The Value Gap: Asian Americans are still viewed as ‘forever foreign.’ That’s keeping them out of the C-suite, this professor says

The Value Gap is a MarketWatch Q&A series with business leaders, academics, policymakers and activists on how to reduce racial and social inequalities.

Asian-American professionals get hired pretty easily and are overrepresented in some industries, but they barely ever reach the C-suite. Sociology professor Margaret Chin set out to find out why.

Chin, a professor at Hunter College and the Graduate Center College at City University of New York, interviewed more than 100 Asian Americans who went to prestigious universities and have been in their professions for more than two decades. Many made it to mid-management levels, but — with the exception of a few — not the top leadership positions at their companies or organizations.

As her book “Stuck: Why Asian Americans Don’t Reach the Top of the Corporate Ladder” notes, this is the case across industries such as tech, finance and law. Despite the fact that Asian Americans comprise nearly a quarter of the students at most elite colleges and outnumber white tech professionals at Bay Area tech companies, their white colleagues are twice as likely to become executives, according to research Chin cites.

Asian Americans make up 12% of professionals, but less than 5% of Wall Street executives. They’re the largest minority group at major law firms, but have the lowest partner-to-associate ratio of any racial or ethnic group.

Since Chin’s book was published last fall, violence against Asian Americans has increased because some people blame them for the coronavirus pandemic. The current events are another reminder that Asian Americans are perpetually seen as foreigners in the United States, Chin told MarketWatch — even though many of them are born here, grew up here or have family members who have been here for generations.

That perception also ties into how the group fares at work, because trust is a huge factor in someone getting promoted, she said.

“To move up to the C-suite, you have to gain trust,” Chin said. “But many people in this country still see us as Asian American, and as foreigners.”

Here is more of MarketWatch’s Value Gap conversation with Chin, edited for length and clarity:

MarketWatch: You interviewed more than a hundred second-generation Asian-American professionals. Can you explain your approach and why it was important to focus on this particular group?

Chin: I chose to focus on the American-born and -raised population, which is not noted in the Census or most data collected. Usually there are two categories: American-born and anybody who’s an immigrant. Among people I know and teach, I know that American-born and American-raised Asian Americans have a lot in common.

[American-raised individuals are] what some academics refer to as the 1.5 generation, which includes those who came to the U.S. before the age of 13. They speak English without an accent, are steeped in American culture, went to American schools and are just as Americanized as the American-born.

When you put the 1.5 generation with the American-born and look at ages 25 to 64, they make up 40% of the professional workforce. That’s close to half of the people you’re working with. They’re Americanized and you wouldn’t know they weren’t born here. This is a really important group. They’re a big group in the work world.

I started off my book with a question I was once asked by a Harvard admissions officer: Where are all the Asian Americans Harvard has accepted over the years? “Why aren’t they at the top?” he asked.

‘It doesn’t matter how many generations you’ve been here. If you’re forever foreign, you’re seen as trespassing, un-American, maybe not trustworthy.’

MarketWatch: The group of professionals you spoke with for your book were diverse and had different experiences. But can you talk about some common themes you found?

Chin: A lot of them seemed to be getting jobs and getting up to mid-management. A majority of folks had a hard time going above that, although South Asians have had some success.

In Silicon Valley, 27% of professionals are Asian Americans but only 14% of those are executives. Likewise, in law firms you see the same thing. All groups, except for whites, are doing a lot worse when it comes to getting to the C-suites.

That’s despite Asian Americans working out of the “Asian-American playbook,” which is a term I sort of made up. The people I interviewed were given verbal advice: You perform well in school, work hard, keep your head down, then work hard when you have a job. You do what you did to get into Harvard, and you might have a chance of getting there. What they find is they follow this playbook, and they get into … mid-management.

What’s missing from the playbook is it doesn’t talk about mentors, sponsors or gaining access to higher people in your organization. It doesn’t talk about how you can be authentic. You’re not nuanced, you don’t get to be who you need to be. It’s really telling you to be the model minority, which people expect you to be anyway.

At a certain level, everyone’s competent. You have to be trusted to move to the top, no matter your background. To move up to the C-suite, you have to gain trust. But many people in this country still see us as Asian American, and as foreigners.

MarketWatch: You finished the book in 2019. A lot has changed since then, especially for Asian Americans in particular, who are now facing physical harm for looking Asian. Any thoughts on how the events of the past couple of years relate to the challenges Asian Americans face in the workplace? 

Chin: When I was interviewing everybody [between 2014 and 2016], I think people felt Trump’s nativism against the Chinese, from his rhetoric. Then came his tweets about the four women lawmakers [where he called for them to go back to where they came from, even though only one of them was an immigrant]. But it wasn’t as clear until COVID came along and he cast blame on Chinese people.

The stereotype of forever foreign — almost all Asian Americans have been asked where they’re from. Most of them have been complimented on their English despite being born here. It doesn’t matter how many generations you’ve been here. If you’re forever foreign, you’re seen as trespassing, un-American, maybe not trustworthy.

Then you have people asking, “Should we move this person up to the very top?”

Asian Americans are grappling with how to handle this. This is racism. You have to recognize this as racism. You have to treat it with things that are anti-racist. Some people find it hard to reckon with this direct language I’m using.

We should work in solidarity with other groups who have dealt with racism. We should ask for more recognition of it and increase the level of support. We need to work together and help open up spots for us at the top.

MarketWatch: Let’s discuss Asian Americans and affirmative action.

Chin: For Asian-American immigrants, meritocracy may be true in their homelands. But here, when you move past a certain level, it’s not just about competence anymore. It’s that plus more. You need a lot more different factors.

At Harvard, they’ve had affirmative action since the 1970s. The number of Asian American students there has gone up from less than 3% to 27% for the admitted incoming class of 2025. In the work world, that increase is not happening. The number of Asian-American CEOs has declined, from 20 leading Fortune 500 companies in 2010 to a dozen today.

‘For a lot of Asian Americans, it doesn’t matter if they came here with wealth. They’re missing networks.’

The real value is the people who have gone to the top had access to some of these affirmative-action programs. Many of the people I interviewed who got promoted were in these programs. They graduated from college in the 1980s and 1990s, and these programs helped them a lot.

They were shoulder to shoulder with Black people, Latinos and other minorities. They had access to projects that gave them visibility. A lot of these organizations no longer include Asian Americans because they’re seen as already doing well.

But Asians should ask to be included in these programs. You have to intentionally include Asian Americans, or you may unintentionally exclude Asian Americans.

For a lot of Asian Americans, it doesn’t matter if they came here with wealth. They’re missing networks. Their parents don’t have the same networks. When they go to college, that can give them access to programs and networks they might not have had before.

MarketWatch: How has being Asian American affected you throughout your career, and specifically in academia?

Chin: In academia, publications are important for promotion. I’d have to tell you that as an Asian American, I’m interested in researching and writing about Asian Americans. It’s difficult to get funding for release time, research expenses and even getting published if the topic is on Asian Americans.

MarketWatch: In your book, you talk about some Asians subscribing to color-blindness. They feel their inability to climb the corporate ladder is their fault and not attributable to a biased system. Do you think recent events might have changed some minds?

Chin: I hope so. I have to go out and interview a lot more people. 

People have to realize often it’s not an individual story, it’s actually a systemic story. You can’t blame yourself. You can push organizations to do better.

The idea of color-blindness leads people to believe they can work on everything themselves and they will get what they deserve. That’s where the model minority myth comes in.

In reality, we don’t live in this world where connections don’t matter. We don’t live in a world where social skills don’t matter, where you don’t have to promote yourself, where you can just keep your head down all the time and where you don’t have to work with other groups of color. Hopefully this past year taught people that.

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