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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

January 26, 2009

Written by C.N.

Asian Americans and Workplace-Employment Discrimination

In my article on Employment and Occupational Patterns, I described how, despite the fact that many Asian American work in high-status, well-paying jobs, unfortunately many still experience glass ceiling barriers (sometimes referred to as the ‘bamboo ceiling’ for Asian Americans) and other mechanisms of discrimination in the workplace.

To give us a more detailed picture of this issue, a new report by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC, the federal agency in charge of enforcing employment non-discrimination laws) has just released a new study on the extent of workplace discrimination against Asian Americans in federal government jobs (thanks to AngryAsianMan for blogging about this first).

First, a little background data: this report only looked at Asian American workers who work for federal government agencies. According to EEOC data, there are about 2.6 million federal employees and Asian American comprise about 6% of them. That works out to be around 156,000 Asian American federal government workers.

In comparison, there are about 5.2 million Asian Americans in the total civilian labor force. So of all Asian American workers, around 3% work for the federal government. That may not seem to be a lot but in many ways, we might expect the federal government to be more attuned to racial discrimination in their ranks compared to the private sector. So how did Asian American federal workers fare in this regard?

AAPIs have been called the “model minority,” but this community seems to be the “forgotten minority.” This community has been facing a number of misperceptions or stereotypes – for example, AAPIs are quiet, hardworking, family-oriented, technically-oriented, good at math and science, but are also passive, non-confrontational and antisocial.

However, while some of these stereotypes have positive characteristics, they have become the framework of barriers establishing glass or bamboo ceilings which prevent AAPIs from moving into the upper tiers of an organization. In addition, AAPIs face sticky floors which hold AAPIs at a particular level for a prolonged period of time and other obstacles. . . .

[A Gallup survey in 2005 found that] 31% of Asians surveyed reported incidents of discrimination, the largest percentage of any ethnic group. . . . [However, EEOC data] shows that only about 2% of all charges in the private sector and 3.26% in the federal sector are filed by AAPIs. There is more discrimination occurring in the workplace than is being reflected in our charge/complaint statistics.

The report notes that among all federal government agencies, the Broadcasting Board of Governors has the highest Asian American representation at 13.5% while the Tennessee Valley Authority has the lowest at 0.3%. Also significant is that across virtually all federal agencies, compared to their overall representation with a particular agency, Asian Americans are consistently underrepresented as mid-level supervisors and as executives.

Although the report does not provide many specific examples of discrimination against Asian American federal government employees, its summary of the barriers that they face are very similar to the ones I identified in my own article that I cited in the first paragraph: model minority perceptions leading to narrow and limiting assignments, language and accent discrimination, perceptions of foreignness, perceptions of social deficiency, and perceptions of lack of leadership.

Finally, the EEOC’s recommendations are:

  • Strong leadership and personal commitment to diversity comes from the top down. Hopefully Barack Obama will fulfill his promise to work toward ending this underrepresentation of Asian Americans in the federal government.
  • Strengthen commitment to diversity among agency leadership. This is not just to be politically correct — there is a solid business case to be made that for the U.S. to stay ahead and succeed in the international, globalized economy, its workforce needs to include a broad range of backgrounds, talent, and skills.
  • Ensure that supervisor/manager assessments of their Asian American employees are fair, objective, and free from the cultural biases that I listed above.
  • Ensure that the EEOC agency itself does its job properly in terms of being accessible to Asian American employees who have a complaint and in properly investigating such complaints. Hopefully this will also be easier to do under our new (Democratic) administration.
  • Collaborate with Asian American community organizations and leaders to encourage Asian Americans to work for the federal government and to increase their levels of representation within federal agencies.
  • Actively support Asian American employee groups. Rather than promoting “balkanization” as some critics have charged, these ethnically-focused support groups actually lead to greater worker loyalty, productivity, and satisfaction.
  • Finally, give Asian American federal employees who do have documented skill deficiencies the opportunities and resources to address them and to improve their skills and qualifications so that they can perform better and be promoted more easily.

As the saying goes, all these things are easier said than done. Nonetheless, I am very confident that Barack Obama’s administration will give closer attention to these kinds of issues within the federal government and that things are looking up for Asian American employees. In other words, there is a new sheriff in town and things are going to change around here.


March 2, 2006

Written by C.N.

Asian Workers Report the Most Discrimination

The Washington Post describes a recent study conducted by the Gallup Organization that measured self-reported incidences of workplace discrimination. Among other things, the report notes that the Asian Americans report the highest rates of discrimination in the workplace:

For example, 31 percent of Asians surveyed reported incidents of discrimination, the largest percentage of any racial or ethnic group, with African Americans the second-largest group at 26 percent. But Asians generally file fewer discrimination complaints than other groups, according to the EEOC. . . .

The Gallup poll found that the most frequent type of discrimination cited by respondents reporting bias (26 percent) was sex bias, followed by race (23 percent) and age (17 percent). Women were more than twice as likely as men to say they had encountered bias. Some types of discrimination reported in the poll are not clearly covered by federal law, including favoritism, sexual orientation and language. . . .

The most frequent reports of discrimination were in promotion decisions (33 percent of those claiming bias) and pay (29 percent). But workers interviewed during the poll also reported bias manifested in harassment, work conditions and assignments.

The article goes on to document several recent lawsuits alleging systematic workplace discrimination, brought against notable companies such as Best Buy, AutoNation, Morgan Stanley, Boeing, Eastman Kodak, BellSouth, and Wal-Mart.

I find it quite interesting that although Asian Americans report the highest levels of workplace discrimination, they tend to be the least likely to actually file a discrimination complaint against their employer. Sadly, it looks like the cultural image of Asian Americans as quiet, docile, and therefore, easy to pick on and discriminate against is apparently true.

It is certainly unacceptable that Asian Americans are apparently encountering so much workplace discrimination. No group deserves to be treated with contempt or hostility in that manner. At the same time, perhaps one of the reasons why Asian Americans experience the most discrimination is because not enough of us actually fight back, which can then encourage even more discrimination against us.

In other words, at some point we as Asian Americans have to stand up, speak out, and demand our rights to equal treatment. No one else is going to do it for us. Until we collectively demonstrate that discriminating against Asian Americans will lead to the same kind of consequences as that committed against Blacks, we will continue to be seen as an easy target, plain and simple.