Asian Pacific Americans In STEM Lack Representation at the Leadership Level

APA community continues to deal with “bamboo ceiling”

Asian Pacific Americans are still underrepresented when it comes to leadership roles within corporations. In fact, Jane Hyun coined the term “bamboo ceiling” in her book, Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians to explain this phenomenon.

In the 2005 book, Hyun defines the term as a “combination of individual, cultural, and organizational factors that impede Asian Americans' career progress inside organizations.” In 2022, a new study published by the Association of Asian American Investment Managers (AAAIM) says more than 80% of Asian American and Pacific Islander women say the bamboo ceiling effect is real.

This May we celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM) with all this community has contributed, but we also need to look at the struggles that remain.

“For the AAPI individuals (as well women and other minorities) in the industry, breaking in and getting their foot in their door may have already been a challenge,” said Janet Kim, Senior Director of Product at Misfits Market, an organic produce delivery service fighting food waste. “But despite that achievement, once they’ve entered the industry they may experience a “sticky floor” where they experience difficulty advancing their careers. They may be unable to climb the ladder to even reach the metaphorical glass / bamboo ceiling.”

Built By Girls spoke with Kim for the video series How I Started in STEM to get her personal insights on the challenges facing the APA community in STEM.

A female developer checks the operation of the robot.
A female developer checks the operation of the robot.

Leading the Workforce but not the Boardroom

According to the most recently available U.S. Census Bureau data, about 51% of Asian people in the U.S. have attained a bachelor’s degree or higher levels of education compared to 29% of non-Hispanic whites and about 18% for African Americans.

With more than half of the Asian population earning higher education degrees it makes sense that the APA community makes up 13% of those employed in STEM occupations. A drastic overrepresentation in the field when compared with their 6% share of total employment across all occupations. In fact, one-in-five computer workers are of Asian American descent according to Pew Research Center.

However, the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) data details a study of diversity across a group of Silicon Valley tech companies, where Asians represented about 50% of professional jobs but only 36% of management positions. Conversely, White employees represented 41% of professional jobs and 57% of management positions.

Add to that a 2020 NBC study, where East Asian women “were 42 percent more likely than white women to report being demeaned and disrespected, stereotyped, left out of the loop and treated like they were invisible” in the workplace and you can see why the APA community believes they are dealing with a systemic problem.

“Statistically, Asian Americans are the most likely to be hired into high-tech jobs but the least likely racial group to be promoted in Silicon Valley’s management and executive levels”, said Kim. “While I think there is AAPI representation in the tech industry at a surface level, I don’t think this equates to representation across the board. You have to look at the nuances like ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, immigration and citizenship status. It’s also important to note that Asian Americans also have the highest level of economic inequality.”

Women Leading the Way

While women account for roughly half (47%) of the employed U.S. workforce, women in the United States made up only a third (34%) of those employed in STEM occupations in 2019. Within that third of the workforce only 11.6% of science and engineering employees in the United States were women of color in 2019, with Asian women comprising just 6.5%.

The fact is that women, especially women in the APA Community, want to succeed in STEM fields. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shows the number of computer science bachelor's degrees conferred on Asian and Pacific Islander women has continued to increase in recent years; with 4,668 handed out in the 2019-20 school year a compared to 3,206 in the 2017-18 school year - a 45% jump in 2 years.

“As an industry, I think it’s critical to reflect upon who we think is a “leader” and the various cultural and personality traits that are associated with our notion of leadership”, said Kim. “Who is thought to be successful? Are there cultural biases that are influencing that? Diversity in leadership is more than a checkbox or celebration. In an increasingly globalized industry and world, it’s absolutely critical for success.”

More to Check Out:

How I Started in STEM with Skillsoft CIO Orla Daly

How I Started in STEM with Wicked Saints Studios CEO Jess Murrey

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