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A cultural clue to why East Asians are kept from US C-suites

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For decades now, Asians in the United States have been perceived as a “model minority” that has achieved a high level of success and is not subject to discrimination. Asians are assumed to be doing “just fine” because they have the highest educational achievements, highest median income, and one of the lowest crime rates, said an assistant professor of work and organization studies at MIT Sloan. 

“But Asians have their unique challenges and should not be treated as the ‘invisible minority,’” Lu said.

One of those challenges is in corporate leadership, where Lu’s research suggests that East Asians but not South Asians are underrepresented in leadership positions in America because of cultural differences in assertiveness. These patterns exist for both international Asians and Asian Americans, suggesting that the problem is not just driven by language barriers or immigration status. 

In “Why East Asians but not South Asians are underrepresented in leadership positions in the United States,” Lu and his co-researchers write that this inequality is “an issue of cultural fit — a mismatch between East Asian norms of communication and American norms of leadership.”

According to the paper, published last year, East Asian cultures emphasize humility and conformity over assertiveness. Whereas non-assertiveness can be seen as steadiness in East Asian cultures, that could be interpreted in American leadership culture as lacking confidence and motivation. In contrast, South Asian cultures often encourage assertiveness and debate in interpersonal communication.

“Whether in company meetings or in classrooms, it’s a common observation that East Asians are less likely to speak up and voice their opinions,” Lu said. “Importantly, assertive leaders are not necessarily the most effective ones. American organizations need to diversify the prototype of what a leader should look like.”

Lu’s work on inequality in leadership opportunities comes as Asians in America face an increase in racism and discrimination. Anti-Asian rhetoric from former President Donald Trump was linked to an increase in anti-Asian sentiments on Twitter, and in the past year anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 145% in 16 of America’s largest cities, according to the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. In March 2021, a 21-year-old white man killed eight people — six of them Asian women — in spas and massage parlors near Atlanta.

Examining prejudice, motivation, and assertiveness

To find out whether and why East Asians are underrepresented in leadership positions in the U.S., Lu conducted nine studies of the two largest Asian subgroups in America: East Asians (e.g., Chinese, Japanese, Korean) and South Asians (e.g., Bangladeshis, Indians, Pakistanis). His co-researchers on the studies were Richard Nisbett of the University of Michigan and Michael Morris of Columbia University.

The researchers collected data from Standard & Poor’s 500 companies between 2010 and 2017, and found that there was an average of 2.82 South Asian CEOs per million South Asians in the U.S. That’s compared to 1.92 CEOs per million white people in the U.S., and 0.59 CEOs per million East Asians in the U.S.

The researchers looked at prejudice, motivation, and assertiveness as three possible reasons why East Asians are underrepresented in leadership, while also controlling for demographics like birth country, English fluency, education, and socioeconomic status. They used a variety of data including archival analyses of chief executive officers, field surveys in large U.S. companies, student leader nominations and elections, and experiments.

The leadership success of South Asians in America is made more significant by the fact that since 9/11 some have experienced increased prejudice due to Islamophobia.

To determine whether South Asians experience more, less, or the same amount of prejudice as East Asians, the researchers surveyed a class of 470 MBA students, asking whether they were treated unfairly because of their ethnicity.

A complementary study was conducted asking 339 non-Asian, native English speakers born in the United States a series of questions like how comfortable they would be if a South Asian or East Asian became their neighbor, officemate, or someone dating their sibling.

“[The studies] found that non-Asian Americans exhibited greater prejudice toward South Asians than East Asians,” the researchers write. “These results suggest that prejudice is unlikely to be the main reason for the observed leadership attainment gap between East Asians and South Asians, as South Asians were better able to attain leadership despite facing more prejudice than East Asians.”

Lu noted, however, that this research was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic and before the upswing in anti-East Asian crime and rhetoric.

East Asians are equally motivated by leadership

To test whether motivation was a driver for why East Asians were underrepresented in leadership positions, the researchers looked at work motivation and leadership motivation.

The researchers surveyed more than 1,700 East Asians and South Asians working at S&P 500-level companies in the United States. Work motivation was measured with questions like “I try to work as hard as possible,” and “I intentionally expend extra effort in carrying out my job” (on a scale of “1 = strongly disagree” to “6 = strongly agree”). Their analysis showed that East Asians and South Asians had equally high work motivation.

In another survey, the researchers assessed MBA students’ career interests and found that East Asian, South Asian, and white students were equally motivated to attain leadership roles such as company CEOs, city mayors, union labor leaders, and government officials. These results suggest that motivation is not the main reason for East Asians’ underrepresentation in leadership.

Assertiveness is the main driver

Across the studies, the researchers found consistent evidence that East Asians scored lower than South Asians and white people on assertiveness. Assertiveness was measured with a similar scale with both self-ratings and other-ratings, like “I speak up and share my views when it is appropriate,” and “I am willing to engage in constructive interpersonal confrontations.”

The researchers’ mediation analyses suggest that low assertiveness is a key reason why East Asians are less likely to attain leadership or senior leadership positions in the U.S.

So what can U.S. organizations do to address East Asians’ underrepresentation in leadership roles? Lu and his co-researchers suggest not only improving diversity efforts — like understanding the cultural differences between East and South Asians — but also changing the leadership model in American organizations. And those efforts shouldn’t fall to East Asians themselves.

“American organizations should evolve their implicit prototype of leadership to fit a diversifying workforce and recognize that there can be more than one successful leadership style,” the researchers write.

 a professor of leadership at MIT Sloan and founder of the MIT Leadership Center, said Lu’s study can serve as evidence that current promotional practices might not be the best way to go about choosing leaders. Over-valuing assertiveness can not only cause bias toward certain cultures, but also higher levels of narcissism and toxic leadership.

Leaders need to be able to make sense of a changing environment, Ancona said. They need to be able to envision a future, coach and develop employees, build trust, and architect new organizational forms for a changing world.

“It would be better to think about the job that has to be done, the capabilities needed to be successful, and then hiring for those specific capabilities,” Ancona said. “While many organizations value assertiveness and self-confidence in their leaders, it is important to note that there are many different leadership capabilities that organizations also need to foster and reward.”

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