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Why Asian Americans Have Trouble Climbing the Corporate Ladder

By BETH HARPAZ

Professor Margaret Chin (The Graduate Center, Hunter) got the idea for her new book, Stuck: Why Asian Americans Don’t Reach the Top of the Corporate Ladder, at a Harvard Club event in New York. A Harvard alumna herself, she was attending a reception for newly admitted students that included a large number of Asian Americans. An admissions officer observed privately that although thousands of second-generation Asian Americans have graduated from Harvard in the last 40 years, very few have become CEOs or attained other top leadership posts in corporate America.

“Is there a so-called bamboo ceiling, an invisible but powerful barrier that halts their progress at a certain point?” Chin wondered. She wrote Stuck in an effort to find out .

Chin says Asian Americans are underrepresented in executive suites despite census data showing they have the highest levels of education and highest average incomes of any U.S. racial group. Their absence from top jobs is true not only in law and finance, where Asian Americans remain a minority, but also in fields like technology. Asian Americans outnumber whites in Silicon Valley but hold only a third the number of executive jobs in that field that whites hold. 

Chin interviewed 103 second-generation Asian Americans for the book. Many told her they had trouble finding mid-career mentors and felt they were passed over for “plum assignments.” They also found it “difficult to gain the ‘trust’ of executives at the highest levels.” Chin suggests that stereotypes of Asians as invaders, threats, enemies, spies, and even tiger moms likely bolster implicit biases against Asian Americans seeking to climb the corporate ladder. In the Trump era, and in pandemic times, these anti-immigrant and anti-Asian sentiments are only hardening.

Chin cites the “Asian American playbook” as another complex factor limiting their success. Many Asian Americans say they were raised to see personal effort, competence, and merit as the keys to getting ahead. What’s missing from that playbook is any recognition that racism might hold them back. Instead, when they fail to achieve their goals, they “seek a color-blind solution that does not take into consideration society’s structural problems but simply leaves them working harder.”

Yet, concludes Chin, “race matters more than many people would admit … Racial discrimination and/or implicit bias are clearly operating, especially at the top levels.”