The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Meeting of July 22, 2008 - Issues Facing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) in the Federal Workplace

Statement of Sharon Goto, Associate Professor, Psychology and Asian American Studies, Pomona College

Chair Earp, Vice Chair, Commissioners, Colleagues, and Friends,

I thank you for the opportunity to participate in this event today. My name is Sharon Goto. I am an associate professor of psychology and Asian American Studies at Pomona College. I have spent the last fifteen years researching, writing, and working with business and community groups on issues and challenges faced by Asian Americans in the workplace. I believe two of the most important of these are perceived discrimination and the glass ceiling.

I. Measures of the Glass Ceiling

The glass ceiling as experienced by Asian Americans can be defined in a number of ways. Some have referred to the phenomenon as the “bamboo ceiling:” a situation where there are high numbers and perhaps overrepresentation of Asian American employees in lower rungs of the organizational ladder but disproportionately low and sometimes nonexistent representation of Asian Americans in the highest ranks of the organization. (Hyun, 2005). This bamboo or glass ceiling can be conceptualized more generally as the absence of Asian Americans in leadership and decision making positions (Mervis, 2005). In the academic empirical literature, the glass ceiling is often conceptualized in terms of salary (Lee, 1994; Lewis & Kim, 1997; Zheng & Xie, 2004). The findings here are complicated in that Asian Americans do not across the board make less money than their white counterparts after accounting for things like education and experience. Disparity between salary paid to Asian Americans and whites can depend on industry, occupation, and geographic location. Interestingly, when examining the earnings data, one can find evidence that indicators of acculturation make a difference [e.g., whether one is educated either at a foreign university or domestic (Zheng & Xie, 2004)]. Additionally, even if pay parity is achieved, the pathways to obtaining equal pay are more limited for Asian Americans (Lee, 1994).

Today’s presentation will not focus explicitly on the earnings measure as a proxy or indicator for the glass ceiling. Instead, I will focus on perceived discrimination experienced by Asian Americans. Findings using this “subjective” measure parallel the research using more “hard” or objective indicators like earnings. Much of the research uses epidemiological or aggregate data so that individualized perceptions of discrimination can be studied systematically. Epidemiological approaches are expensive, but use sophisticated sampling strategies usually based on census track information. This reduces the likelihood of response bias since it is recognized that individuals are differentially targeted (Barry & Grilo, 2003; Sidanius & Veniegas, 2000), differentially likely to perceive stigma (Ruggiero & Taylor, 1997; Sellers & Shelton, 2003), and differentially likely to encounter situations of bias (Ragins & Cornwell, 2001). Furthermore, by focusing on perceived discrimination, one can understand the processes that yield the disproportionately lower earnings and ranks/grades of Asian Americans. Finally, perceptions of discrimination can speak to the human toll experienced by the targets of discrimination, at both the individual and organizational levels.

II. Perceived Discrimination

From the Filipino American Community Epidemiological Study (FACES) where over two thousand persons of Filipino heritage living in Honolulu or San Francisco were surveyed, concern for workplace discrimination reported was 3.1 on a 4 point scale, ranging from ‘none at all’ to ‘high’ (de Castro, Gee, & Takeuchi, 2008). Another epidemiological study looking at 788 working Chinese Americans in Los Angeles found that 21.7 % reported having experienced unfair treatment due to either racial or language discrimination, or both (Goto, Gee, & Takeuchi, 2008). Regarding the federal sector, Asians are as likely as African Americans to feel that they experienced discrimination. Lewis & Kim (1997).

III. Diversity of Asian America

The heterogeneity of Asian Americans has been widely documented (e.g., Fong, 2008). Rather than being the monolithic ‘model minority’ group, Asian Americans are multiethnic and increasingly multiracial. Of particular importance here, Asian Americans vary widely with respect to immigration, acculturation, and education.

Based upon the diversity of Asian America, it seems likely that more than one process or mechanism feeds the glass ceiling. Indeed, barriers to equal employment experienced by recent immigrants are likely to be different than those experienced by a fifth generation Asian American.

IV. Multiple Sources of Discrimination

The sources or types of discrimination can be ordered on a continuum of acculturation. In this array, perceptions of Asian Americans range from “Go home! Forever Foreigner” to Asian Americans are “becoming White” (Mervis, 2005) and therefore if Asian Americans are patient, they will slowly work through the glass ceiling. The latter perception fails to recognize the possible role of systematic discrimination experienced by Asian Americans. Often these perceptions are exacerbated in a competitive workplace. Discrimination or “unfair treatment based on perceived category membership,” as opposed to merit or individually based treatment, is invidious.

A. Language/Accent Discrimination

Over thirteen percent of working Chinese Americans reported experiencing unfair treatment due to language or accent (Goto, Gee, & Takeuchi, 2008). This number includes those who speak accented and unaccented English. According to Ancheta (2006), “...between dominant and subordinate English speakers, the ‘foreign’ accent or the low-status accent can be a source of subordination” (p. 124). Asian accents are perceived to be low status accents leaving Asian immigrants in subordinate positions. As Matsuda (1991) wrote, “…In a society with a speech hierarchy…, it is quite common that speakers of the low-status speech variety, by necessity, are able to understand speakers of the high-status variety. Speakers of the high-status variety, on the other hand, frequently report that they cannot understand speakers below them on the speech-status scale.” As documented by Goto, Gee, and Takeuchi (2008), “When I was in some tumor hospital applying for a job, I asked for an application. The receptionist said, "you don't need to fill out the form, you can't speak English well.” Another employee recalled, “My several job applications was [sic] turned down because in my training class, almost all the white people [sic] from the South. I'm the only Chinese. They think the white should teach, because they were afraid that I couldn't make myself clear.” Language and accent discrimination has a negative effect for Asian Americans. Where some groups might experience a perceived competence boost through their accent, this is clearly not the case for Asian accents. Communication skills and perceived competence in general are negatively affected by language and accent discrimination.

B. Perceptions as a Model Minority & Excessive Competence

Asian Americans have been perceived as a ‘model minority’ beginning in the 1960s (e.g., Peterson, 1966). This stereotype ? that Asian Americans are a minority group who through hard work and education have become successful ? persists today. The model minority myth placed on Asian Americans pits Asian Americans against Latinos and African Americans.

The first response to this ‘myth’ is to look at the heterogeneity of Asian America (Ong & Hee, 1994) in terms of economic, educational, and even societal adjustment success (Matsuoka, Breaux, & Ryujin, 1997). This myth applies to only a small subset of Asian America. For those Asian Americans not ‘mythically’ successful, this stereotype prevents needed assistance. Therefore, Asian American networking associations may not be fully supported, skill deficits may not be proactively met, mentoring relationships may not be developed, and systematic discrimination may be understood as an African American, but not Asian American, problem. For those Asian Americans that are ‘mythically’ successful, increased pressure to live up to these standards may ensue [(e.g., stereotype threat (Shih, Pittinsky, & Ambady, 1999)].

Interestingly, the stereotypes of Asian Americans as hardworking have changed somewhat since the 1960s. According to the empirically verified Stereotype Content Model (Lin, Kwan, Cheung, & Fiske, 2005), Asian Americans are perceived to be competent, and excessively so. This can lead to perpetration of the model minority myth, resentment, and differential work assignments. One respondent, when asked ‘what happened?” upon recalling a discrimination incident, replied, “It’s job related, ask Chinese to do a lot of things, as if we were machines” (as cited in Goto, Gee, & Takeuchi, 2008). Additional assignments are not in themselves problematic, as long as appropriate recognition/compensation occurs, which may not be the case.

C. Perceptions of Foreigness

Perceptions of Asian Americans as “forever foreign” (Tuan, 1998) are related to negative effects of accent, but also apply to those Asian Americans with unaccented English. Beyond Wen Ho Lee, laboratory research has shown that in highly educated, sophisticated Yale undergraduates, using explicit, self report measures, Asian Americans were perceived as being “American,” but under implicit, subconscious measures Asian Americans were perceived as “foreign.” “American” was associated with whiteness (Devos & Banaji, 2005). These perceptions of Asian Americans as foreign can negatively impact assessments of communication ability, competence and, importantly, trustworthiness.

D. Perceptions of Social Deficiency

Perceptions of social deficiency are related to perceptions of foreigness. According to the Stereotype Content Model, developed via six extensive studies, Asian Americans experience mixed envious racial prejudice. The model indicates that individuals from outgroups fall into one of two clusters of perception. ‘Paternalized groups’ are liked as warm but disrespected as incompetent. ‘Envied groups’ are respected as competent but disliked as lacking warmth. The studies indicated that Asian Americans fall into the latter cluster. In a laboratory study, perceived low sociability drove the rejection of Asian Americans (Lin, Kwang, Cheung, & Fiske, 2005). Thus, perceptions of low sociability can lead to exclusion from social networks and exclusion from positions requiring social prowess (e.g., leadership positions).

E. Perceptions of Leadership (or the lack thereof)

Despite general perceptions of Asian Americans as competent and hard workers, they have been largely kept out of leadership positions in organizations. For example, in an article that appeared in Science, it was noted that 9.2% of the 950 senior investigators at NIH were Asian Americans while 21.5% of the tenure track investigators were Asian Americans. (Mervis, 2005). Leadership is difficult to define as evidenced by the broad and varying definitions. Looking for individuals to occupy leadership positions is an equally vague and sometimes Byzantine process, but importantly also one where the risks are great. Under these situations, it is likely that many of the sources of discrimination previously discussed come into play. Asian Americans may be perceived as unassertive, team players more than leaders, and lacking self-promotion (Xin, 2004). Leadership decisions are likely based on ‘perceived similarity,’ or a tendency to promote those like the self.

A successful, smart, and affable retired vice president from a multinational computer firm that I interviewed said that he progressed through the ranks quite comfortably, but when it came to further promotion, to the most exclusive levels, he was told that he did not have ‘presence.’ What is ‘presence’? Like ‘leadership,’ it is prone to perceptions like many of the sources of discrimination previously discussed. If there is not a willingness to perceive ‘presence’ in a person, it will not be found, regardless of competence and merit.

V. Effects on targets of discrimination and organization

As stated earlier, Asian Americans experience and perceive workplace discrimination. This discrimination affects hiring and promotion decisions (Goto, Gee, & Takeuchi, 2008). It is quite possible that perceived discrimination is in part responsible for the higher rates of quitting found in Asian Americans (Hom, Robertson, & Ellis, 2008), as Asian Americans try to advance their career elsewhere. At the individual level, workplace discrimination is a stressor that can cause health problems. (de Castro, Gee, & Takeuchi, 2008).

VI. Leveling the Field

In conclusion, not only does discrimination against Asian Americans in the workplace exist, it can be particularly insidious and invidious due to the model minority stereotype. Some thoughts about leveling the playing field:

  1. Awareness of workplace discrimination against Asian Americans needs to increase. These incidents are multifaceted, ranging from subtle to blatant (Goto, Gee, & Takeuchi, 2008). Individuals may be differentially targeted based on acculturation levels (e.g., accent, perceptions of foreigness, etc.), but discrimination also affects entire groups (e.g., model minority myth). The model minority myth prevents discrimination from being perceived as affecting Asian Americans.
  2. Incidents of discrimination against Asian Americans in the workplace need to be proactively addressed. Asian Americans may be more reluctant to come forth with incidents of discrimination due to loss of face, lack of awareness, and stigma (see literature on mental health help seeking, e.g., Leong, Chang, & Lee, 2007).
  3. Systematic study of workplace discrimination experienced by Asian Americans should be pursued. The literature lags behind that which is known about discrimination against women and African Americans, for example.
  4. Mechanisms like leadership training and proactive mentoring (Goto, 1999) should be in place to promote qualified Asian Americans into decision making and leadership positions.


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