Breaking the "Bamboo Ceiling"

What exactly is the "bamboo ceiling"? The term refers to the lack of Asian Pacific American (APA) representation in corporate leadership roles due to a combination of individual, cultural and organizational factors, which impede APAs from advancing inside organizations.

The APA population is the fastest growing minority group in the United States, according to the most recent U.S. Census. And while APAs account for half of all minority associates nationally and in Big Law, the number of APA General Counsel in the Fortune 500 has languished at around 10 for the last decade.

As a group, APAs are often seen as hard workers who excel academically, particularly in math and science, and are supported by deep family roots and values. We are continually stereotyped as humble and gracious but not go-getters or inspirational leaders. We are thought to believe hard work is the key to success, not being the squeaky wheel. Are these the reasons why APAs face a bamboo ceiling? Do we wittingly play into such stereotypes? Are there actions that APA lawyers can take to seize initiative within corporate America? These are questions that are raised again and again when looking at the career advancement of APAs in the corporate legal setting. So what are we doing to break this bamboo ceiling?

The National Asian Pacific Bar Association’s In-House Counsel Network recently announced its new 20X20 Initiative to do just that. The goal is to have at least 20 APA General Counsel in the Fortune 500 by the year 2020. The challenge is great, but one we at MLA embrace as part of our overall commitment to diversity within the highest levels of the profession.

Major, Lindsey & Africa is contributing to the effort to shatter the bamboo ceiling by building strong relationships between top APA talent and executive recruiters. In addition, we have established a series of Roundtable discussions with APA General Counsel, providing a forum in which APA in-house attorneys can have a candid and intimate discussion about roadblocks to career progression and strategies for navigating the corporate environment. The Roundtables, which have already been held in Chicago and San Francisco, facilitate a frank conversation about the issues facing this community in the workplace and not only foster dialogue but also serve as important networking opportunities.

The next such Roundtable will be on December 3 at Jenner & Block’s Washington, D.C., office. The distinguished panel will include John Chou, General Counsel of Amerisource Bergen (Fortune #16); A.B. Cruz III, General Counsel of Emergent BioSolutions (placed by MLA); Jannie Lau, General Counsel of InterDigital; Curtis Lu, General Counsel of FTI Consulting (placed by MLA); and Anne Benedict, General Counsel of Summit Materials. If you are an APA in-house attorney with a desire to break the bamboo ceiling, please RSVP to join us in December.

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Debbie Tang is a Managing Director in the Washington, DC office of Major, Lindsey & Africa. Her practice focuses on senior level and general counsel positions within both Fortune 500 and private companies, as well as associations, non-profits and educational institutions. Debbie is active in the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association and is co-chair of the In-House Counsel Forum of the Women's Bar Association of the District of Columbia. She can be reached at (202) 292-1848 and dtang@mlaglobal.com.

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