Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Paper tigers in academia

Yesterday, while flying back from a workshop in the east coast to Los Angeles, I came across a well-written, provocative (and already quite controversial) article in New York Magazine, titled "Paper Tigers", by Wesley Yang. The subtitle is a good summary of the main question the author concerns himself with: "What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?"

There are certainly shortcomings in this essay.  For instance, Wesley Yang doesn't adequately cover the female perspective. And any such broad cultural commentary cannot avoid making sweeping generalizations that do not apply to many Asians in America (though he does acknowledge this himself). 

However, I also found myself in agreement with some key observations that Wesley makes. He talks about something called the "Bamboo Ceiling" that he describes as 

an invisible barrier that maintains a pyramidal racial structure throughout corporate America, with lots of Asians at junior levels, quite a few in middle management, and virtually none in the higher reaches of leadership. 
The failure of Asian-Americans to become leaders in the white-collar workplace does not qualify as one of the burning social issues of our time. But it is a part of the bitter undercurrent of Asian-American life that so many Asian graduates of elite universities find that meritocracy as they have understood it comes to an abrupt end after graduation. If between 15 and 20 percent of every Ivy League class is Asian, and if the Ivy Leagues are incubators for the country’s leaders, it would stand to reason that Asians would make up some corresponding portion of the leadership class.
And yet the numbers tell a different story. According to a recent study, Asian-­Americans represent roughly 5 percent of the population but only 0.3 percent of corporate officers, less than 1 percent of corporate board members, and around 2 percent of college presidents. There are nine Asian-American CEOs in the Fortune 500. In specific fields where Asian-Americans are heavily represented, there is a similar asymmetry. A third of all software engineers in Silicon Valley are Asian, and yet they make up only 6 percent of board members and about 10 percent of corporate officers of the Bay Area’s 25 largest companies. At the National Institutes of Health, where 21.5 percent of tenure-track scientists are Asians, only 4.7 percent of the lab or branch directors are, according to a study conducted in 2005. 
Analyzing the situation, Wesley notes that it's not primarily an issue of overt bias, but of unconscious bias due to perceptions.  His view is that these perceptions are shaped by Asian family values.  He argues, provocatively, that the very values that many Asian parents drill into their children: being humble, self-effacing, rule-obeying, trouble-avoiding, and hard-working, which are helpful for getting them in large numbers into top schools and getting excellent grades, may actually create a barrier to entering leadership positions in America: 
Maybe it is simply the case that a traditionally Asian upbringing is the problem. As Allyn points out, in order to be a leader, you must have followers. Associates at Pricewaterhouse­Coopers are initially judged on how well they do the work they are assigned. “You have to be a doer,” as she puts it. They are expected to distinguish themselves with their diligence, at which point they become “super-doers.” But being a leader requires different skill sets. “The traits that got you to where you are won’t necessarily take you to the next level,” says the diversity consultant Jane Hyun, who wrote a book called Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling. To become a leader requires taking personal initiative and thinking about how an organization can work differently. It also requires networking, self-promotion, and self-assertion. It’s racist to think that any given Asian individual is unlikely to be creative or risk-taking. It’s simple cultural observation to say that a group whose education has historically focused on rote memorization and “pumping the iron of math” is, on aggregate, unlikely to yield many people inclined to challenge authority or break with inherited ways of doing things.
Wesley Yang talks about an organization called LEAP which runs leadership training programs for Asian and Pacific Americans, and quotes its CEO J.D. Hokoyama: 
Aspiring Asian leaders had to become aware of “the relationship between values, behaviors, and perceptions.” He offered the example of Asians who don’t speak up at meetings. “So let’s say I go to meetings with you and I notice you never say anything. And I ask myself, ‘Hmm, I wonder why you’re not saying anything. Maybe it’s because you don’t know what we’re talking about. That would be a good reason for not saying anything. Or maybe it’s because you’re not even interested in the subject matter. Or maybe you think the conversation is beneath you.’ So here I’m thinking, because you never say anything at meetings, that you’re either dumb, you don’t care, or you’re arrogant. When maybe it’s because you were taught when you were growing up that when the boss is talking, what are you supposed to be doing? Listening.”
This certainly struck a chord with me. I cannot count how many times over the years I have heard faculty colleagues comment negatively on Asian Ph.D. students that keep really quiet in class and in research meetings. Their complaint is that this not only makes it hard to gauge what they are understanding and what they are not, but also feels unfair in an academic environment because they are depriving the group of the benefit of their own ideas. I know of at least one colleague who prefers not to take on quiet Asian students in his group for this reason.

Tigers - pay attention! It's not enough to do well on paper. You have to find your voice and learn to be more participative and assertive. You will be more likely to be perceived to be helpful to others and to have leadership qualities, which will open up more opportunities for you in the future.

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