In my ongoing series of interviews with Asian American scholars that highlight new books and research that examine diverse aspects related to Asian and Asian American experiences, I am very happy to present an interview with my fellow sociologist, Margaret Chin, Professor of Sociology at the Graduate Center and Hunter College, City College of New York. Margaret’s new book is titled, Stuck: Why Asian Americans Don’t Reach the Top of the Corporate Ladder and focusing on U.S.-born Asian Americans, it explores how many of them run into the dreaded “glass ceiling” in which they are no longer able to advance and get promoted into higher-level upper management or executive positions throughout various occupations and industries within the corporate world in the U.S. The book’s description:
In the classroom, Asian Americans, often singled out as so-called “model minorities,” are expected to be top of the class. Often they are, getting straight As and gaining admission to elite colleges and universities. But the corporate world is a different story. As Margaret M. Chin reveals in this important new book, many Asian Americans get stuck on the corporate ladder, never reaching the top. In Stuck, Chin shows that there is a “bamboo ceiling” in the workplace, describing a corporate world where racial and ethnic inequalities prevent upward mobility.
Drawing on interviews with second-generation Asian Americans, she examines why they fail to advance as fast or as high as their colleagues, showing how they lose out on leadership positions, executive roles, and entry to the coveted boardroom suite over the course of their careers. An unfair lack of trust from their coworkers, absence of role models, sponsors and mentors, and for women, sexual harassment and prejudice especially born at the intersection of race and gender are only a few of the factors that hold Asian American professionals back. Ultimately, Chin sheds light on the experiences of Asian Americans in the workplace, providing insight into and a framework of who is and isn’t granted access into the upper echelons of American society, and why.
- Compared to a generation ago, do you think the pressure for young Asian Americans to attain maximum occupational success has eased, stayed the same, or gotten more intense, and why?
I interviewed three cohorts, college graduates from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Among the interviewees all of them spoke about the pressure to attain maximal occupational success. However, members of the youngest cohort see many more pathways to occupational success in the professional realm. More of them admit that they have the option to go out on their own if traditional routes in large corporations are blocked.
- In your research, what are some specific successful strategies that corporate America has implemented to become more welcoming and inclusive to Asian Americans and other underrepresented workers as they try to make their way into the “C-Suite” supervisory and executive positions?
Some of the more successful strategies have been to recruit from minority training and mentoring programs. Some of the interviewees were recruited, chosen, nominated from their Affirmative Action-type program – like the SEO, Posse and the Emma Bowen Foundation. From the interviewees’ perspective, these programs (even though outside of the corporation) did well in helping to place people of color — including Asian Americans — in jobs. Within the corporations, programs that helped were those that exposed the employee to different divisional areas and / or executives. Mini assignments trained them broadly, and executives were also given a chance to get to know them. Often individuals were promoted as part of a program to expand the pipeline.
However, interviewees did not mention many programs to move people past mid-level. On the other hand, the majority of my interviewees did not feel unwelcome in corporate America. However, they did list incidents where they have been left out of important conversations or meetings, not invited to afterwork get-togethers, and mistaken for other Asian Americans. Individually, they list these as implicit bias incidents or part of the everyday jockeying for positions in corporate America. But as a whole these are common among many of my interviewees moving on up. It seems that corporate America could do more.
- There seems to be a growing political divide within the Asian American community between younger, U.S.-born Asian Americans who tend to be more progressive and older recently-arrived Asian immigrants (especially from China) who tend to be more conservative. How do you see this dynamic playing itself out within the Asian American community in the near future in terms of their social, political, or even occupational outlook?
My research shows that there are many older U.S.-born Asian Americans who are progressive. They are outnumbered in their age group by the hyper-selected Asian immigrants who tend to be more conservative. Likewise, there are conservative young U.S.-born Asian Americans too. It’s not a generational divide, but more of a class and ethnic divide. Among all the groups, however, they are recognizing that they all face racism. The anti-Asian violence that has struck the community since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic has united many conservatives and progressives. While they may still disagree on a solution (whether to find a systemic solution or proclaim that they as individuals are more accomplished and thus does not deserve to be treated this way), at least they are more likely to recognize that they are in the same boat together.
- As a researcher and an alum of these schools, what are your thoughts about the controversy and debate about whether specialized public schools like New York City’s Stuyvesant High should or should not expand their admissions criteria and move away from strictly relying on standardized tests in order to improve the representation of Black and Latinx students?
I went to Stuyvesant High School, when the school student body was much more racially diverse. I really felt at the time that I learned among peers. As a researcher, the public schools need to address the question of how to make the schools equitable and to provide a learning environment that reflects the humanity around us. In New York City, that means to have a more racially equitable school system. The three specialized high schools that are mandated by the State of NY to use the SHSAT serve less than 6% of the middle school population. Instead of fighting over using the test in these three schools, New York City needs to improve the education for the rest of the population. For the rest of the high schools in New York City, there is no need to rely strictly on a single test. Holistic criteria can be created. New York City can also create more high schools school or high school seats in neighborhoods where there is high demand especially in areas with an increasing population of Asian immigrants.
- Some people have speculated that in the last few years, more young Asian Americans seem to be changing their worldview in terms of the best strategy for long-term success and happiness for themselves and future generations and as such, are recognizing that rather than trying to fit into the mainstream establishment, they should challenge the mainstream establishment and work to fundamentally change it to make it more inclusive and just. What are your thoughts?
I would agree with your assessment. There is much more opportunity for the younger generation to go out on their own. This is true because corporations do not make long term commitments to employees anymore. Since there is a lack of commitment, younger workers are more willing to strike it out on their own and can change the mainstream establishment. Many of the older workers I interviewed did not feel this way because the cohorts I interviewed are approaching or are way past mid-career and at least before this recession, were not thinking of striking it out on their own. Younger members who had experiences with start-ups felt different.
- Beyond what you’ve written so far, what was the most interesting finding or memorable moment that you came across in doing your research for this book?
There has to be more research on first-generation college graduates and how they are doing. Among my interviewees, surprisingly, there were very few first generation college students. Their voices are missing from the research on Asian Americans.