness — while controlling for demographic factors such as birth country, education, and socioeconomic status, in addition to English fluency.
Prejudice: While prejudice affects all minority groups, it doesn’t explain the leadership gap between East Asians and South Asians. In fact, the studies consistently found that the latter face more prejudice in the United States.
For example, one of the studies found that non-Asian Americans evaluating job candidates preferred to befriend East Asians (e.g. share an office or live nearby) but endorsed South Asians more for leadership positions.
Motivation: Both groups of Asians scored high in motivation to work hard and motivation to attain leadership positions, indicating that insufficient motivation is not the main cause of the bamboo ceiling.
Assertiveness: Across different kinds of studies, East Asians scored lower in communication assertiveness (i.e., speaking up, constructively disagreeing, and standing one’s ground in a conflict). This cultural difference statistically accounted for the leadership attainment gap.
“The fundamental culprit here is that East Asians’ communication style is misaligned with American leadership expectations,” says Michael Morris, a chaired professor at Columbia Business School. “A non-assertive style is perceived as a lack of confidence, motivation, and conviction.”
He adds, “People can learn multiple styles of communication and how to code-switch between them. As American organizations become more diverse, they need to diversify the prototype of leadership and look beyond assertiveness for evidence of leadership aptitude.”