I was intrigued by a recent question posted at Quora about whether there is a bamboo ceiling in American corporate culture, parallel to the idea of a glass ceiling, but with reference to the experience of Asians’ efforts to become promoted to upper management levels in firms. The question is certainly an interesting and legitimate one to ask, but the language nerd in me is wondering whether here is a case of a newly productive phrase pattern in English. Thus, the metaphoric expression itself is the focus of this post.
I don’t know when glass ceiling first entered English, but I’m guessing it has been around for only about twenty years and has mostly been used to reference perceived obstacles to upper management promotions as these relate to females. The Quora discussion cites the writer Jane Hyun as the coiner of the expression bamboo ceiling. If so, this usage came into being around 2005. I’ve not read her book, Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians, but the title seems inclusive of all Asians, not just women.
Consider the semantics of these two expressions. It would appear that ceiling has a constant meaning; it’s a metaphorical stand-in for a perceived set of complex social behaviors, some intentional, some unconscious, which create a barrier to promotion in the workplace for members of specific social groups. The metaphoric choice of ceiling supports the idea that there is hierarchy in the workplace and directionality is also used metaphorically in value judgements — moving up is a measure of success. Ceilings are then negative structures which impede further movement upwards. The modifier glass elaborates the metaphor; the barrier is invisible (not described by explicit rules) and clear (the barrier doesn’t hide the desirable level above to those seeking it, they can observe it without ever reaching it).
A bamboo ceiling appears to have altered the semantics of the original metaphor. Bamboo itself does not possess qualities of invisibility and clearness similar to glass, bamboo is a solid material. Bamboo is being used to reference a social group, namely Asians. Is bamboo ceiling shorthand for bamboo glass ceiling? And why bamboo as the chosen attribute for this newly coined metaphor? Silk and tea also have associations to Asian cultures. Yet speakers of English immediately understand the metaphoric meaning. Tea or silk ceilings would not be as effective. Perhaps one reason that bamboo is a good choice semantically is that the goal is to break such ceilings. Glass can be broken and so can bamboo, but it’s not apparent how you break silk or tea, for example. (Also, in another metaphoric extension of a physical barrier, curtain, there is bamboo curtain, presumably on the model of iron curtain.)
There was yet a third ceiling mentioned in the Quora commentary, the curry ceiling. Interestingly, the writer giving an answer on Quora pointed out that this expression is not quite appropriate for what it refers to. It refers to a situation in which Asian middle managers have upper management bosses who are Indian. So in this situation, curry is not identified with those seeking to break through some barrier, but is identified with members of a group who are already at the higher level within the organization. The metaphoric ceiling refers to a level in the hierarchy itself and not to a barrier to that level. That is also more consistent with a metaphoric use of curry, which is not a breakable substance, but rather a compositional substance. My impression is that curry ceiling is quite new to English and still in flux with its meaning. For instance, Quora discussants wondered about the nomenclature for social groups, stating that Indians are Asians.
The interesting point is that these examples — forming curry ceiling on the model of bamboo ceiling on the model of glass ceiling — illustrate metaphoric productivity in action in the language. How productive can such a metaphor become? Would certain usages align naturally with the barrier sense and others with the compositional sense? And, we haven’t even discussed a third metaphoric sense of ceiling which means limit, as in debt ceiling. Here are some examples I came up. What would they refer to?