Stereotypes Hold Asian Americans Back in STEM Careers

Stereotypes Hold Asian Americans Back in STEM Careers

In discussions of diversity and inclusion, particularly in the tech sector, Asian Americans are often left out. Because their representation in the tech workforce is high relative to their presence in the US as a whole, tech sector diversity reports do not treat Asian Americans as underrepresented minorities, diversity initiatives don’t focus on recruiting them, and relatively little attention is paid to whether they are given opportunities for career advancement and leadership roles.

However, just because Asian Americans are well represented in science and technology professions, that doesn’t mean they don’t experience racial bias. Joan C. Williams, Marina Multhaup, and Rachel Korn, researchers at the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, have been studying the impact of gender and racial bias in STEM professions for the past few years. “Our research,” they write at the Atlantic, “has found that Asian Americans, especially women, often face significant career hurdles tied to perceptions about ethnicity and race”:

For one approach, we developed a 10-minute survey that picks up major patterns of racial and gender bias. When we gave an early version to more than 3,000 American engineers, Asian American men and women were much more likely than white men to report that they had to prove themselves more than their colleagues. Most of the 3,000 respondents were women, which makes it hard to draw conclusions about Asian American men. But our data are clear that Asian American women, at least, face the same kind of “prove it again” bias that has been documented for decades in studies of women and black people. Despite being stereotyped as competent, Asian American women still report that they have to provide more evidence of competence than white men in order to be seen as equal.

“If you’re perfect, we might accept you. But if you’re not perfect, forget it,” summarized an Asian American woman in a 2014 study of science professors by our center, with contributions from Katherine W. Phillips of Columbia University and Erika V. Hall of Emory University. …

Taken more broadly, this suggests a pernicious bind: Though Asian Americans might be seen as having a specific set of technical skills, white men with identical skills may be assumed to have a broader range of skills they haven’t demonstrated. So, like women and other people of color, Asian Americans in stem may have to be more skilled than white men to be seen as equally competent.

Other recent studies have also found that Asian Americans experience discrimination in the tech sector based on stereotypes about their abilities and work habits. For example, in a 2016 survey of young American adults, Asian Americans reported experiencing discrimination at work or while looking for a job, and that their race had made their lives more difficult, at rates comparable to Latin Americans.

A report published last fall found that Asians “are the least likely to be promoted to managerial or executive positions, in spite of being the largest minority group of professionals and the most likely to be hired.” Like the Center for WorkLife Law, the authors of that study posited that this gap between the number of Asian employees hired in Silicon Valley and the number promoted to management reflected the harmful side of ostensibly “positive” stereotypes of Asians.