January 26, 2009
Written by C.N.
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.