Career Perseverance

Three actuaries give their perspectives on breaking through the “bamboo ceiling” Jeffrey Ting, John Blocher, Riddhi Patel

The term “bamboo ceiling” was popularized with Jane Hyun’s 2005 book “Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians.” Hyun’s writings highlight the challenges faced by many Asian American professionals.

Despite being labeled a “model minority” and known for hard work and success, many Asian Americans still face difficulties, like the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype, and cultural nuances that hinder career advancement. In this article, we’ll explore career work from three perspectives—and the persistent challenges faced by Asian Americans in breaking through the “bamboo ceiling.”

Entering the Corporate World: Perspectives from Jeffrey Ting

I had a lot of trouble finding an actuarial internship, then a full-time position, when I was in college. However, I was lucky to have a mentor who vouched for my abilities while searching for an actuarial job. My mentor, a highly respected actuary, wrote an email to a principal at a large consulting firm that contained the following paraphrased main points:

  • I am writing to see if you are interested in an excellent candidate seeking an actuarial position.
  • I worked as an advisor on a project led by this candidate with his actuarial club. The SOA sponsored the project as a contest for college undergraduates worldwide.
  • He is graduating in May and studying for his fourth actuarial exam. He’s very interested in an actuarial position and prefers consulting over an insurance organization. He is an Indiana resident and is well spoken (English is his first language).
  • He was offered a non-actuarial position with a large utility firm for which he interned, but he turned it down, hoping for an actuarial position. 

In a sense, his endorsement pointed out qualities that made me a good candidate. I was highly qualified, had a strong interest in actuarial science, and was well-spoken, with English being my first language. Except that last part isn’t true. Mandarin Chinese is my first language since I was born in Taiwan and raised by Chinese parents. I had pronunciation troubles, such as saying “cold” like “code” until high school.

Luckily for me, I was well-socialized, had near-perfect English, and learned to present myself properly by the time I started the job search. My mentor only saw me at that point in my life, so it was an assumption on his part. The natural question is, why did he feel the need to say that English is my first language?

If you’re part of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community like me, it’s likely you know why right away—my last name is Ting. Despite having an otherwise “normal” name, Jeffrey, my surname is a signal in itself. My mentor’s attempt to get the hiring manager comfortable with me was a sign that, even though I checked many boxes that qualified me as a candidate, there were other boxes that could have worked against me. Questions around sponsorship status, and the ability to communicate and fit in with a team, are probably top of mind for hiring managers looking at an Asian candidate.

I’m lucky that I didn’t check any of those negative boxes. I had friends who were true allies when I was younger and politely corrected my English whenever I made mistakes. Often, in the corporate world, people choose to become bystanders to avoid being involved in odd or embarrassing situations. It is also common in competitive work environments to withhold any sort of political assistance. Or even in an interview setting, candidates will usually never receive any discretionary feedback on how they performed or any honest mistakes they may have made.

To help the AAPI community, it’s important to be an ally whenever possible and help individuals improve skills that will enable them to succeed in the corporate world. Because of the help I got and how it contributed to my eventual success, I see the value in it and try to pay it forward however I can.

Connecting as an Ally: Perspectives from John Blocher

The actuarial profession initially looks like a meritocracy in which completing actuarial exams and obtaining credentials are the early primary drivers. This is true to a point, though it is only a partial picture of all the forces simultaneously working. These forces can have a substantial effect with a potential disparate impact. Disparate impact starts with the hiring process.

If someone submits a significant number of job applications for appropriate positions and receives few or no interviews, the resume likely needs improving. Likewise, if there are significant numbers of interviews and no job offers, the interviewing likely needs improving. Even more than for a native English speaker, the resume is a written communication sample for a first-generation immigrant with English as a second language, and the interview is an oral communication sample. A position may easily be lost at either stage of the process. I suggest finding at least one native English-speaking actuary knowledgeable about the hiring process who will spend significant time to help revise a resume and practice interviewing as needed.

Most discussions about being an ally relate to defending someone from microaggressions or other biases that may occur in the moment. Timely intervention then is entirely necessary and appropriate. I have seen where after-the-moment intervention could change the trajectory of an Asian actuary’s career. This is also considered coaching or mentoring.

It is sometimes difficult for an Asian actuary to contribute during participatory meetings. Generally, if a meeting is participatory, expect to speak or eventually no longer be invited. For example, one Asian actuary prepared most of the extensive materials for a quarterly meeting involving the highest officers in the company and, quarter after quarter, no one ever heard her voice during the session. She attended as noting changes for the next quarter was more efficient. Not saying anything was fine a couple of times; however, as she was progressing in exams and was known to be making nearly all the meeting materials after several more quarters, more was needed. There needed to be more chairs for two attendees in one meeting, so she sat on a ledge at the side. As a non-officer, I intervened privately after this meeting to tell her that someone could find enough chairs and challenged her to speak during meetings. Chairs were always found after that, and she spoke briefly during the meetings. After achieving FSA designation, she later changed cities and companies and obtained a position that included managing several actuaries.

To Asian actuaries, I say have a pre-existing collegial relationship with actuaries; you can later feel comfortable asking for advice and understand when you might benefit from guidance. To all actuaries, I say reach out to make those collegial relationships and realize it is unnecessary to be a subject matter expert on a topic. Know enough to be helpful and be willing to spend the time and effort to provide good advice. Certainly, intervene when necessary, though be much more expansive, and also intervene when it might positively change the trajectory of an Asian actuary’s career.

Looking down the ladder and up at the ceiling: Perspectives from Riddhi Patel

The corporate ladder (or jungle gym, as Sheryl Sandberg would say) was something I always wanted to reach the top of—fed by my ambition and desire to exemplify the best of my abilities. However, I was told you get to the top through hard work and a little “playing the game.” Having been born in India, moving to New Zealand, and ultimately landing in the United States, I became a natural chameleon—assimilating to my changing environment became an innate skill.

While I was perceived to be shy, I observed and collected data points on individuals and learned how to interact with them when needed. These experiences also allowed me to excel once I entered corporate America. I was developing emotional intelligence without even knowing it. What I did not expect, however, was that the perception of being an Asian woman meant I would be stereotyped as overly feminine, obedient and submissive.1

Earlier in my career, it felt more about me being a woman than being Asian. I had the model minority myth working in my favor, but I had to deal with unwanted advances or men not hearing me in the conference room where ­they had no problem hearing my male peer, who said the same thing minutes later. Despite that, I was able to progress to an executive position, which I attributed to simply being good at my job—anticipating my leaders’ needs and delivering. It was not until I had achieved that status that I realized what role being Asian played.

This is not verbatim, but feedback came like this: “Riddhi, you are a unicorn. Not only are you well-spoken and intelligent, but you are also a woman of color.”

There’s a lot to unpack there:

  • Why would I not be well-spoken?
  • Did I actually deserve this job, or am I your token hire/promotion?
  • If you think this, do others as well?

This type of language makes me feel like I am “other,” defined by and expected to perform differently than my peers. It adds to the likelihood of imposter syndrome—which, per a KPMG study, 75% of female executives have experienced in their careers. I am lucky to have a support system of friends and family that help me combat my insecurities. Still, I also have educated myself to understand the unconscious biases I might face to know I am worthy.

The confidence I have in my ability has allowed me to speak up and hold my leaders accountable. For example, when my Taiwanese team member and I were excluded from a senior executive meeting, in which I had been included when I was in his position, I felt comfortable letting my immediate leader know the optics of excluding the two minorities from the meeting. While I may never know if we were excluded due to discrimination or simply because the new senior executives really did prefer fewer people in meetings, I was able to share my feelings without fear of retaliation.

Sharing stories like this is why I joined Abacus Actuaries and have invested my time in building it from the ground up as president. While our vision is for Asians to be represented in the highest ranks of the actuarial profession, my hope for the organization is that we build a strong community of Asian actuaries and allies that support and educate each other through storytelling. Since our inception just under two years ago, we have attained 501(c)(3) status, reached 1,000 followers on LinkedIn and successfully connected with a large number of individuals through our mentorship program and virtual social and educational events.

All three authors are volunteers at Abacus Actuaries, a non-profit that offers career support to Asian actuaries. Learn more about the organization here.

Jeffrey Ting, ASA, is an actuarial consultant based out of Chicago working in Long Term Care at CNA Insurance.
John Blocher, FSA, MAAA, is a senior actuary based out of Cincinnati and working for MassMutual Ascend.
Riddhi Patel, ASA, EA, lives in Los Angeles and leads the DB/DC plan administration team for the Walt Disney Company. She is President of Abacus Actuaries, a non-profit that offers career support to Asian actuaries.

Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.

Copyright © 2023 by the Society of Actuaries, Chicago, Illinois.