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The docility myth flattening Asian women’s careers
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Enduring stereotypes around race, culture and gender shape the careers of Asian women, causing many to plateau.
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Sometimes it happens with an email, sometimes it occurs in person. Clients will spot Sara Ahmed’s surname or see her face and then, she believes, a certain kind of expectation will set in.

The Pakistani-born US-based writer, who has also worked in sales and event coordination, has found that time and time again, vendors and clients have expected her to do work for free or for very low compensation. “It always felt like there was this huge stereotype that I was constantly tackling [that] perhaps I’ll be very subservient and a little more meek about speaking up,” she says.

She’s seen this happen both when dealing with white people and with men from the South Asian community in Texas. Some have called her disrespectful for pushing back, while others have assumed that her white colleagues were the ones in charge. “There’s a very strong belief that you can be bulldozed.”

The stereotype Ahmed refers to is an enduring one. In one study of Asian American women who had experienced discrimination, 14% said that others had viewed them as incapable of becoming leaders, while 34% reported that others had assumed they were submissive or passive. The women in the study who attempted to speak out reported that others reacted with surprise or retaliation – like Ahmed, who says that she has lost business due to being outspoken.

In the US, under-representation at senior leadership levels is linked more to racial stereotypes than to women dropping out of the workforce (Credit: Alamy)

In the US, under-representation at senior leadership levels is linked more to racial stereotypes than to women dropping out of the workforce (Credit: Alamy)

These kinds of stereotypes are most prevalent in countries where Asians form a minority group. Yet they interact with gendered social norms prevalent in many Asian countries that foster an environment in which women are often seen as subordinates rather than leaders.

The ‘bamboo ceiling’

It’s impossible to do justice to the vast range of Asian women’s experiences, given the great diversity among Asian women (even within any given nation or ethnic group).

But some experiences are shared across these wide-ranging populations. In fact, one of the hallmarks of cultural ignorance is difficulty or lack of interest in distinguishing between people of different ethnicities. So non-Asians’ expectations of Han Chinese women may also affect Thais, Bengali women may be treated similarly to Nepalis, the experiences of women in Asia affect the diaspora in majority-white countries, and so on.

There’s a very strong belief that you can be bulldozed – Sara Ahmed

In general, women are often called out for being “abrasive” or “bossy” when the same qualities would be praised as “assertive” or “confident” in men. This catch-22 may be an obstacle to their career progression; they are either penalised for being bossy, or they self-censor and then seem to lack the assertiveness required for a leadership position.

Race and culture also play a role in expectations of leadership traits. It’s common for Western multinational companies to complain about a lack of leadership competencies in East Asia, because they’re looking for a more showy form of outspokenness that’s less common across the continent. Even people of Asian descent who were born in majority-white countries, and who consider themselves far removed from immigration and don’t speak Asian languages, experience career setbacks because of the lack of role models, expectations of their timidity and prejudice of non-Asians. This is a reason that Asian Americans are everywhere in the legal field, but remain significantly under-represented in leadership roles. Asians are also over-represented among professional staff of US-based technology companies, but under-represented in executive-level positions.

Gender and race intersect to create an especially fraught position for Asian women. One study of five Silicon Valley companies showed that while white women and Asian men were also under-represented at the highest levels, Asian women were the least likely to be executives, relative to their proportion of the workforce. “The ‘Asian effect’ is 3.7X greater than the ‘gender effect’ as a glass ceiling factor”, the report notes.

Asian American women  report not being credited for their work and taking on the bulk of group projects, yet still not being considered leaders (Credit: Alamy)

Asian American women report not being credited for their work and taking on the bulk of group projects, yet still not being considered leaders (Credit: Alamy)

The persistent belief that Asian American women will maintain the status quo and can be saddled with extra work without complaining has led to a situation where many of these women have high educational and career achievements, yet plateau. Women in these groups report not being credited for their work, taking on the bulk of group projects, being held to a higher standard and yet still not being considered leaders, as they’re relegated to the “team players” zone. Their own achievements may become a double-edged sword. The “model minority” stereotype that helps Asian Americans educationally may end up actually limiting their career progression, as they’re sometimes considered to be less vocal and socially skilled.

Hitting a plateau

The intersections of gender and background can become especially prominent for “tokens” – people who are overly scrutinised because their group is so little represented and might be made to feel that they carry the burden of standing in for the entire group. Some may even choose to play down their accomplishments, because visibility of any kind can be harmful, leading to a “performance dilemma”.

“Due to the cultural context of Korea, women feel pressured to do as [well] as male counterparts but, at the same time, they feel they should not excel [so as] not to be highly visible so that they don’t get criticised due to their token status in the organisation,” says Yonjoo Cho, who researches human resource development at Indiana University Bloomington and co-authored the research. She’s experienced this herself. “As a working woman in Korea and an Asian female faculty in the US, I have always been a token woman who is the only one or one of the few women in the organisation, which made me conscious about my self-esteem and ability.”

East Asians in North America are more likely to be racially harassed when they act dominant at work

One response of Asian women may be to mould their behaviour to fit what dominant groups expect and want of them. This may be necessary if resisting these expectations can cause immediate damage to professional relationships. East Asians in North America are more likely to be racially harassed when they act dominant at work; this violates the “prescriptive stereotype” held by white colleagues, who interpret this behaviour as surprising and threatening when it comes from East Asians. It holds for other Asian groups as well. When Ahmed chose the strategy of resistance, for instance, it backfired and negatively affected her business.

Another response may be to conceal your success, particularly in environments where there are patriarchal expectations about who should have higher status. Nirmala Menon, who founded the Bangalore diversity consultancy Interweave, knows women who only accepted promotions as long as their job title or pay stayed the same. They were willing to take on more responsibility but were uncomfortable with earning more money than their husbands.

These kinds of societal and internalised pressures around gendered power tend to be less intense among the Asian diaspora. For instance, Menon says that a specific element of the Indian context that contributes to these pressures is women’s responsibility for their in-laws. Expectations of women as carers and domestic stewards inevitably affect their ability to advance professionally; the role conflict “confuses the hell out of them, and makes them slow-pedal or not grow to their full potential”, says Menon.

Asian women are either penalised for being bossy, or they self-censor and then seem to lack the assertiveness required for a leadership position (Credit: Alamy)

Asian women are either penalised for being bossy, or they self-censor and then seem to lack the assertiveness required for a leadership position (Credit: Alamy)

In the US, however, under-representation at senior leadership levels is linked more to racial stereotypes than to women dropping out of the workforce (which white women are more likely to do). Thus, on average in the US, white women manage 3 to 6 more employees than Asian women do, even after accounting for differences of industry, immigration and others.

Steps forward

Addressing the fact that American-Asian woman are plateauing at work requires addressing multiple different factors: Western stereotypes around Asian women’s docility; gender norms in Asian societies (including diasporas) that shape acceptance of women’s aspirations; and inclusivity across workplaces overall, including embracing the diversity of different people’s communication styles. Ahmed has seen each of these affect her working life, from men who become defensive when she asserts herself to being the only woman of colour in the room.

The complex legacy of societal and family expectations means that encouragement of Asian women’s leadership has to start from an early age. Corina Riantoputra, a psychology lecturer at the University of Indonesia, firmly believes, “If we want to reach women leaders in the future, we have to train fathers.”

This resonates with Ahmed’s experiences. Her parents, and particularly her father, were unusual in their social circles. He told her and her two sisters, from a young age, that the only reason he would disown them was if they didn’t complete their education – a stance that led to backlash from his peers.

And it wasn’t just talk. “So much of my life trajectory has been because of the choices he made,” Ahmed reflects. While working in a comfortable job in Saudi Arabia, her father was thinking ahead to where his family might move to improve his daughters’ university prospects. The result, says Ahmed, was that “All of his daughters are very, very opinionated… I think that has always been the basis of why I can be audacious or able to speak up in uncomfortable situations.”

In one study of Asian American women who had experienced discrimination, 34% reported that others had assumed they were submissive or passive

Obviously, this is beyond the scope of a workplace to address. But there are still steps that employers can take to limit stereotypes becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s abundant research showing the importance of mentorship, networking and social support for emerging Asian female leaders. They may need their own networks or integration into existing networks because women are so often shut out of these less-formal clusters of power. The challenge is not overburdening existing Asian female leaders, who are already so under-represented in many sectors, with these mentorship responsibilities.

As diversity and inclusion consultant Menon says, some corporate training tells women how to stand, how to speak and what to do in order to make their presence felt. But this just adds to the load of a group that already have so much to do at work, at home and elsewhere. Asian women’s career progression will be limited unless it’s accompanied by training of men and majority groups to counteract the biases they may not even realise they carry.

In my own career I’ve seen how convenient it can be for a well-meaning white male boss to praise an Asian woman for being “deferential” – rather than having to grapple with the more complex factors of financial insecurity and skewed power relations that might affect an employee’s ease with rocking the boat and taking the reins.

Clearly, there are plenty of leaders who identify as Asian women. But some extra effort will be needed to ensure that emerging leaders aren’t being held down, whether by other people’s expectations of them or their own.

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