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Asian-Canadian Women in Leadership


By Holly Kim

Every year, thousands of Asian-Canadian women enter the workforce with advanced degrees from post-secondary institutions. With their commitment to excellence, strong work ethic, and respect for the authority, Asian-Canadian women are valued in the workforce. Fast forward 10 to 15 years. While the peers of these Asian-Canadian women have progressed to the upper level management and into the titled-officer positions, Asian-Canadian women remain in the lower positions or middle-management levels. In the U.S., Asian-American women made up “less than 0.5% of corporate officers at the 429 Fortune 500 companies” (Hyun, 2005, xviii) which translates to 30 out of 10,092 executives.

What are the reasons behind the inequality? For the very few that break through, what are the determining factors? Little research exists to date to examine the reasons behind this gap and to uncover the characteristics of the Asian-Canadian women who successfully climb up the corporate ladder to the upper echelon of the Canadian corporate world. Here is a brief review of the information available, but this topic requires further research as visible minorities represent a growing portion of Canadian population.

Asian-Canadian women are challenged on two fronts: being women and being Asian. As a woman, she has to balance her career and her husband’s career. Many of the female executives I have met talked about the struggle to hold back their careers until their husbands’ careers are on track to match their own. Then, there is the decision whether to have children and to take on the responsibility of the primary caregiver (Ely, Stone, Ammerman, 2014). Add to these challenges, women’s tendency to not raise their hand until they feel they are sufficiently qualified for a promotion, while their male counterparts fearlessly and boldly hand in their resume even with fewer qualifications (Mohr, 2014).

Being Asian, she has to overcome the stereotypical image of Asian women as subservient, obedient, and silent. Asian women are often portrayed as geishas, cleaning ladies, and math nerds in the media. Jane Hyun (2005) coined the term, “bamboo ceiling,” to describe the challenges Asian-Americans face in the work place. Based on the Asian upbringing, she learns to put her head down and work hard without talking about her achievements. Humility is a virtue, and she must avoid coming across as boastful. She learns that women serve men and take care of the family. She also learns to relate to the authority and supervisors with deference and obedience, not with confidence and equality.

Despite these challenges, a few women make it to the top. According to one research which interviewed several Asian-American women in leadership roles in various industries in the United States (Kawahara, Esnil, & Hsu, 2007), these women display six characteristics which are:

  1. Knowing oneself and doing something you believe in;
  2. having a vision and inspiring others to work on that vision;
  3. relational and collaborative leadership style;
  4. taking on challenges, struggles, and conflicts;
  5. dominant culture efficacy and biculturalism; and
  6. support and encouragement (Kawahara et al, 2007, p. 303).


While similar research is not yet available with Asian-Canadian women, these characteristics identified in the Asian-American leaders are likely applicable in the Canadian corporate setting to help Asian-Canadian women overcome the challenges in career advancement. The goals of aspiring Asian-Canadian women leaders are to develop these attributes, specifically a strong identity, a clear career goal, cultural efficacy, and communication skills. The goals of managers, leaders, mentors, career professionals, and career counsellors are to understand the socio-cultural backgrounds of Asian-Canadian and to encourage, mentor, and support them.

Holly Kim has previously held leadership roles in a major Canadian bank for 16 years and is currently a M.A. student in counselling psychology at Adler University in Vancouver and writing her thesis on Asian-Canadian women in leadership.



Ely, R., Stone, P., & Ammerman, C. (2014). Rethink what you “know” about high-achieving women. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

Hyun, J. (2005). Breaking the bamboo ceiling. New York: NY, HarperCollins Publishers.

Kawahara, D. M., Esnil, E. M., & Hsu, J. (2007). Asian American women leaders: The intersection of race, gender, and leadership. In J. L. Chin (Ed.), Women and leadership: Transforming visions and diverse voices, (pp. 297-313). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Mohr, T. (2014, August 25). Why women don’t apply for jobs unless they’re 100% qualified. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from


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