By: Marisa Lee

Carolyn Hong, a Korean-American woman who is now ESPN’s coordinating producer, is certain that her tiger-mother tomboyishness and love for all things sports got her to where she is today,  And where she is today is in the middle of a debate that has blown out in recent weeks over perceived bias against Asians in American universities and executive positions.

The issue rose to national headlines in the US  when a group calling itself Students for Fair Admissions filed a lawsuit against Harvard University, alleging the university, the country’s most prestigious, was biased over admissions against Asian-American applicants. In 2013, the university’s own research team uncovered data that the system was racially biased, though Harvard allegedly killed the report, according to Reuters.

Today, the group is accusing Harvard of limiting admission numbers for Asian-Americans with each passing year–setting the minority up for failure with each application season. Certainly, there is cause for suspicion. Harvard admission statistics show that 22.2 percent of its 2021 class are Asian-Americans.

However, the share of Asian-Americans admitted as students has plateaued­­ and stagnated near 20 percent, suggesting that there may be a quota on the group today, according to The Economist. The bamboo ceiling may give, but it doesn’t break. Academic and career gatekeepers too often judge them on their ethnicity and appearance before ever meeting them in person.

Not idealistic enough

“White Americans only see Asian-Americans as very good at math, technologically capable, but usually don’t see Asian-Americans as good in management, this is one perception that puts them at a disadvantage for promotions and leadership,” said ChangHwan Kim, a University of Kansas professor specializing in Asian-American studies.

Another recent study found that Asian-Americans are perceived by other Americans as nerdy, asocial and lacking in idealistic leadership skills. In regards to Asian-American stereotypes, men were particularly found to be thought of as more effeminate, or physically inferior to white men. The stereotypes of passivity and nonathletic nature emphasize their lack of physical abilities and control to be perceived as role models and leaders. 

In sum, Americans pride themselves on being bold, demanding, and courageous. Though in many Asian cultures, children are raised to respect people, listen when spoken to, and never interrupt others–characteristics that can collide with idealistic US leadership models  That isn’t Carolyn Hong. She is vocal, outgoing, and determined to succeed.

“The perspective of Asian-Americans being very hard-working, quiet, getting the job done and doing it quietly, is still true, but they are not willing to be vocal enough to sell themselves or speak up about things,” she told me. “We don’t necessarily advocate for ourselves, so I have had to change who I am to get to where I want to be, more then I might have felt comfortable doing earlier on in my career.”

She takes her Tiger Mother appellation from the popular Chinese expression depicting mothers who employ strict rules and tough disciplinary measures to ensure their children’s success. The saying was popularized by the author Amy Chua in her popular book called The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

As with bias at Harvard, where Asians are among the most successful minorities academically and attain the same degrees and certification, white males dominate higher-ranking positions in the working world. In California’s Silicon Valley, perceived to be one of the country’s most successful meritocracies, Caucasians hold the highest level of jobs in the industry at 83.3 percent whereas Asian-Americans account for 10.6-19.5 percent, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In the top five biggest tech firms in the United States (Google, Yahoo, LinkedIn, Intel, and Hewlett-Packard), Asian-Americans comprise the majority of lower ranking jobs in these companies, according to a highly cited report by the Ascend Foundation, an organization dedicated to educating, advocating and enabling Pan-Asian business leaders to reach their full potential.

So it a matter of being more aggressive?

Speaking up for themselves

According to a 2017 study in the Global Journal of Human-Social Science, some Asian-Americans believe that their minority identity is the main reason they aren’t promoted sooner. The Global Journal survey documented the experiences of Asian-American females in leadership positions at Fortune 1000 firms. The main research question asked was whether being an Asian-American female manager influenced her promotional opportunities.

The study found that while being female and a minority empowered them in the workplace, they also may not have been promoted because they were perceived to be too “introverted” or “inarticulate.”

“I had to learn to be a little more aggressive as I wanted to be a part of the mainstream because everybody knows that you are already the Asian guy,” said Daniel Woo, Executive Editor at Wells Fargo Stories, an online inhouse journal. “Be aggressive and don’t feel sorry about yourself,” he said, as this may be the only way to change those skewed perceptions of Asian-Americans in the United States. 

If there’s anywhere that these misperceptions rule, it is the US military where like African-Americans, Asians weren’t integrated into white units until 1948. Nonetheless, Asian-Americans, particularly Filipinos, have served with distinction since the Civil War. Asian American combatants in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts were awarded the Medal of Honor, and Asian Americans have continued to serve into the present day.

“There are assumptions made by people about you and others choose to only follow certain ones and I think that’s very much what Asian-American men experience,” said  Jasper K. Lo, a Chinese-American and former US Army captain. “It’s assuming someone is going to do something based on your experience with other people of that race” and “for Asian-Americans, they already knew that they called you passive, and as leaders, we have to carry that with us before we even meet other people.”

Lo made lieutenant at the age of just 22 and had difficulty fitting into the masculine pressures of military culture along with a mistaken belief that he wasn’t fitting into the ideal army body type.

“I went into the army thinking that I was going to be too small, not strong enough, not fast enough, and working out was my top priority,” said Lo.  In the end though, he turned out to be big enough, fast enough and strong enough to be promoted to captain.

Marissa Lee is a master’s candidate in journalism at the University of Hong Kong Journalism and Media Studies Center.