Working While Asian/Asian-American

For all you Asian and Asian-Americans – have you ever noticed that there are certain assumptions or stereotypes made about you in a work setting?

One of the most common stereotypes I have found is that at a meeting with outside parties or at a tradeshow in the past, people would always assume that I am an engineer (I do have a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering), instead of just asking what I do (product management & marketing). Maybe I should dress better to look the part! But seriously, this annoys me a little bit. But I guess that is better than “Driving while black“…

Asians in general look young – which sometimes I appreciate quite a bit, but NOT in the workplace. I’m sure you’ve heard or read about the prejudices of tall, white older men tend to rise to positions of leadership. I recently heard Taiwanese-American Jen-Hsun Huang, co-founder, President and CEO of NVIDIA speak about his experience starting NVIDA at age 30, looking very, very young (and still having acne through most of his 30s) and having to overcome his youth as one of many challenges. So when it comes to the workplace, looking older is better if you want to be taken more seriously (well, that’s my observation and opinion). I remember on several occasions when meeting with outside companies, one person had asked how long I had been with my company for – and I often wondered if they were trying subtly to determine my age… In another non-work-related incident, I remember ordering a drink on an overseas flight, and the flight attendant asked for my ID, and she laughed once she saw my age (I think I was around 30 at the time). Face, Asians look young!
Speaking of biases, Asians in general are typically shorter than the general population of Americans. No doubt you’ve heard that the tallest rise to the top, or typically, the taller political candidate statistically gets elected (by a slight statistical margin at least for U.S. presidents). Well, this could be the same for Asians & Asian-Americans in the workplace. If you’re a fan of Malcolm Gladwell, author of the very popular “The Tipping Point,” Gladwell writes in Blink: “Why do we love tall men?”

“It is possible to staff a company entirely with white males, but it is not possible to staff a company without short people: there simply aren’t enough tall people to go around. Yet none of those short people ever seem to make it into the executive suite. Of the tens of millions of American men below 5’6″, a grand total of ten–in my sample–have reached the level of CEO, which says that being short is probably as much, or more, of a handicap to corporate success as being a woman or an African-American.”

I’m 5’5″ – I guess my chances of being a CEO are pretty low! I guess that is why a lot of Asian-Americans who immigrated to the U.S. in the 60’s and 70’s, returned back to Asia in the 80’s and 90’s because they hit the glass ceiling and helped start the Asian economies by starting and growing their own businesses in Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, etc.
Being heard, being loud and being opinionated are stereotypically traits of successful U.S. corporate management styles, which is antithetical of I think, how most Asians/Asian-Americans are brought up (again, at least in my opinion). “The nail that sticks up, gets hammered down” is how I think most are raised. Have you ever felt a lot of your work colleagues like to talk a lot, but say nothing? Well, start talking more – because if you are not being heard, you will not stand out and will appear to have not talked a lot, even if you aren’t saying anything!
So my overall conclusion and experience has been that Asians look young, are generally shorter along with general silent and subliminal prejudices puts Asians & Asian-Americans at a disadvantage in the workplace. Any thoughts, comments or other observations to this line of thinking? I think this applies in more cases where there are less Asians/Asian-Americans than where there are more (like in California…)

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About John

I'm a Taiwanese-American and was born & raised in Western Massachusetts, went to college in upstate New York, worked in Connecticut, went to grad school in North Carolina and then moved out to the Bay Area in 1999 and have been living here ever since - love the weather and almost everything about the area (except the high cost of housing...)
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