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  • Writer's pictureProject Empower Circle

Breaking the Bamboo & Glass Ceilings with Cissy Ma

“Yes, people from minority groups might break through, but how long will it take to break through? Should it take this long to break through?” - Cissy Ma

Coined in the 80’s, the Glass Ceiling can be defined as “a metaphor for the evident but intangible hierarchical impediment that prevents minorities and women from achieving elevated professional success”. More recently there has been a lot of conversation around the Bamboo Ceiling, which refers to the obstacles and barriers that Asian Americans face in reaching senior leadership and management positions.

Cissy is a Fellow of CPA and Graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. Cissy is a member of the Qld Divisional Council, immediate past Chair of the Business Committee and a member of the Global ESG Centre of Excellence for CPA Australia (164,000+ members).

During her 22-year executive career for large corporates, she led ~$17B of M&A and structured deals from both the buying and selling sides across 20+ industries, including EdTech, RegTech, FinTech, AgTech, HealthTech, AI, Blockchain, CleanTech, PropTech, property and manufacturing companies etc.

We spoke to Cissy Ma about the Glass and Bamboo Ceilings this month. Here are 5 takeaways from our conversation with Cissy.

1. Speak up

Cissy stressed the importance of speaking up and expressing your thoughts and opinions. In a world where women and, in particular, women of colour, are often not asked to be at the table, Cissy suggested speaking up to ensure that your perspective is taken into consideration.

Studies indicate that there are systemic barriers that lead to less women and people of colour speaking up during meetings. Women are more often interrupted, ignored and spoken over. Leaders at work have a responsibility to model more inclusive communication and ensure that everyone gets heard. You can be an ally by helping direct the conversation back to the individual who was interrupted or did not get to finish their thought. You can also be an agent of support by reiterating points and giving credit to people who are often not heard.

2. The Bamboo Ceiling is REAL

Cissy sent out a survey to ask her network whether they believed that the Bamboo Ceiling is real. About 20% of respondents, primarily white males, did not think that the Bamboo Ceiling was real. Cissy took the opportunity to ask them ‘why’ and started a conversation.

Asian Americans are educated; nearly 50% of Asian Americans have college degrees, a value that is much higher than other minority groups. However, only less than 2% of senior management positions are held but this group. These hard facts point to a broken link. In taking the time to educate her network, and working to present the facts, Cissy is raising awareness about and taking action to break the bamboo ceiling.

“This is not to say that you have to be college educated to be a CEO, however, there is a broken link there … numbers don’t lie.”

3. Be the Tall Poppy

The Tall Poppy syndrome refers to the expectation that poppies should grow together and if one stands out or grows too tall, it needs to be cut down. This phenomenon impacts women disproportionately and leads to them downplaying their accomplishments and being extremely critical of themselves.

Cissy reminded us to not be afraid to stand tall and stand out. We all have a lot to offer and downplaying our worth in a Western society can particularly harm people of colour, who are often brought up with more communal values. Cissy suggested to use your identity to help you tread forward.

4. Find Sponsors and Sponsor Others

Sponsorship is the step-up from Mentorship. While a mentor may show you the door, a sponsor will walk you through the door. Cissy found value in a sponsor as a young professional who pushed her to speak up and take part in discussions on the corporate table.

This influenced Cissy to dedicate her time in supporting others and she co-founded the APAC Women’s Mentoring Circle (with 800+ members from 17 countries). She is also an inaugural Australian SheEO Activator – a perpetual fund by a global community of 5,000 activators changing the way we finance, support and celebrate female entrepreneurs.

5. Celebrate YOU

It’s important to celebrate your wins and learning experiences. Cissy spoke to us about how celebrating yourself can motivate you to keep going. Celebrating yourself also leads to an attitude of gratitude and helps you take a moment to reflect and recalibrate.

Celebrating yourself can come in many different forms; it can mean taking time off to catch up with yourself, sharing your wins with your friends and family or treating yourself in any way you like. How you celebrate yourself is up to you! But the important thing is to ensure that you celebrate both the big and the small wins.

“In the corporate world, there is a lot of talk about diversity and businesses want to be seen as diverse and equitable employers, so use your Asian and female identity… don’t apologize … own your wins”

Cissy also touched upon some other important issues such as the burden associated with being a model minority, imposter syndrome and growing your confidence. We encourage you to check out the full conversation here.

Note from the Author:

Recently, there has been an increase in discrimination against the Asian population. This is an important issue that stems from political interests and the ever increasing spread of misinformation. We encourage our readers to take the time to learn more. Here is a great article to get started!


This article was written by Pallavi Dutta.

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