Is there a bamboo ceiling for Asians in science?

Jan 18 2013 Published by under Asian Americanism, Science

First let me say that I've never liked the term "bamboo ceiling." It always sounded a little too culturally forced* to me. And in terms of imagery, it flat out sucks. Glass ceiling? At least with glass you walk away with the impression that you can shatter through it. But bamboo? That shit is hard. Like indestructible hard. Doesn't quite inspire much confidence in breaking through it now does it?

Earlier this month in Nature Jobs, Lilian Gomory Wu and Wei Jing argue that the path to leadership roles in science is impeded for Asians in the US:

In academia, just 42% of Asian men are tenured, compared with 58% of white men, 49% of black men and 50% of Hispanic men. Just 21% of Asian women in academia are tenured, the lowest proportion for any ethnicity or gender. They are also least likely to be promoted to full professor.

Similar numbers exist for industry and the federal workforce they report, and this graph was included in the tl;dr blog post:

The take home: Asians were attaining leadership positions (like PI-ships) at a lower clip than other ethnicities (although, I wonder at what rate do Asians apply or seek out managerial positions, comparatively speaking). Wu and Jing identify several possible reasons for this disparity that mainly derive from the "model minority" stereotype:

hardworking and patient, family oriented, good at maths and science and having a strong work ethic, but also humble, non-confrontational and lacking the passion to be charismatic leaders.

Many of these have been used to explain the relative absence of Asians in company boardrooms, CEOs, and the like, so it's not totally unreasonable for these explanations to apply to the sciences as well. Take, for example, how Eastern ideas of leadership--where Asians are more likely to let their actions do the talking over...well talking--are lost in translation. This can give the impression that Asians are passive or indifferent. Another possible reason is the language barrier, which can be prohibitive in writing successful grants and papers. These issues, of course, are biased towards our foreign-born, transplanted colleagues, of which there are many in science.

In 2009, Asians — defined as people from the Far East, southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent — made up 78% of doctoral recipients with temporary visas who were planning to work in the United States.

Looking at 2008 demographic numbers from the NSF, there were 2,038,000 Asians employed as scientists and engineers: 58.9% were naturalized US citizens while 21.3% were non-US citizens. For comparison, of Black or Hispanic scientists and engineers, only 3.3% and 7.4% were non-US citizens, respectively. That being said, and particularly concerning to me, Wu and Jing also point to the perception that Asians are "forever foreign." Meaning that no matter how acculturated Asians are or become, these standards might still be unfairly applied.

As for solutions, they suggest re-evaluating cultural differences in leadership and communication skills--which basically sounds like cultural sensitivity training to me. Yet, they also put the onus on Asians to "seek training in communication, assertiveness and leadership skills." Soooo...which is it?

And what does it say about the fact that under the Comments section of the blog post it reads: "There are currently no comments"? Now, I wasn't exactly expecting my Asian colleagues to tear it up in the comments (hell, I don't know if anyone comments on Nature blog posts). It's quite possible that neither the article nor the blog post isn't reaching an Asian audience--and without social sharing/altmetrics-like data available, how am I to gauge dissemination? But that no one has voiced any opinion at all certainly doesn't help silence any of the Asian stereotypes.


Ceiling With Mud and Bamboo

Is this my view when I look up?

*Someone recently suggested to me that the phrase be changed to "glass noodle ceiling."

Related Reading:

How committed is NIH to addressing its race problem? Hint: kinda sorta



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