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 Kuan-Teh Jeang, Scientist, National Institutes of Health

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

I am grateful to the EEOC for the opportunity to speak to the Commission today on the topic of a “glass ceiling” for Asian Americans in federal leadership positions.

Before I offer my remarks, let me briefly tell you my background. I was born in Taiwan. From ages 5 to 12, I grew up in North Africa, in Libya. I arrived in the US in 1970 to attend public school. At age 16, I entered MIT as an undergraduate. Two years later, I commenced medical school at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, subsequently graduating at age 25 with both MD and PhD degrees. Since 1985, I have been a scientist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Bethesda. I am currently the president-elect of the Society of Chinese Bioscientists in America (SCBA), a 2,000 member strong professional organization that represents Chinese-American researchers. I am also a member of the governing council of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), arguably the largest American association of biology professionals.

I have been at the NIH now for 23 years. In social vernacular, every 20 years represents a generation. I can thus bear witness to a generation of Asian American hopes and progress at our nation’s premier federal biomedical research institution.

How would I characterize the state of Asian-American scientists at the NIH today? In 2005, I was asked this same question by Science magazine.1 My short answer then and now is that we have come a long way, but we still have miles to go before we can rest.

Today, if you were to walk into any seminar room at the NIH, when the latest science is being presented and discussed, you would likely find 40% or more of the faces in that room to be Asian. That scenario is not surprising because 2007 NIH statistics show that Asian Pacific Americans (APAs) make up 15% of the total work force2 and, at the intramural doctorate level, APAs compose 62% (1120 out of 1800) of post-doctoral visiting fellows, 37% of research fellows, 25% of tenure-track investigators, and 11% of tenured scientists.3 Indeed, APA scientists are significantly responsible for the scientific and medical advances, the productivity, and the scholarly publishing that come from the NIH.

By contrast, if you were to attend a “laboratory or branch chiefs’ meeting” at the NIH, as I was asked to do a few months ago, you might encounter only a single Asian face (on that occasion, mine) in a room of two dozen or more individuals. The latter setting is also not unusual because the entire NIH has only 11 APA laboratory/branch chiefs, comprising less than 5% of the leadership positions at this rank.4 Please note that APAs make up roughly 12% of the qualified pool from which lab chiefs are drawn.5 The National Institutes of Health is made up of 27 different institutes and centers. If one parses the numbers in greater detail, one would find that while APA scientists are well-represented at every institute and center, the great majority of the individual institutes and centers do not have a single APA laboratory chief (0%). For those institutes/centers, one can ponder what message this leadership profile sends to the work force.

The current statistics show a bottom heavy/top light APA representation in the scientific hierarchy at the NIH. These numbers raise a couple of pertinent questions. First, is it either optimal or appropriate that the managerial/leadership pool of a federal agency be disproportionate to its operational workforce? Second, why do the numbers exist and how do we change the trend?

I believe that the answer to the first question partly resides with our values. Do we embrace diversity in leadership as a net plus or a net minus for our federal institutions? Fundamentally, it also rests with our willingness to accept that leadership is a quality shared by all groups and is not an exclusive trait of a limited few. The answers to the second question are perhaps more challenging. Stereotypic views of Asians persist: Asians prefer and are content to be workers but not leaders; Asians don’t apply or compete for leadership positions; and Asians have excellent scientific, but not management skills. Overt discrimination is unlikely the explanation for the Asian American glass ceiling. However, it is conceivable that the current situation arose from an “unconscious” omission to actively include and substantively consider Asians in leadership selections. Regarding the latter, there is some concern expressed by my colleagues on the transparency of the leadership selection process. We are aware of past examples whereby laboratory chiefs were hired with no advertising for the positions. It is my understanding that under the present rules, if a director chooses to promote internally, he/she can make a choice without an open search or competition. Rightly or wrongly, APA scientists often perceive that openings are filled by pre-selected candidates. Indeed, non-open promotions and the current leadership statistics as they stand do not instill confidence to any minority group.

To begin to change the trend, I am convinced that a useful clarifying step would be to constructively engage extant leadership, seeking their perceptions, explanations, and answers to the Asian-American glass ceiling. Such input, coupled with proper follow-through (appropriate training, targeted recruitment programs, and accountability for progress), could help reshape the status quo, casting a wider net at the NIH for more diverse leaders. As pointed out by Monica Lin of UCLA in a recent article: current “narrow definitions of leadership based on characteristics of those traditionally in positions of power, reflect a predominantly white, male, upper or middle-class leadership orientation.”6 We should hope for a “color-blind,” “gender-neutral” selection process, but the outcome should not be a predominantly “color-less” cadre of leaders.

If we step back and take a look at the bigger picture — is it really important for the United States to include qualified APAs in leadership positions? One could make two responses to this question. First, as a country that exercises global leadership in human rights and race equalities, we have a moral imperative to put our own house in order. Not to do so weakens the prestige and the reputation of our nation and dampens America’s voice on the international stage. Second, we can not be complacent about our scientific status quo. 21st century globalization has revealed some interesting comparisons. For instance, a recent report from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) showed that American scientists and engineers have not increased their rate of scientific publishing in peer-reviewed journals (an average of < 1% increase per year from 1992 to 2003) while the commensurate metrics for East Asian countries such as China, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan have grown at an annual rate approximating 16 percent.7 Indeed, one should not be surprised that the best universities in the US annually graduate large numbers of highly qualified and very capable APAs. If we fail to address access by these highly trained APAs into leadership positions, do we not waste a generation of human resources helpful to our global scientific competitiveness?

In New York harbor, the Statue of Liberty carries an inscription which in part reads “….give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,…Send these… to me…”8 Today, I would like to paraphrase these inspiring words penned by Emma Lazarus in 1886 for welcoming immigrant workers to the US to say, “…give us your best, your brightest, your tireless and well-trained researchers…let them help America…work, prosper, compete, and lead.” I thank you for your efforts and your kind attention.


1 Jeffrey Mervis, “A Glass Ceiling for Asian Scientists?” Science, 310 (OCT 2005): 606-607.

2 NIH DATA Warehouse (DW Analyze), As of the 3rd Quarter FY08.

3 “Improving Diversity of the NIH Intramural Scientific Staff” a seminar presented by Michael M. Gottesman, Deputy Director for Intramural Research, NIH, October 2, 2007.

4 Ibid.

5 Mervis, “A Glass Ceiling for Asian Scientists?”

6 “Asian American Leadership Development: Examining the Impact of Collegiate Environments and Personal Goals.” By Monica Lin, University of California, Los Angeles. Presented at the 32nd Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, November 8-10, 2007.

7 National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics: Changing U.S. Output of Scientific Articles: 1988–2003. NSF 07-320, Derek Hill, Alan I. Rapoport, Rolf F. Lehming, and Robert K. Bell (Arlington, VA). 2007.

8 Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus,” inscribed at the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor.

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