Indian-Americans represented better in leadership positions compared to Chinese Americans:Study

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A team of researchers from top universities has found Indian-Americans/South Asians were better represented at leadership levels than Chinese-Americans/East Asians, attributing the “Bamboo Ceiling” to cultural communication variables. The study recommends corporate and other institutions factor in those aspects when hiring for top positions.

Professor Jackson Lu of MIT Sloan. (Photo: mitsloan.mit.edu)

Researchers from MIT Sloan School of Management, Columbia Business School and the University of Michigan approached the “Diversity Puzzle” of why Chinese-Americans but not Indian-Americans are underrepresented in leadership positions, identifying the boundary and causes of the ceiling.

Asians have achieved considerable success in the United States, the study notes.  They are better educated and wealthier than other ethnic groups. Despite these achievements, Asians appear to be disproportionately underrepresented in leadership positions in the U.S., a perplexing problem known as the “Bamboo Ceiling.”

The results of their attempt to identify the scope and root causes of the “Bamboo Ceiling” were recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (https://www.pnas.org/content/117/9/4590). It finds that East Asians (e.g., Chinese, Japanese) are less likely than South Asians (e.g., Indians, Pakistanis) and whites to attain leadership roles in American organizations.

Importantly, the leadership attainment gap emerged for both US-born and foreign-born Asians which controls for English fluency, meaning that the gap is not merely a function of the greater prevalence of English in South Asia.

The research, the first to examine the scope of the Bamboo Ceiling across culturally distinct Asian subgroups, arrives at a time when issues of ethnicity, leadership, and inclusion in American society – and Asians’ place within these issues – dominate national conversations, said a Feb. 19, 2020, press release from the MIT Sloan School of Management.

“Strongly influenced by Confucianism, East Asian cultures encourage humility, harmony, and stability. East Asians may be culturally less inclined to speak up and assert their opinions,” Professor Jackson Lu, Mitsui Career Development Professor at MIT Sloan, is quoted saying in the press release. “By contrast, South Asian cultures encourage debate and argumentation, as discussed in Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s book The Argumentative Indian.” Lu who is also the Assistant Professor of Work and Organization Studies, adds noting that the trait of assertive communications is one that mainstream American culture also encourages.

So even when East Asians are just as competent and interested in leadership opportunities as their South Asian and white counterparts, they may come across as less suited for leadership in the U.S., Lu concludes.

Professor Michael Morris of Columbia Business School. (Photo Columbia.edu)

“In the two months since our paper was written, South Asian CEOs have been announced at prominent American companies like Google’s parent company Alphabet, IBM, and WeWork. In contrast, there are few prominent East Asian CEOs, even though there are 1.6 times more East Asians than South Asians in the U.S.” says Michael Morris, the Chavkin-Chang Professor of Leadership at Columbia Business School. “This comparison of Asian subgroups is important because it helps us understand why the Bamboo Ceiling exists and how it can be remedied,” Morris said.

To understand why the Bamboo Ceiling exists for East Asians but not South Asians, the researchers conducted nine studies with a variety of research methods, including historical analyses of S&P CEOs over the last decade, surveys of senior managers in large U.S. organizations, and studies tracking the leadership attainment of entire MBA cohorts. The researchers explored three potential causes – prejudice, motivation, and assertiveness – while controlling for demographic factors, such as birth country, English fluency, education, and socioeconomic status. Across their studies, the researchers found that:

  • Prejudice: While prejudice affects all minority groups, it does not explain the leadership attainment gap between East Asians and South Asians. In fact, the studies consistently found that South Asians face more prejudice than East Asians in the U.S.  For example: in one of the studies, non-Asian Americans evaluating job candidates preferred to befriend East Asians (e.g. share an office; live nearby), but endorsed South Asians more for leadership positions.
  • Motivation: East and South Asians both scored high in motivation to work hard and motivation to attain leadership positions, indicating that insufficient motivation is not the main cause of the Bamboo Ceiling.
  • Assertiveness: Importantly, cultural differences in assertiveness consistently explained the leadership attainment gap between East and South Asians. Across different kinds of studies, East Asians scored lower in communication assertiveness (i.e., speaking up, constructively disagreeing, standing one’s ground in a conflict), and this difference statistically accounted for the leadership attainment gap.

According to Professor Morris, “The fundamental culprit here is that East Asians’ communication style is misaligned with American leadership expectations.”

“As American organizations become more diverse, they need to diversify the prototype of leadership and look beyond assertiveness for evidence of leadership aptitude,” Morris recommends.

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