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Glass Ceiling for Model Minority: Women prone to bias vs Asian-Americans on job social skills, study suggests

August 1, 2009

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

Originally applied to Japanese-Americans more than 40 years ago, the term "model minority" has come to be applied broadly to Asian-Americans, a reflection, among other things, of their low unemployment rates and high occupational and academic achievements.
Yet, in the past decade, it has become clear that the success of Asian-Americans, now numbering about 15 million, falls short in one critical respect: despite their impressive professional achievements, they are vastly underrepresented in senior executive positions, both in the corporate and nonprofit sectors. For example, a recent federal study found that they represent more than 10 percent of professionals but only 3.7% of company senior executives.
What accounts for this disjunction? A common explanation has been Asian-Americans' supposed lack of social skills, as demonstrated by such alleged failings as committing little time to socializing, disliking being the center of attention at gatherings, and acting awkwardly in social situations.
Now new research, to be presented Tuesday at 3:00 at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management (Chicago, Aug. 9-11), suggests that such views are most pronounced among an unexpected group -- namely, women.
"In one study we found that women were much more likely to promote a white individual to an executive position than they were to promote an Asian-American, even when both candidates had exactly the same qualifications and credentials," comments Lei Lai of Tulane University's Freeman School of Business, who carried out the research with Linda Babcock of Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College. "In contrast, men were about equally likely to promote either candidate," she adds.
The report's principal findings derive from a pair of studies in which participants were asked to make hiring or promotion decisions involving a fictional U.S.-born candidate who had either the common American name of Smith or the obviously Asian name of Wong.
In one study, 105 white adults and university students were asked to review the cover letter and resume of a supposed college senior who was seeking an entry-level position in either information technology or public relations. The documents indicated that the graduating student had a dual major in communications and information systems, and the student's work experience and coursework in both subjects suggested an individual who would be qualified for either position. Participants were asked to decide which job the student was better suited for and also to rate social skills and competence. The letter and resume that each received differed only in the name of the candidate, which was Alex Wong for about half the group and Alex Smith for the remainder .
Male participants proved about equally willing to choose Wong or Smith for either position. Female participants, though, were significantly more likely to choose Wong for the technical position, perhaps because, in contrast to the male participants (who rated both candidates about equal in social skills) they rated Wong as somewhat less skilled socially than Smith. Both genders rated Wong and Smith about the same on competence.
In another study, 103 white individuals aged 18 to 31 were enlisted from two universities to play the role of a senior managing partner in a large U.S. law firm who was in the process of hiring a junior partner to head a local office. The background information that the participants received indicated that "a successful managing partner needs to be not only a great attorney...but a terrific 'sales' person who can constantly promote the firm's image and actively increase the firm's business." The job required "superior people-skills to motivate others" and "to foster a spirit of teamwork within the firm." As in the hiring study, all participants received material that was the same except for the name of the candidate, which now was Pat Wong for about half the group and Pat Smith for the remainder.
Male participants were roughly as willing to choose Wong as Smith to head the office. Female participants were much more likely to choose Smith than Wong, so much more likely, in fact, that there was only a one percent possibility that women's selection preference could be due to chance. Female participants also rated Smith markedly higher than Wong on social skills, a finding that strongly suggests this to be the reason for their greater likelihood of choosing Smith for the job.
Why did female participants so clearly decide in both studies solely on the basis of name? While the professors concede that their findings do not provide a definite answer to that question, they believe the answer in these instances has to do with women's greater tendency than men to view social skills as important in the workplace. As Lai and Babcock put it, "The ability to be socially adept may be a particular source of pride for women, and they may more likely to apply the stereotypes associated with social skills in the hiring context."
Adds Lai: "The difference between genders in this respect came as a great surprise. In two other studies that we will be reporting on at the AOM meeting (one involving a survey of 38 white and Asian-American university students and the other involving performance-evaluation data from a multi-ethnic law firm) both men and women rated Asian-Americans as less socially skilled than whites. Yet, that was not true for men in the hiring and promotion studies, and the gender differences here were quite clear. It may be (and this is only speculation)  that women's special sensitivity to hiring and promotion issues brought social considerations to the fore in a way that was not true for men."
"In any event," she continues, "all four studies should convey to 15-million Asian-Americans how important it is for them to provide evidence of social skills to recruiters, whether through personal contacts, professional references, or some other means."

The research presentation, entitled "The Glass Ceiling for Asian Americans: How Perceptions of Competence and Social Skills Explain Hiring Differentials," will be among several thousand research reports at the Academy of Management meeting, to be held in Chicago from August 9 to 11th.  Founded in 1936, the Academy is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has close to 19,000 members in 102 countries, including more than 10,000 in the United States. This year's annual meeting will draw more than 9,000 scholars and practitioners for sessions on a host of subjects relating to business strategy, corporate organization and investment, the workplace, technology development, and other management-related topics.

Media Coverage:
ETTV. Interview with Prof. Lei Lai. (Saturday, August 22, 2009).

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