Desai: Asian Americans Still Locked Out of Top Jobs

Asia Society President says report on group's ascent overlooks lack of representation in leadership

Asia Society President Vishakha Desai. (Asia Society Hong Kong Center)

by Vishakha Desai, President, Asia Society

Originally presented in South China Moring Post, July 31, 2012

The Pew Center's report "The Rise of Asian Americans," which shows that Asians, not Latinos, comprise the largest group of immigrant arrivals in the United States, took many people by surprise. The data also shows that Asian Americans have the highest education and per capita income.

Together with low reported discrimination, the report paints a portrait of Asian success in America. Asian Americans should expect to have a bigger voice in American politics and, indeed, in American society.

In fact, Asian Americans remain a relatively rare sight in leadership positions, even in the corporate world. If hard work was all it took to rise into the upper echelons of power in corporate America, one would expect to see many Asian Americans at the top, especially in financial services, accounting, technology and health care.

Study after study shows the reverse to be true. For example, research conducted by Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics shows that just 30 Fortune 100 companies last year had Asians or Pacific Islanders on their boards. This is not a picture of a minority group marching inexorably towards better lives and reaching into the upper echelons of US society.

Part of the problem is an overall insistence on looking at the Asian American population largely from the point of view of its members' countries of origin.

But we have seen from workplace data that time in the U.S. or nativity is a critical factor. Asian immigrants who arrive in the U.S. at younger ages are more like their native-born counterparts in outlook and perspective.

In addition, the perception of Asian Americans as the "perpetual other" is alive and well. Indeed, the rise of Asia itself, and United States companies' resulting focus on the Asian market, has in many ways served to amplify it.

We see this when companies hold up their activities in Asia as examples of what they are doing for the Asian American community. There is also the insidious inference that people who choose to call themselves Chinese American are clinging to a non-American identity, whereas people who call themselves, say, Italian American, are above suspicion.

In many ways, Asian Americans are caught in a no-win situation. When their behavior aligns with preconceptions, if they are shy and non-assertive, this is used to justify passing them over for promotion or important projects. On the other hand, when Asian Americans exhibit leadership behaviors similar to those of non-Asians, they are perceived as overly aggressive.

The "model minority" myth perpetuated by the Pew research is misleading. At its core, it contains a highly objectionable assumption that other minorities do not work hard enough to succeed.