Clear
53°
Clear
Hi 78° | Lo 54°

Breaking the ‘bamboo ceiling’

First-time novelist tackles Asian American stereotypes

  • Author and lawyer Helen Wan, right, has lunch with her parents, Peter and Catherine Wan, in Tysons Corner, Va., on Oct. 30, 2013. Wan's first novel, "The Partner Track," is about a young Asian woman who runs up against the "bamboo ceiling" at the law firm where she works. The book has exposed a nerve about some of the challenges Asian Americans face in the corporate world. Illustrates BOOKS-WAN (category l), by Krissah Thompson © 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by André Chung for The Washington Post)

    Author and lawyer Helen Wan, right, has lunch with her parents, Peter and Catherine Wan, in Tysons Corner, Va., on Oct. 30, 2013. Wan's first novel, "The Partner Track," is about a young Asian woman who runs up against the "bamboo ceiling" at the law firm where she works. The book has exposed a nerve about some of the challenges Asian Americans face in the corporate world. Illustrates BOOKS-WAN (category l), by Krissah Thompson © 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by André Chung for The Washington Post)

  • Author and lawyer Helen Wan, shown in Washington on Oct. 30, 2013, is on a tour promoting her first novel, "The Partner Track." The book explores the so-called "bamboo ceiling" that Asian Americans face in the corporate world. Illustrates BOOKS-WAN (category l), by Krissah Thompson © 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by André Chung for The Washington Post)

    Author and lawyer Helen Wan, shown in Washington on Oct. 30, 2013, is on a tour promoting her first novel, "The Partner Track." The book explores the so-called "bamboo ceiling" that Asian Americans face in the corporate world. Illustrates BOOKS-WAN (category l), by Krissah Thompson © 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by André Chung for The Washington Post)

  • "The Partner Track" is Helen Wan's first novel, published by St. Martin's Press. The book, which explores some of the challenges Asian Americans face in the corporate world, has already had a second printing, a rare achievement for a first-time author. Illustrates BOOKS-WAN (category l), by Krissah Thompson © 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by André Chung for The Washington Post)

    "The Partner Track" is Helen Wan's first novel, published by St. Martin's Press. The book, which explores some of the challenges Asian Americans face in the corporate world, has already had a second printing, a rare achievement for a first-time author. Illustrates BOOKS-WAN (category l), by Krissah Thompson © 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by André Chung for The Washington Post)

  • Author and lawyer Helen Wan, center, greets guests at an event in Washington on Oct. 30, 2013, promoting her first novel, "The Partner Track." The book explores some of the challenges Asian Americans face in the corporate world. Illustrates BOOKS-WAN (category l), by Krissah Thompson © 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by André Chung for The Washington Post)

    Author and lawyer Helen Wan, center, greets guests at an event in Washington on Oct. 30, 2013, promoting her first novel, "The Partner Track." The book explores some of the challenges Asian Americans face in the corporate world. Illustrates BOOKS-WAN (category l), by Krissah Thompson © 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by André Chung for The Washington Post)

  • "The Partner Track" is Helen Wan's first novel, published by St. Martin's Press. The book, which explores some of the challenges Asian Americans face in the corporate world, has already had a second printing, a rare achievement for a first-time author. Illustrates BOOKS-WAN (category l), by Krissah Thompson © 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by André Chung for The Washington Post)

    "The Partner Track" is Helen Wan's first novel, published by St. Martin's Press. The book, which explores some of the challenges Asian Americans face in the corporate world, has already had a second printing, a rare achievement for a first-time author. Illustrates BOOKS-WAN (category l), by Krissah Thompson © 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by André Chung for The Washington Post)

  • Author and lawyer Helen Wan, right, has lunch with her parents, Peter and Catherine Wan, in Tysons Corner, Va., on Oct. 30, 2013. Wan's first novel, "The Partner Track," is about a young Asian woman who runs up against the "bamboo ceiling" at the law firm where she works. The book has exposed a nerve about some of the challenges Asian Americans face in the corporate world. Illustrates BOOKS-WAN (category l), by Krissah Thompson © 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by André Chung for The Washington Post)
  • Author and lawyer Helen Wan, shown in Washington on Oct. 30, 2013, is on a tour promoting her first novel, "The Partner Track." The book explores the so-called "bamboo ceiling" that Asian Americans face in the corporate world. Illustrates BOOKS-WAN (category l), by Krissah Thompson © 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by André Chung for The Washington Post)
  • "The Partner Track" is Helen Wan's first novel, published by St. Martin's Press. The book, which explores some of the challenges Asian Americans face in the corporate world, has already had a second printing, a rare achievement for a first-time author. Illustrates BOOKS-WAN (category l), by Krissah Thompson © 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by André Chung for The Washington Post)
  • Author and lawyer Helen Wan, center, greets guests at an event in Washington on Oct. 30, 2013, promoting her first novel, "The Partner Track." The book explores some of the challenges Asian Americans face in the corporate world. Illustrates BOOKS-WAN (category l), by Krissah Thompson © 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by André Chung for The Washington Post)
  • "The Partner Track" is Helen Wan's first novel, published by St. Martin's Press. The book, which explores some of the challenges Asian Americans face in the corporate world, has already had a second printing, a rare achievement for a first-time author. Illustrates BOOKS-WAN (category l), by Krissah Thompson © 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by André Chung for The Washington Post)

Ingrid Yung is a made-up character, but her story seems to resonate with the real-life Asian American lawyers gathered for a book reading in the Washington, D.C., offices of the corporate law firm Wiley Rein. Ingrid, a minority and a woman, is a “two-fer” in the parlance of her fictional firm, where her impatience with its clumsy approach to diversity threatens her promising career.

“We didn’t need (expletive) Dumpling Day in the firm cafeteria,” Ingrid fumes in the new novel The Partner Track, published by St. Martin’s Press. “We needed decoder rings for all of the unwritten rules of survival here.”

Ingrid’s creator is lawyer and novelist Helen Wan, who grew up in Burke, Va. Her debut book, a witty yet pointed exploration of the difficulties Asian Americans have advancing in corporate culture, has clearly exposed a nerve. The eager response from readers sent it back for a second printing after an initial run of 50,000 in September, a rare achievement for a first-time author. A Wall Street Journal reviewer called the book engaging and suspenseful and praised Wan’s realistic depiction of law firm culture.

Law firms and law schools across the country have invited Wan to speak to groups such as the one at Wiley Rein, organized by the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association.

Like her character, Wan, 40, is a lawyer navigating the top echelons of the profession (in Wan’s case, as an associate general counsel at Time Inc.) and she’s also an “ABC”: American-born Chinese. She was raised by parents who sent her to Chinese school on Sundays and to a science and technology- focused high school, and who often offered counsel in what her family now calls the “old Asian” way: Don’t rock the boat. The nail that pokes out is hammered down. Work harder and you will get ahead.

Wan interned with lawyers and judges who often saw an American-born law student as Asian first. “I’ve always thought your people were very bright,” one judge said. And she spent time at a large New York litigation firm that felt like “another planet,” where squeaky wheels, not those that rolled along quietly, were the ones that got promoted.

Those experiences helped Wan infuse Ingrid’s story with the authentic sense of cultural dissonance that her readers are responding to.

On the night Wan reads at Wiley Rein, many of the gathered Asian American lawyers are still wearing their power suits. There are men and women, most between 25 and 45. A handful are first-generation immigrants. A few black lawyers and one of the firm’s white male partners are on hand.

All listen raptly to Chapter Five, in which Ingrid compares herself to a young, white woman at the firm:

“I was jealous of her confidence and her utter unself-consciousness. What would it be like, I marveled, to go through life so utterly unwary? So wholly certain of your belonging to a place that it was never necessary to consider how your next move would be perceived? Making partner at Parsons Valentine felt like a big final exam to which a select few held the answer key. While the rest of us schmucks had to study.”

A few heads nod, and after Wan’s reading the conversation turns to stalled ambition and the presumption that Asian Americans are happy worker bees.

“What do you do when you know you’ve been picked to be on the team because they want you to be this quiet, hardworking Asian?” one young woman asks.

In the annals of American employment discrimination, “quiet” and “hardworking” may not seem like the worst way to be characterized, Wan acknowledges. But such seemingly benign stereotypes, much like the term “model minority,” mask a less benign truth backed by reams of research: Members of the country’s most highly educated racial group are among the least likely to make it to the top in corporate America.

Lei Lai, an assistant professor at Tulane University, wrapped up the findings in a report last year: In both public and private sectors, Asian Americans have the lowest probability to be promoted to managerial positions among all racial minorities; they have a lower ratio of managers to professionals, compared with whites; they deal with perceptions that they lack social skills; and some face discrimination because of accents.

The studies and Wan pointed to stereotypes of Asian Americans as passive, poor communicators, techies or not “real” Americans.

“I do not think it is in any way intentional or systematic, but still it is happening,” Wan says. “Subconsciously, there is still a perception that the Asian American in the room is really smart, is a really hard worker and sometimes even is a good people person but – this is a big ‘but’ – is probably a better sort of technical or behind-the-scenes thinker and not a leader.”

That pile of career-compromising assumptions has a name: the bamboo ceiling.

Wan’s novel is among the latest works exploring the tensions Asian Americans face in the corporate world. Jane Hyun, an executive coach based in New York, is the author of Flex, a book about managing across differences, following up on her 2005 release, Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians, in which she helped coin the term.

A century ago, most Asian Americans were low-skilled, low-wage laborers who farmed, mined and built railroads. Today they are among America’s highest- earning and best-educated workers, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center. Nearly half have a college degree, compared with 28 percent of all U.S. adults.

With a median income of $66,000, Asian Americans earn $16,200 more than the U.S. average, though Pew points out that that figure doesn’t acknowledge the diversity of experience within the demographic.

(Korean Americans, Vietnamese Americans and Chinese Americans have higher than average rates of poverty, while Indian Americans, Japanese Americans and Filipino Americans have lower rates.)

Despite higher educational attainment, however, Asian Americans fare as poorly as other minority groups when it comes to the top jobs at the nation’s 500 largest companies. Only eight of those companies are led by Asian Americans, and only 2.6 percent of the seats on the corporate boards of Fortune 500 companies are held by Asian Americans, according to research by DiversityInc and the think tank Catalyst.

(Six African Americans are Fortune 500 CEOs, and 7.4 percent hold corporate board seats; eight Hispanics are Fortune 500 CEOs, and 3.3 percent hold corporate board seats.

Nearly 87 percent of corporate board seats at the companies are held by white workers.)

Similarly, in the federal government Asian Americans make up 6 percent of the work force but only 3 percent of the senior executive service.

Asian Americans have been called the “ ‘model minority,’ but this community seems to be the ‘forgotten minority,’ ” wrote a group reporting in 2008 to the chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in assessing the difficulty of moving to senior ranks in the federal government.

There are no comments yet. Be the first!
Post a Comment

You must be registered to comment on stories. Click here to register.