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