Hardworking, geeky, adept at math — these are some of the stereotypes that American culture attaches to East Asians, such as ethnic Chinese, Japanese, Koreans. But East Asians aren’t often portrayed as wells of creativity, a trait highly valued in U.S. culture. The opposite is more often true, with adjectives like “robotic” applied to East Asians’ achievements: When Chinese American figure skater Nathan Chen won a gold medal at the 2022 Winter Olympics, for instance, a Washington Post article credited his win to an “almost robotic zeal” rather than any creative flair.
New research by MIT Sloan associate professor reveals how this creativity stereotype contributes to a phenomenon known as the “bamboo ceiling”: Despite the educational and economic success of East Asians in the United States, they remain underrepresented in leadership roles.
“If East Asians are perceived as less creative than other ethnic groups, and if perceived creativity is tied to leadership emergence in the U.S., then East Asians may face challenges rising to leadership positions,” Lu said. “This is problematic for organizations interested in leveraging diverse talent.”
Previous research from Lu has examined a lack of assertiveness among East Asians, along with a tendency for East Asians to prioritize interactions with their ethnic in-group members, as explanations for their disproportionately low leadership attainment. But, as Lu notes, these studies only partially explain the phenomenon.
In the new research, Lu used mixed methods to examine the link between perceived creativity and leadership attainment. He first ran two field studies in which he surveyed MBA students who were just beginning their program and had been assigned to class sections that they would remain with throughout the year. The survey asked about the relative creativity of classmates as well as who might be an effective leader. Because this was the beginning of the MBA program, students had had limited interactions and were likely influenced by creativity stereotypes.
East Asians were rated as less creative than other ethnicities and were less likely to be either nominated or elected as leaders. These findings were consistent even after statistically accounting for factors like assertiveness, leadership motivation, and English proficiency.
To strengthen causal inference, Lu’s second set of studies used vignette experiments. Participants read several profiles of candidates for a senior leadership position in either a consulting firm or marketing agency. The applicants were identical except for indicated ethnicity, which was implicitly signaled through names — “A. Kim” for East Asian, “A. Patel” for South Asian, “A. Becker” for white, and so on. In these scenarios, East Asian candidates were perceived as less suitable for leadership roles due to perceptions of lower creativity by participants.
For Lu, three implications flow from these results. First, it is important for organizations to recognize that East Asians face stereotypes and related challenges that are, in some cases, distinct from those faced by South Asians — perceptions around creativity, in this case. In other words, the label “Asian” should not be read as monolithic.
Second, “individuals and organizations should be mindful of notions that could exacerbate this creativity stereotype,” Lu said. “For example, the stereotype that East Asians are good at math may imply that they are uncreative ‘quant nerds.’” Lu pointed out that former U.S. presidential candidate Andrew Yang, whose parents emigrated from Taiwan, used the acronym MATH (Make America Think Harder) as a campaign slogan and was criticized for potentially exacerbating stereotypes about East Asians.
Finally, organizations can take two steps to address the negative effects of this stereotype. First, they can develop platforms that encourage East Asians to showcase their creative ideas; such focused outreach could be particularly valuable given cultural norms of humility among East Asians, which might lead them to eschew the spotlight. Second, organizations could de-emphasize the importance of leaders’ creativity. “Instead of focusing too much on leaders’ own creativity, organizations should encourage leaders to nurture creativity in others,” Lu said. “A leader doesn’t need to be the primary source of creative ideas but should excel at eliciting creativity from others.”