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I was asked this question during a talk with UVa APA students a while ago.  At the time, I answered that, in general, being Asian American was an advantage initially for helping get through the door.  But once inside, I told them they would have to overcome extra hurdles to rise in the organization.  My remarks were based on my observations of large government and private organizations which have HR “diversity” goals.  For these organizations, a qualified minority might get a slightly longer look.

Since my talk, I’ve come across an NPR story from Feb 2017 which documented a Canadian study that showed that a resume with an Asian sounding name, versus the same resume with an Anglo name, got 28 percent less call backs for interviews.  Other studies have shown that being an Asian-American (actually being an identified minority) is detrimental to getting employed.  See the following.


For a glass half-full interpretation, the same study done 50 years ago might show that Asian-American would get 80% less call backs.  For the glass half-empty interpretation, the current study should have shown no difference in call backs.  So what can we make of this?  Yeah, I know, life is unfair.  But I do feel that Asian-American employability has gotten better (consider what our parents went through) and I am guardedly optimistic that it will continue that trend. 

So my initial view seems to be valid only for a limited group of organizations.  Maybe one adjustment to a job hunting strategy is to put more emphasis on organizations that have diversity targets/goals where your odds are better.  That is unless the company has an over abundance of Asian-Americans already and you won’t count as a minority for diversity purposes.     

Give me your thoughts on this. 

3 thoughts

  1. Great question. I think this question can’t be answered in the abstract. It really depends on the specific industry and individual companies. In some industries that fit a more stereotypical “Asian” mold (such as IT and engineering), being Asian will be more helpful than in industries that are traditionally closed to or underrepresented by Asians (such as entertainment).

    Wee’s answer above is spot on in some industries. For instance, among big law firms, there is generally a push for more diversity. However, once in the big firms, Asians often must do more to prove themselves and overcome stereotypes. Yale University and the Asian Pacific American Bar Association just issued a fascinating report on Asian Americans in the law.

    Some findings: “Whereas Asian Americans are regarded as having the ‘hard skills’ required for lawyerly competence, they are regarded as lacking many important ‘soft skills.'” More than half of the Asian American lawyers surveyed said they “sometimes” or “often” experience implicit discrimination in the workplace. “Our study shows that Asian Americans have a foot in the door in every sector the legal profession,” said Justice Liu. “The question now is how wide the door will swing open. Despite much progress, Asian Americans still face significant obstacles to reaching the leadership ranks.”


  2. As a followup to Ken’s comment about the legal profession. Here’s an article today from the Washington Post about the low Asian-American representation among judges.

    “Asian Americans comprise 10 percent of graduates at the country’s top law schools although they make up just 6 percent of the U.S. population. But only 3 percent of the federal judiciary and 2 percent of state judges are Asian American, the study found.

    Of the 94 U.S. attorneys, only three are Asian American. And only four of the 2,437 elected prosecutors are Asian American.

    In the private sector, Asian Americans have been the largest minority group in major law firms for nearly two decades, making up 7 percent of attorneys. But they have the highest attrition rates and the lowest ratio of partners to associates of any racial group.”

    Why is that? A number of possible reasons. They may be culturally disadvantaged. Don’t have the right networks. Perception of lack of leadership traits. …. These are the huddles they have to overcome after getting through the door.


  3. To build on Wee and Ken’s comments, I think Indo-American group stands out as an exception. Comparing the Indian born or Indo-Americans to the other Asian Americans, they seems to overcome the employability issue and sometimes develop greater career in their sectors or industries: e.g. High tech is a great example, other industries also have Indian born C-suite: Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella, and Indra Nooyi, just to name a few. I want to say that to land a dream job or develop a great career, we need to understand our strengths and weaknesses: to focus on our strengths and make overall improvement in those “soft skills” such as leadership/people engagement, communication, and public speaking etc. – (we know perception is reality.) Finally, I really hope that as a group, we can levergae our resources to help each other to make the Asian American group stronger.

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