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GUEST COMMENT: In general, I would say Asians struggle to progress in non-Asian banks

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I’m sure I’m going to touch a few nerves when I saw this, but despite the shift eastwards in global economic power, Asians (defined as those coming from the Asia-Pacific region) will never progress beyond a certain point in non-Asian banks.

The reason is simple. There is no inherent glass ceiling stopping them from reaching management levels. Instead, culturally they build their own “Bamboo Ceilings”.

My idea was sparked by one of Gawker’s most read web pages of last year, an article in New York Magazine. In it, Wesley Yang, the Korean-American author, makes the same point.

Even though [this is Europe, and] I am white, the observation is just as relevant. In theory, Asians are well placed to take advantage of the opportunities that are now coming out of the East. However, culturally they lack the ability to challenge authority (or even just to speak up) and because of this, they aren’t suited to management and senior roles in banks.

Let’s start with the good stuff, and there is a lot of it.

Asians are undoubtedly over-represented in the elite educational institutions which the banks recruit from. They work hard and achieve the high grades necessary to get in to these universities. And banks like people who work very, very hard.

And yet, as NY Magazine article observes: “The traits that got you to where you are won’t necessarily take you to the next level”.

Crucially, it seems most Asians in the City pass through Harvard, Oxford or London School of Economics without the networks that serve alumni from these schools so well when they reach the real world. I went to one such university and my observation was that Asians tend not to socialise much. The student who feels out of place in the union bar will feel just as out of place bantering after work over drinks with their banking colleagues.

The City has never been a pure meritocracy. Those social skills are crucial when it comes to promotion discussions, evaluations and team bonus meetings.

It’s not just about telling jokes and drinking beers. You can do neither of those and still be the exception to the “Bamboo Ceiling” rule. An Asian friend of mine, Kelvin, has zero drinking ability and almost no chat, but he plays 5-aside football religiously with his fellow traders every Tuesday evening. That’s his solution to the problem. Because he has a mean right foot, everybody knows who he is. Of course, his trading P&L is impressive, but that’s only a sine qua non to doing well.

Needless to say, it’s facile to suggest that all Asians must necessarily struggle to make it into senior management. There’s a very large pocket of successful Indians at Deutsche Bank. And there are plenty of examples of people who are part-Asian or who have spent long enough outside the region to see how the rest of the world functions.

Another friend, Tim, is a good example of this. He has a Japanese mother and a French father and he played rugby forCambridgebefore joining a bulge-bracket M&A team. After a few years in London, he moved to Hong Kong and is very successful. He claims his “non-Asian” leadership ability is admired by his colleagues.

I’m sure that this article will provoke comments about racism, implicit or obvious. Before you judge, at least read the article linked above. Readers should bear in mind that I (like Yang) am making a cultural observation which is therefore a generalisation. I’m sure there are plenty or people who do not fall into this “Bamboo Celing” category, but it seems to me they are in the minority.

The author has worked in a number of roles across the City of London

Comments (4)

  1. It’s interesting to hear a white person explaining the cultural insensitivity of the white dominated banking industry.

  2. sarah i had commented twice why was it not put on the website

    if you can go ahead and put this article, then have the courage to also publish reader comments.

  3. hmmm the city is not a meritocracy? why not? what else should it be? a place where getting along with peers at the bar ?

    I wonder what the bosses of top banks would think ?

    the city has been a place where mediocre people get paid very high salaries.

  4. This piece of work is so typical of those that do not understand any other culture but their own and make generalizations of what Asian people are and aren’t. It’s conceptually and logically flawed. It is based purely on generalizations that try to explain why the white man is most deserving of senior management roles over minorities.

    If the ability to challenge authority is a precondition for executive or senior management roles, so then what would be the exact nature of an executive or senior management role when there is no authority left to challenge ? Taking it a step back, in what world does a habitually “speaking up” and “challenging your superior” type of career progression explain the entirety of a clear path to seniority ? Clearly, there other factors involved.

    To make a claim that Asians tend not to socialize much couldn’t be more wrong. How do you explain the vast and tightly knit Asian communities in foreign countries, like Chinatown, immigrant societies, Asian gangs, and student societies. What you are trying to say is that they don’t socialize out of their own community. Yes well, it’s likely that many Asians don’t socialize with you because it takes them out of their comfort zone in terms of language, common interests, and many students being in a foreign country for the first time. But only as much as you not socializing with the same Asians because you don’t feel the need to get out of your own comfort zone and speak the Asian language or learn a thing or two about Asian culture. You believe there isn’t a need when you are in your own country and it’s called xenophobia. So then how is them not socializing with you any different than you not socializing with them ? In addition, from a purely rational and economic incentive perspective, many of the students decide to leave after a year or two, why not spend more time socializing with other rich, high level, influential and well connected Asians that all intend to go back to Asia eventually. The nature of the relationship is also drastically different between Asians and westerners. Asians students of this type tend to help each other out and take the view of a long term beneficial relationship. A relationship with someone white is quite casual and most of the time, quite meaningless to them, as there are no benefits attached to it in the short or long run. So clearly, not everyone is inclined to explore cultures and clearly you aren’t.

    The cases you present are exceptions. You fail to differentiate those that are half Asian or born in a western country. These individuals have already integrated to your society to a large extent, and thus make the transition easier. As for Tim, he is probably a bit delusional to think that colleagues not only admire him, but also openly and wholeheartedly express this in the corporate finance world. His manager is probably western, and would appreciate that, but anyone lower or on the same level as Tim is just casually and artificially creating some kind of relationship with him. It’s Hong Kong after all, you take everything people say with a grain of salt. Perhaps you should be the one learning more about the rest of the world.

    Let’s swap places and look at the western foreigner in Asian society. I have to admit there are plenty of Westerners that have flawless Asian language abilities, marry an Asian wife and integrate so well in Asian society. But there are also plenty of Asians that integrate as well into Western society. These are the exceptions. Now let’s look at the other western foreigners that don’t integrate at all. They tend to stay within expat communities and ridicule locals, and they tend not to socialize with locals because they have little or no local language skills, little local cultural knowledge and little common interests. Put them in a local situation and they are not that different from the Asian generalizations you describe. And yet, they still feel superior to that of the locals and that they deserve to be there. So then why are they there ? Not because they worked from the bottom up in an Asian society. But only because they were placed there by the western firm that decided locals can’t be trained to manage locals. They were chosen by the very similar senior management that are based in far off western countries that carry the same Asian generalizations, that all Asians can’t be trained to have leadership qualities. There are so many equally strong candidates, but western managers have defense mechanisms and feel that they need to surround themselves with people that think alike and talk the same talk, to accumulate and consolidate power, to have decisions go more smoothly, but to also subconsciously feel a bit more at home and less lonely. If a company sent me to North Korea, I might want some foreign colleagues working with me despite how well qualified other North Koreans may be.

    Indeed Asians are very well placed to take advantage of the situations coming out of the East, but from the East. Not in the City or Wall Street. You have a team of Asians in Asia for these situations. The clients in the west simply aren’t Asian. Let’s be honest, the Italians prefer to do deals and business with Italians, the Nordics are the same. The Japanese are no different. And the Chinese as well. All things equal, why wouldn’t I want to hire a Russian to do Russian business, or a German to German business. It’s all very simple, why is there a need to hire an Asian professional in a western firm that works on European business and doesn’t speak a European language or know a European culture. There are reasons of course but not a mass level.

    Worst of all, this person is a bit delusional in thinking he just prescribed some revolutionary insight into why Asians can’t get jobs in the City. Well, if this person is the typical Briton that only speaks one language and still thinks Britain is of significant influence globally, he too should worry about losing his job to Northern, Southern, Central and Eastern Europeans.

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