Crains Special Report: Women in Business
November 03, 2003

Asian-Americans face great wall: Perceptions, cultural traditions hinder advancement to top corporate ranks
By Valerie Block

The Christmas party was festive. But as a new hire at Benton & Bowles, Wanla Cheng was hardly in a partying mood. As colleagues chitchatted, the young ad executive, who immigrated to America from China when she was 17, hovered like a wallflower.

"I didn't drink. I didn't know how to make small talk," says Ms. Cheng.

Later, co-workers told her that they thought she was cold and aloof. "The truth is I was timid, shy and scared," says Ms. Cheng, who is now president of research firm Asia Link Consulting Group.

Cultural differences like those experienced by Ms. Cheng make it harder for Asian women to advance in corporate America than for other minority groups. While 15.7% of corporate officers in Fortune 500 companies are female, Asian women make up just 0.29% of that group, according to a recent study by nonprofit women's research organization Catalyst. Among women of color, Asians are the most likely to have graduate degrees but the least likely to hold a position within three levels of the chief executive.

"Asian women face stereotypes that keep them off the managerial track," says Katherine Giscombe, a Catalyst senior director.

Modest and humble

These stereotypes include the belief that Asian women are hard workers who have good technical skills, but lack managerial talent. That's partly because of their deeply rooted cultural values. The model Asian woman is modest, reserved and humble, says Ms. Cheng, as opposed to American women, who are often more aggressive.

The training starts early. Kaity Tong, news anchor for WPIX-11, immigrated to the States from China when she was 5 years old. On her first day of school, her mother issued a warning: "`Remember, everything you do reflects on you, our family and on the entire Chinese people,"' Ms. Tong recalls.

To get ahead, Asian women must break away from the stifling tradition that keeps them toiling in the background. "The biggest thing I had to learn in America was to promote myself," says Ms. Cheng, who worked for several ad agencies and American Express before launching her own business.

Cynthia Park, who emigrated from Korea when she was 9, fights a daily battle against the meek Asian female image. "We're stuck in these tiny bodies," says the managing partner of multicultural advertising firm Kang & Lee, a unit of Y&R Inc. "Men don't think we can pack a punch"

Many Asians don't think they should have to be aggressive. They are taught that a strong work ethic and high level of education will bring success. They are often puzzled when they are passed over for promotions. "There's more to it in corporate America," says Bonnie Wong, president of Asian Women in Business. "You have to network and know the right people."

One of the biggest drawbacks for Asian women is a lack of mentoring. Language and cultural barriers keep them isolated in the workplace. What's more, Asian women often feel left out of corporate diversity programs. Companies looking to burnish their diverse image often overlook their Asian employees.

Choosing sides

"I've had meetings with Asian women who don't feel their concerns are taken into consideration," says Ms. Wong. "They have to chose between siding with white women or women of color."

Some top executives who have learned the ropes are trying to make a difference in the lives of their younger co-workers. Ernst & Young partner Nancy Ngou says that even as a third-generation Chinese-American, she has had to force herself to be assertive. She recently started a networking group within her tax practice to help other Asians advance. While E&Y has a healthy percentage of Asian workers, too few are in high-level positions, she says.

"It's up to us to make something happen," she says. "We can't wait for the firm to do it."



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