Where Asian Americans Need Affirmative Action

Our Focus on University Admissions Obscures the ‘Bamboo Ceiling’ in the Workplace

Focusing on affirmative action in university admissions obscures a pressing problem, writes Columbia University sociologist Jennifer Lee: Asian Americans face a “bamboo ceiling” in the workplace, where they are rarely considered for leadership roles despite their qualifications. Illustration by Be Boggs.

Zócalo is celebrating its 20th birthday this year! As part of the festivities, we’re publishing reflections and responses that revisit and reimagine some of our most read and most impactful stories. Columbia University sociologist Jennifer Lee continues to explore race and achievement in America—as in her 2014 essay “Are Mexicans the Most Successful Immigrant Group in the U.S.?

The Supreme Court struck down race-based affirmative action in university admissions early this summer thanks in large part to the charge that Harvard’s practice of race-conscious admissions discriminates against Asian Americans. Whether or not the decision changes the college application process for Asian Americans, it certainly obscures the more insidious and widespread forms of bias that many Asian Americans face. It also opened up pathways to dismantling race-conscious policies elsewhere—particularly in the workplace, where assumptions about what makes a good leader are couched in ideas of race.

Asian Americans are not underrepresented in university classrooms, including at Harvard. They account for 7.2% of the U.S. population, yet 29.9% of Harvard’s incoming class. Where they are underrepresented is in the boardroom and the C-suite. Among the Fortune 500, only 2.4% of CEOs are Asian, two-thirds of whom are South Asian (with roots in the Indian subcontinent, and mainly from India). Many Asian Americans—and especially East Asians (with origins in China, Korea, and Japan)—find themselves hitting a bamboo ceiling akin to the glass ceiling that women face. It’s here, in the workplace, where affirmative action has an important role to play in the lives and livelihoods of Asian Americans—one that the Court has put in jeopardy.

Asian Americans lag behind all racial, ethnic, and gender groups in promotion to managerial and executive ranks in spite of their education, work experience, and job performance. Even in fields in which Asians are overrepresented, such as technology, medicine, the natural sciences, engineering, and law, they are rare in leadership.

In top technology firms in Silicon Valley, white men and women are twice as likely as Asian men and women to advance into the executive ranks. Between 1997 and 2008, Asian Americans made up 20% of medical school faculty—yet there were no Asian American deans. And while Black and Latino physicians are underrepresented in the field, Asian Americans are the only racial group that accounts for a much smaller share of medical school department chairs than their percentage of the faculty in medical schools.

A similar pattern emerges in law: Asians comprise 10% of graduates of top-30 law schools, but only 6.5% of all federal judicial law clerks. And while Asians are the largest non-white group in major law firms, they have the highest attrition rates and the lowest ratio of associates to partners of all groups at four-to-one, compared to two-to-one for Blacks and Latinos, and parity for whites. Even in academia, where Asian Americans are overrepresented as students in top universities, they are nearly absent in leadership ranks, comprising only 1.5% of college presidents.

So what forms the branches of the bamboo ceiling?

Asian Americans lag behind all racial, ethnic, and gender groups in promotion to managerial and executive ranks in spite of their education, work experience, and job performance.

Some argue that racial and gender stereotypes—technically strong but socially weak, mathematically and scientifically inclined rather than verbally gifted—hinder Asians’ advancement in the workplace. Employers may recognize Asian Americans for their hard work, dedication, and effort without seeing them as innately brilliant, visionary, or skilled to lead.

Asian American women are doubly disadvantaged in this regard: They are the least likely group to be promoted to leadership positions, and to be perceived as fit for leadership roles regardless of their education, experience, and behavior.

Where do these stereotypes come from, and what can be done to combat them? A new strand of research points to differences in culture, and, more specifically, differences in verbal assertiveness between East Asian and white Americans. Western corporate culture prizes individual assertiveness and achievement, whereas East Asian culture promotes harmony and the stability of interpersonal relationships.

To buttress this point, researchers find that South Asians are more verbally assertive than East Asians, and, despite still not being as represented as white men in top positions, South Asian men are now even more likely than white men to attain leadership positions—pointing to a unique pattern of “South Asian exceptionalism.” A similar pattern emerges in law and business schools, where South Asians outperform East Asians in leadership, strategy, and marketing—courses in which verbal assertiveness is prized and class participation accounts for a larger percentage of the final grade. The branches of the bamboo ceiling begin to grow in the classroom.

South Asian exceptionalism may also be explained by Americans’ understanding of who counts as Asian. In the U.S., “Asian” is often shorthand for East Asian, and most Americans—including most Asian Americans—exclude South Asians from the fold. If the stereotypical perception of Asian men (i.e., East Asian men) is that they are diffident, passive, and distant, South Asian men (who are not perceived as Asian) may not be hampered by a social identity that presumes these qualities. The absence of the stereotype may change both their behavior and the way others interpret that behavior.

But a larger question underlying this debate is why we assume that leaders must be bold, brash, and assertive to be effective. Some of the country’s top CEOs have been described as listeners first, and team players who are empathetic, thoughtful, steady, and measured. Columbia University’s new president, Minouche Shafik, is the first woman to lead the university in its 269-year history. When asked about her leadership style, she quoted the 6th-century B.C. Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu: “A leader is best when people barely know they exist … When the leader’s work is done, the people will say, ‘We did it ourselves.’”

Thinking more expansively about the qualities that make a good leader while recognizing that different leadership models may be just as effective (if not more so) than traditional Western ones will broaden leadership opportunities for not only East Asians, but also women, and for many of us who do not fit the prototype of what an American leader looks or acts like. It would also benefit the members of such leaders’ organizations, who may work more effectively with more diverse managers and styles. Leadership comes in many forms, and recognizing and rewarding this will better prepare us to lead and serve the diverse country that we are.

It is the recognition of race, ethnicity, and gender that enables us to identify biases in our understanding of who makes a suitable CEO, president, chair, dean, or manager. Affirmative action policies in the workplace give us the tools to address these biases and remove the barriers they create. Now, even these policies are coming under attack, led by no less than the same conservative advocate who engineered the lawsuit against Harvard.

The fight to dismantle affirmative action in university admissions was never about protecting Asian Americans, yet profiling them abetted the demise of the policy. It also veiled the more rampant forms of bias that Asian Americans face that impede their career mobility. Affirmative action in the workplace paved the way for white women to shatter and break through the glass ceiling. It can help non-white professionals—including Asian Americans—do the same.


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