Breaking the bamboo ceiling for a culturally-inclusive workplace: An interview with Karen Loon

In a workplace where employees of different cultures – local and foreign – mix, leaders have a role in creating an environment where all employees of all backgrounds are comfortable voicing their thoughts, feelings, and concerns, shares Karen Loon, Board Member of INSEAD Directors Network, Mentor at BoardAgender.

Many societies around the world have made progress in smashing the glass ceiling – a metaphor that usually describes the invisible barrier that prevents women from rising to the top of their organisations – in the workplace. For instance, such as Malaysia are mandating women on the Boards of public-listed companies. At the same time, Singapore and Thailand are seeing more women take up CEO roles - as with the rest of Southeast Asia, albeit with room for improvement.

On the employer front, leaders are stepping up, leading the conversation, and setting bold targets in gender representation in their organisations.

While the above is so, there stands a less understood, more nuanced ceiling formed of cultural differences – the bamboo ceiling. Elaborating on this in an interview with Arina Sofiah & Priya Sunil, Karen Loon, Board Member of INSEAD Directors Network, Committee Member at BoardAgender, shares: "This term, coined by Asian-American author Jane Hyun in 2005, describes the barrier to Asians getting top leadership positions in corporate America. In the US, the bamboo ceiling is viewed as a subtle and complex form of discrimination where Asian-Americans are frequently labelled as quiet, hardworking, family-oriented, high-achieving in maths and science, passive, non-confrontational, submissive, and not social.

"While those attributes could be a plus in junior roles, they could also impede an individual’s career in the long term."

Interestingly, as Loon goes on, while there is not much research on this issue outside the US, research published by MIT academic Jackson Lu in 2020 showed that East Asians (e.g., Chinese, Koreans, Japanese) in the US were more likely to experience the bamboo ceiling than South Asians (e.g., Indians, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis).

"Lu found that East Asians were perceived as less assertive than the norm for leaders in the US. That bias applied to both international Asians and Asian-Americans. He suggests that this problem is not just driven by language barriers or immigration status. Rather, the issue is ‘an issue of cultural fit—a mismatch between East Asian norms of communication and American norms of leadership’."

Some people with Asian backgrounds working in western MNCs in Singapore also feel they hit bamboo ceilings in their organisations, Loon notes.

"The problem with these stereotypes is that if enough people tell you you’re not the right fit for leadership, you may start to internalise that belief. Dealing with this sort of bias can deflate your motivation and increase your perception that they are not suitable for leadership positions. In my own case, fortunately, I didn’t experience many challenges when working in Australia. However, I faced situations in Australia where senior businessmen told me I looked very young. They were also sceptical about the work experience I obtained in Singapore."

With the above in mind, Loon further elaborates on ways HR leaders and employers can tackle the issue of cultural bias – especially when different cultures mix, how people managers can play their part in driving these, and more. Read on for the full insights.

Q Taking a look at Singapore: with the nation tapping on foreign talent for certain roles & industries, many locals have adopted the “us versus them” mentality at the workplace. Given the sensitivity of the issue, how can HR leaders and employers acknowledge the concerns among the locals, along with the concerns among their foreign talent, all while ensuring a safe and culturally-inclusive workplace?

At work, we all want to work in a fair and equitable environment. However, at times we may feel anxious when new people join. We may be worried about the increased competition, so we feel vulnerable.

In today’s high-stress environments, when we are under pressure to perform, collectively, it is human nature that we resist change. In these situations, we may feel more comfortable working with people we know or are like us as it is much easier and more efficient.

In teams, we also like to cling to routines that we are comfortable with. How often do we hear the words others tell us, "We don’t do things like that around here."

In such situations, new employees or people who are different may feel that they don’t fit into the corporate culture and norms and may not think they belong.

At times, in Singapore, people may not feel comfortable voicing how they feel about situations, especially when speaking to senior leaders, as they may fear a backlash against them. We tend not to like open conflict at work.

In such cases, leaders have a role in creating environments where all employees of all backgrounds are comfortable voicing their thoughts, feelings, and concerns at work.

Psychological safe spaces are ones where they are not scared to speak up. Creating safe spaces and making the time to listen to people and reflect is an integral part of the role of leaders today.

Q In that vein, how can organisations better equip their line/people managers to play their part?

First, I think that it is vital that leaders ensure that their company’s vision, purpose, values, and lived behaviours are clearly aligned.

Supporting this, leaders must ensure that their corporate culture balances performance and people dimensions. For example, when companies over-emphasise performance elements over people, and employees are under pressure to meet KPIs, they may feel overly stressed. This can collectively lead to dysfunctional group behaviours, such as increased politics that are not in line with the company’s expectations.

Finally, companies should aim to become learning organisations. These are where people feel empowered to co-create the culture and collaborate. In addition to creating an environment of psychological safety, they encourage self-reflection and support relationship building.

Q On the personal front: what it was like starting out as a woman in the professional sector? Did you come across stereotypes, and how did you tackle them?

When I started work in Australia, in my division, nearly 50% of the graduates were women; however, there were no female partners. The typical partner was male, of an Anglo-Celtic background, and liked to play golf. I was the opposite – female, Asian, and not very good at sport as I was too short!

I didn't face as many barriers in Singapore as I am ethnically Chinese.

Although I am not local, my Asian roots meant I always was prepared to work hard. I was very fortunate that I had several sponsors who guided me and supported my progression into leadership roles. In addition, they would advise me on blind spots I was unaware of. These included spending more time getting to know colleagues personally and suggesting ways to overcome them.

karenloon provided

Q You’ve led several diversity initiatives in your career – what has been the most memorable and impactful one, and how did you grow from this? 

I've been interested in supporting younger women since I became a partner at PwC 20 years ago. I wanted to help others following me. I also wish to help people with culturally diverse backgrounds make it into leadership.

Other than launching my book and shaping PwC Singapore's early efforts in the diversity and inclusion space, I am most proud to have supported some highly talented female Singaporeans in my former firm in becoming partners. As a leader, I have always felt that my role was to give back and groom the next generation of leaders behind me.

My advice for women who aspire to venture on this path is that seeking to influence and drive change is not easy, as any change not just involves the head but the heart.

Policies, procedures, and targets may feel like the easier way to increase leadership diversity. Still, for sustained change, you need to understand some of the emotional triggers of your people that could inhibit or hold back actual change.

As an example, many leaders say that they are supportive of greater diversity & inclusion. However, progress may be slow if their actual behaviours are not in line with this.

Q How has your experience as an Asian-Australian woman shaped the person you are today? What advice would you give to other women of similar backgrounds?

I have learned that there is no one silver bullet to make it into leadership. It can be more challenging for women and people of minority backgrounds. In my book, I suggest that aspiring leaders think about four areas:

  1. Understand yourself. Understanding your strengths and weaknesses and being aware of your blind spots is essential. Other people sometimes see and sense aspects of your personality that you don't. Be open to getting feedback from others through 360-degree feedback and learn more about how you behave under stress. Also, look at what formal and informal roles you prefer and reflect on why you like these roles over others.

  2. Build a secure base of supporters. Having supporters at work can make or break your journey to leadership. Indeed, it can be a critical factor for success. Some of my early career sponsors are people I still ask for help and advice today. When looking for sponsors, start early in your career. Then, nurture these connections for the longer term and remember that any relationship must be two-way. Also, remember that it's essential to have some sponsors who are not just like you.

    Finally, build a strong network of mentors and coaches you can turn to for advice. Ensure, too, that you can leverage your family for support outside of work.

  3. Balance tensions. Today, many situations we face at work are paradoxical and involve inherent tension. For example, take work, family, or profitability and ESG (environmental, social and governance issues). You need to recognise that it isn't possible to make an either/or decision in some cases. To manage these tensions, learn to become more comfortable with discomfort. Take the time to reflect rather than act impulsively or jump to conclusions. You can gain that mental space by journaling, going for a walk or run, or meditating.

  4. Experiment, learn, and reflect. Your education doesn't end once you finish your professional exams. Many things will change throughout your career. Remember to stretch yourself and try new things regularly. Embrace lifelong learning and ensure that you invest in 'me' time.

Q If you could wave a magic wand and instill one belief (about cultural and/or gender inclusivity) in everyone you meet, what would that be?

Ultimately, we are all human and desire to be liked and to belong no matter who we are.

I hope that one day, we don’t need to talk about having programmes and initiatives to foster greater leadership diversity. However, to reach that nirvana will require all of us to be more inclusive with each other.


Lead image: Shutterstock; Karen Loon's image: Provided, captured by Flavio Brancaleone]

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