By Saleah Blancaflor
When Jeanny Chai was in her thirties and working in a corporate environment, she became more self-aware of her identity as an Asian American woman in the workforce.
“I noticed my confidence was lower,” Chai told AsAmNews. “I didn’t speak up as much. Work was constantly in conflict with my culture at home, so I was doing this dance back and forth, wondering who I am.”
When she began doing research on how to overcome those feelings, Jane Hyun’s new book Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians came out around the same time in 2005. Hyun coined the term “bamboo ceiling,” which refers to the idea that certain factors hinder Asian Americans from growing and succeeding in the workplace.
According to U.S. Census Bureau, Asian Americans make up 6% of the U.S. population and account for 12% of professional employees. However, only 4.4% of directors at Fortune 1000 companies are Asian. An Ascend study found that Asian Americans are most likely to be hired for tech jobs, but they’re the least likely to be promoted into leadership and executive roles in Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, PNAS research shows that 11% of associates at American law firms are Asians, but only 3% make partner.
“Asians look like they’re everywhere in the tech field,” Chai said. “But in terms of getting into director, executive level and above, we’re actually behind Black and Hispanic populations for almost every single company in the Fortune 500. This is real. It wasn’t me just making up this feeling like I’m invisible.”
But 15 years after Hyuy’s book came out and the discussions that came up about the bamboo ceiling, Chai said not much changed. When she was in her forties, Chai was diagnosed with breast cancer, which her doctor said was stress-induced. During that period in her life, she also went through a divorce. After overcoming those painful moments, Chai re-evaluated her life, eventually left the corporate world, and started her BambooMyth.com coaching business in 2017. Through the venture, she wanted to give other Asian American women the tools to overcome imposter syndrome, stress, and overwhelm through workshops like the Live Your Leadership Potential Program.
Francoise Lawrence, author of the book My Little Outlier, is a longtime client of Chai’s. She told AsAmNews that she needed to find a solution to being overworked, underpaid, and ignored after working for over a decade at her tech job. Through Chai’s coaching, she said she learned to become more vocal in the workplace setting and applied that to all areas of her life.
“I learned from the program to speak up,” Lawrence said. “Even if there’s something going on with my co-workers, maybe something didn’t make sense. Sometimes the outcome may not be what you want, but you feel better when you speak up. It empowers you more when you tell someone how you feel.”
“Even if you’re in a restaurant and you’re not happy with the service, you don’t just grumble or walk away, you call them to let them know what the problem is,” she said. “Being able to speak up became second nature to me ”
Chai recently expanded the knowledge from her business into a podcast, Asians Breaking Ceilings, which premiered at the end of August, and she releases a new episode every Sunday, to make her advice more accessible to the public.
Part of Chai’s decision to make the project a podcast is because she wanted to feel the gap between Asian American listeners and hosts. Nielsen Podcasting Today 2021 research found that Asian Americans are increasingly listening to podcasts, with a 25% growth in listenership since 2018.
“If you search for Asian podcasts, there’s very few and most of them are comedic,” Chai said. “They’re funny, but none of them talk about the bamboo ceiling, so let’s talk about it.”
She added that she decided to make a podcast because speaking is what connects immediately with people.
In the episodes that have premiered so far, Chai has addressed everything from how events and people from childhood shape cultural norms to the top trends she notices when Asian Americans are being hindered by the bamboo ceiling, whether it’s tolerating a toxic environment or constantly having to prove oneself.
In the second episode titled I Was Supposed to be a Boy, Chai recounts the difficulty of immigrating from Taiwan to America and adjusting to a new school where she didn’t feel like she belonged. There was also the extra pressure from her parents to make good grades in school.
“This created a lot of difficult issues for me later on,” Chai says in the episode. “Trying to prove myself all the time. Trying to overdo things. Trying to make up for the fact that I wasn’t good enough. This is a theme you’re going to hear throughout my life. It created a lot of stress.”
Chai said that by telling her own stories and sharing tips through the podcast, she hopes it will encourage listeners to take control of their careers and lives.
“This podcast is going to help you on a permission level,” Chai added. “If you’re miserable in your job, you need to do something about it. Decide what you want in life, create it, and ask for it.”
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