Universities challenged over Asian Americans’ workplace struggles

Leadership barriers facing graduates suggest need for change, including in university curricula

March 22, 2019
Broken bridge

US universities have been urged to review their curricula after research found that Asian Americans’ exceptionally high rates of academic success were not translating into the job market.

The study by researchers at Columbia University, using US Census Bureau data, affirmed that Asian Americans earn college degrees at vastly higher rates than white Americans but then find only comparable levels of workplace success at professional or managerial levels.

Asian Americans “are facing stalled mobility” after their college years, said one author of the study, Jennifer Lee, professor of sociology at Columbia. “They have to be over-credentialed in order to just reach parity with native-born whites.”

Among other lessons, said Professor Lee and other experts on the topic, the findings published in the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies should serve as another rebuttal to the affirmative action lawsuit being pursued against Harvard University.

That lawsuit is being waged by an affirmative action opponent who has put forth a highly qualified Chinese American student rejected by Harvard to serve as an aggrieved party suffering from university admissions policies that benefit black applicants.

But the Columbia study showed that ethnic Chinese are in fact the lone category of Asian Americans who do demonstrably better than white graduates at top levels of US industry. Ethnic Chinese in the US are, therefore, a success story for programmes of affirmative action in universities and hiring preferences in industry, said Margaret Chin, an associate professor of sociology at Hunter College.

Ethnic Chinese have been in the US longer, and “they’ve accessed these programmes a lot earlier”, than other Asian Americans, said Dr Chin, the author of a forthcoming book, The Bamboo Ceiling: Asian Americans and the Struggle in the Corporate Workplace.

More complicated than judging affirmative action, she and other experts said, was answering the question of what US colleges should be doing differently to ensure that more varieties of Asian American students experience greater post-graduation success.

The Columbia study, using data on second-generation immigrants, showed that Indian Americans were eight times more likely than whites to have a degree, that ethnic Chinese and Koreans were about five to six times more likely, and that Vietnamese and Filipinos tallied about two or three times higher. Yet Chinese Americans were only about 1.5 times more likely than whites to have a professional or managerial position, while the other four Asian ethnicities showed no significant gain over white graduates on that job-success measure.

Dr Chin called on universities to recognise the importance of teaching Asian American students more than just the technical proficiencies and attention to detail for which they are typically noted.

Such technical competencies are valuable, especially in the early stages of careers, Dr Chin said. But companies seeking leaders, she said, watched for skills such as an ability to listen to others and then demonstrate that by summarising their contributions.

Professor Lee emphasised that much of the trouble that Asian Americans encountered in the US workplace did not reflect any shortcomings on their part, but instead revealed broader flaws in corporate values and in aggressive notions of what makes a good leader.

“Those kinds of characteristics about being bold, brash, risk-taking – it particularly privileges white males,” she said. “Even females lose out in that model.”

Asian Americans also suffered from fairly standard human patterns of associating with and assisting those who were more familiar. “Reducing it to racism is a really simple way of thinking about it,” Professor Lee said. “It’s about cultural matching.”


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