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A Social Network Perspective on the Bamboo Ceiling: Ethnic Homophily Explains Why East Asians but not South Asians are Underrepresented in Leadership in Multiethnic Environments

In the United States, Asians appear disproportionately underrepresented in leadership roles, a puzzling phenomenon known as the “Bamboo Ceiling.” We advance a social network explanation for this phenomenon: ethnic homophily. We theorize that East Asians—but not South Asians—are less likely than Caucasians to attain leadership roles in multiethnic environments partly because of their tendency to socialize with their ethnic ingroup members (i.e., other East Asians). Across two studies, we examined the leadership attainment and the friendship networks of 11 complete class sections of new MBA students in a US business school. East Asians were less likely than South Asians and Caucasians to be (a) nominated as leaders and (b) elected as leaders. Social network analysis revealed that while all ethnic groups exhibited ethnic homophily in friendship, East Asians exhibited the highest ethnic homophily, which consistently mediated their low leadership attainment. These results were robust after we controlled for variables such as assertiveness, availability of ethnic ingroup members, nationality, socioeconomic status, and personality. By integrating social network analysis into psychology, we identify ethnic homophily as an important reason why East Asians but not South Asians face the Bamboo Ceiling. More broadly, by uncovering the negative link between ethnic homophily and leadership attainment in multiethnic environments, our research suggests that connecting with people from different ethnic backgrounds may facilitate individuals’ leadership attainment in multiethnic environments.

Jackson Lu
MIT Sloan
United States


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