Glass ceiling for Vietnamese professionals, Part II -

February10, 1995

This is a survey of VACETS members on this subject.

PROCEDURE. From the Market Thyself issues and an e-mail I wrote to the general membership, I got one set of inputs. I then wrote directly to members of VACETS who indicated on their membership form that

1. they have 10+ years of experience,

2. they agreed to let other VACETS members contact them,

3. they were not directly part of government organizations (.gov, .mil suffixes in their e-mail). Why you may ask? I felt that government employees are governed by a different set of regulations that those in effect in the business/commercial world. Thinking more about it, I would welcome all inputs from government employees too! So, if you feel like contributing, send me your input.

From this last mailing I receive eight sets of relevant inputs.

In this issue, I am posting the last 4 sets of inputs.

I would like to thank all the VACETS members who have contributed to this issue to help all of us better understand the work environment out there. All the contributors to this issue are male and work either in the U.S.A. or in Canada.

All names and references to companies have been deleted, modified, except for public figures.

I have also taken some editorial liberties to rephrase the texts.

It's always more difficult for Vietnamese (and other minorities) to get promoted. We have to be somehow better to be recognized equally but it would be an error to consider discrimination as the only cause.

Many Vietnamese, especially those who grew up in VN

  • meet cultural (including sports, hobbies, jokes, etc. ...) and language barriers to some degree,
  • are poor communicators,
  • don't do enough self-marketing (it's false to think that good performances would be automatically recognized),
  • don't spend enough time for networking and socializing with non- Vietnamese's.

    Some of these were my own weaknesses, but I don't suffer much because my company has parallel career paths: technical and managerial.

    IMHO, outright discrimination is rather exceptional. Mild discrimination is possible but most frequently it's just a natural behavior: people are less open to strangers with unknown cultural background. Therefore, to better our chances, we'll have to work on our weaknesses (if any) and do the extra effort to break the ice. With the proper attitudes, I would say:

    "The glass ceiling does exist but, unless you aim for the very top, it's not unbreakable".

    In fact, higher in the corporate ladder, other factors become more important: business, social and political ties.

    NB: in our company, many Vietnamese have attained second level (bottom up) positions.

    I feel that the biggest obstacles for a Vietnamese to move up in the management ladder are:


    2. Cultural differences,

    3. Stereotype of Orientals as a good technical person but a bad manager.

    Now my own experience. I came to the U.S. when I was 20 years old. I was too old to adapt completely to the American culture. I felt like I did not belong to this land, its people, its customs and languages - cultural shock! But for economic reasons, I had to work hard, study hard and try to achieve all the material things that the average Americans have.

    I think there is a virtual ceiling imposed on all foreigners who are new to this country, especially if you do not speak perfect English and your skin is not white, and you do not share the same cultural heritage's. There are some discrimination against newcomers, but these are part of human natures and I do not allow myself to be bothered too much by these. To me what is more important is the ceiling we imposed on ourselves: self pity, self-defeating attitudes, lack of confidence, inferior complexes, ignorance's, and lack of the will to advance.

    In my own case, right now I am not holding any management position because in my company there is not much room or opportunities for people to move up. This company is pretty much like in Vietnam. You are not supposed to hold any important position until you are over 45 year old (my 2 bosses are over 50).

    Furthermore, in the past 10 years I have not focused on moving up on the management ladder. But my strategy has always been to work hard enough on my 9-5 jobs to survive and devote 40% of my energy and time to the side businesses and investments. I've been working as a programmer/analyst for 15 years now. During this time, I had always run other businesses, like a video franchise, a landscaping business, convenient stores, and now apartment rentals. I've always made as much money as my bosses :-)) so I'm not sure if I want to hold any management position at all. I guess 5 or 10 years from now when my programming supervisor retires, if I want to, I can apply for her position. To be able to call-the-shots is sometimes attractive but it also involves a lot of heartaches and is time consuming.

    I believe that if you want to move up high on the management ladder, sure YOU CAN DO it. Given that you are intelligent enough, and working hard to improve yourself everyday in communications skills (if you are not speaking perfect English), people skills, political skills. But the most important thing is SELF MOTIVATION. If you WANT it bad enough then you can GET is someday.

    For me, moving up high on the management ladder is not my great concern. My priority is not moving up but moving around, and making as much money as I can while doing it. My concern is not the ceiling imposed on us at work, but my concern is the abilities of my tenants to come up with their rental payments on-time each month at home :-)))

    I am afraid that I won't be able to contribute much to your column ... because I don't think I've hit the "ceiling" yet :-). I had a chance to become a section manager once and even though I enjoyed the experience of managing projects, schedules, people, and dealing with customers and upper management, I found that I enjoyed the technical side a lot more, or at least I feel that is where I can learn a lot more. So I decided to jump ship and continue on the technical side.

    My observation/guess is that the "ceiling" is somewhere in the upper management level, i.e. director or division head, and to be a player at that level on has to have at least a master degree (in my case, I don't have one (sigh)). Also communications skills is a MUST at these levels. Now let us assume that I possess these skills and qualifications, I probably still feel "left out" or not part of the main stream due to my inherent Vietnamese instinct, i.e. humbleness, quiet, not blowing your own horn kind of thing. Even living here for almost 20 years and having seen and enjoyed the popular culture, I still don't really mix in well with my white colleagues. There are still a lot of jokes/slang that they can really understand each other while I am not, and vice-versa when I am with Vietnamese friends. It is at this level that I think a glass ceiling may exists and a Vietnamese will never be able to really mix in with the natives. As of any good teams, management teams included, a trusting bonding relationship among the team members is important. A "good working" relationship here means more that just a "professional working" relationship. A personal relationship has to exist and at this level, we are talking about compatibility at the personal level, and I think this is where a foreigner, especially an Asian, does not mix well with the current white-male dominated upper management.

    On the theory of compatibility, the foreword of the book "Culture Literacy", by ?? ... explained very well on why common culture roots are very important in improving communications/understanding among people.

    Well, that's my 2 cents of the issue.

    I chose the technical ladder in every company that I have worked for. This was because of my personality, not because I thought that a minority would not make it to management level. I have seen minority executives at all companies that I worked for. Having said that, I must admit that the very top spots are almost always occupied by white males - except only in companies founded by minorities themselves.

    In my current company, there are female and minority executives. A Vietnamese young man is on his way up the management ladder. A very close Vietnamese friend of mine is one of the top executives at his small company.

    In brief, I believe that Vietnamese can make it to the top. Of course, I do realize that it would take more for a minority to get there than a good looking white male.

    About advancing in the workplace, this is what I can offer you. I believe communication skills and an outgoing, warm personality play important roles. With Americans, my communications skills is not spectacular and my personality is somewhat introvert (is it a common trait among older Vietnamese?), and straightforward. I also do not play politics nor know how to socialize with bosses. Plus the fact that due to circumstances, I changed jobs 4 times already. All of these conditions should not help me advance :-). Even if a Vietnamese got advanced, I think definitely there is a glass ceiling at some high level.

    I guess everybody is waiting for me to editorialize now and try to come up with some conclusions from all these letters and my own experience.

    In general I believe that at the technical level, any discrimination is relatively minor. When you get beyond the first level of management, there is subtle discrimination but probably the biggest problem is our cultural heritage of humility is in our way. Thus for anybody aspiring to move into upper management, my recommendations are to work on

    1. your communication skills - it is never enough!

    2. networking with your peers inside and outside the company - again it appears never to be enough! With regard to the bosses, everything depends on his/her personality, but when you get an invitation for a party do show up on time!

    3. try to work with a mentor (this is publicity for MT #16). However be aware that there are pros and cons. Your fortune/misfortune may become tied to that of your mentor!

    4. watch the body language, especially the eye contact.

    5. and probably the most important one, work hard! Since most of us are in high tech industries where we can make a difference with our brain, hard work can translate into visible results.

    The following comment was posted on vacets-jobs after the first part of this two part article was published.

    Chanh Cao wrote:

    On the subject of the "Glass Ceiling", I think one should give it a shot. If you break it then good! If not then follow plan B which is to work for your own. After all, some of us are living in the land of opportunities, be it entrepreneurial or otherwise.

    If the "mainstream" guys have their own old boys networks, the Vietnamese Americans can do the same too. The Chinese have had success in corporate America partly due to mutual assistance. Just take a look of corporate America directories: Chinese names in clusters :)

    TT: that's why we have VACETS and this column!

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