Truths about the bamboo ceiling: an open letter to Asian American ad professionals

Asian American ad pros face a "bamboo ceiling" says T3's Angela Yang, but she suggests a way forward / Matteo Ferrero via Unsplash

Dear Asian American advertising professional,

I work in advertising, leading a digital and social media practice at an agency based in Texas. I manage a growing group of incredibly passionate and talented people that inspire and humble me every day. Like many in the industry, I started from the bottom and worked my way up through the grind and with grit.

I read like a typical story. Yet, despite all of my qualifications, the odds are actually stacked against me and against you. What I didn’t mention is that I’m also an Asian American woman in an industry where we are few and far between. Read the facts and figures and you may come to the same conclusion I’ve reached: contrary to popular belief, corporate America has a bamboo ceiling.

The concept is ironic – Asian Americans are often considered the most successful minority group, getting placed into highly desirable professional positions more often than the general population. And yet, Asian American white-collar professionals are less likely than any other race, including blacks and Hispanics, to be promoted to management roles. White professionals are about twice as likely to be promoted into management as their Asian American counterparts.

As you look at the corporate ladder, the rungs for advancement begin to disappear the higher you go. In US private companies, Asians make up 12% of professionals and 5% of executives, according to EEOC data. In other words, Asian American talent pools at the very top are kiddie-sized at best.

But how do these stats stack up when considering marketing and advertising professionals? How many copywriters or art directors do you know that look like you? How about your colleague with the slight Mandarin accent? Are they leading your new business pitches? Likely not.

For those of us that do choose this industry, we typically get our foot in the door with impressive degrees and resumes stacked with entry to mid-level experience. Unfortunately, the progress stalls from there. We produce excellent work, but many of us are not identified and/or subsequently preened as future managers. Rarely are we given moments in the spotlight to demonstrate the soft skills that we possess beyond the hard. Ironically, the degrees, experiences and model minority stereotypes that worked as our stepping stones turn into our anchors.

It’s hard to adequately describe, substantiate or rationalize a clear solution, but what I do know is that it starts with recognition and understanding.

Recognition that work styles, participation and collaboration should not be type-casted based on perception of that person or what may initially be perceived as a weakness or “handicap.”

Someone’s soft-spoken manner isn’t because they are yellow, but because they are green, just like any other young professional coming in to the industry full of theory but lacking in training.

Understanding that depth and expertise in strategy and storytelling can come from a face that is predominantly connected with broken English. Understanding that a petite woman, despite reading young and dressing femme, can walk into a room and command it.

I know this because I am this.

To say that hard work, perseverance and continued optimism in the face of setbacks and unfair circumstances would be enough to get me the top of my department is simply untrue. I have risen on the corporate ladder because people not only noticed me, but also saw me and recognized my individual potential, despite perception and stereotypes I sometimes fulfilled. I am here because I took advantage of all opportunities, big or small, presented to me.

To be clear, it took a handful of invested people that refused to rest on the excuses of “no time,” or “tough client” or “unique project needs”, and instead nurtured and brought me into the fold.

At the end of the day, that’s the real challenge: finding role models and peers who invest in you. People see me as a sign that our community is doing fine. That the fires that need to be put out are burning elsewhere, and not on our front porch, when the opposite is actually true.

That said, it’s clear that my story is the outlier. My hope is for stories like mine to be the norm. My hope is for those who nurture you to look like me.

Yours truly,

Angela Yang

Angela Yang is group director, social and digital at T3.

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