Are Asian-Americans Too Quiet to Lead U.S. Businesses?

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Um. Of course not. This would seem a strange question to, say, the 1.2 billion people in China whose economy enjoys more than 10% annual growth and a $250 billion trade surplus with the U.S., on the strength of home-grown leadership.

But in the U.S., there’s a terrible dearth of Asian-American leaders. Asian-Americans are a breathtakingly educated group, and account for 5 percent of the U.S. population, yet only .3 percent of corporate officers are Asian-American. The question is why.

One new study out of UC Riverside hazards an answer: bias against Asian-Americans’ leadership potential.

Researchers gave a group of businesspeople identical information about a fictional employee, and asked them to assess the person’s leadership ability. In some cases they were told that the employee was Asian-American and in other cases that he was Caucasian-American. The Caucasian-Americans were consistently ranked higher.

“In the Western world, the ideal leadership prototype is charismatic,” explained Thomas Sy, lead author of the study. Asians, in contrast, are believed to have traits such as “social introversion,” “verbal inhibition,” “a quiet demeanor,” and a “reserved manner.”

Of course, all of this can sound like a grand exercise in cultural stereotyping; it’s simply not true that all Asian-Americans are introverts or socially reserved. Also, levels of reserve tend to vary depending on country of origin and number of generations spent in the U.S. But even if all Asian-Americans were introverted, the idea that quiet people can’t make good leaders is sheer nonsense. Recent research documents the strengths that introverts bring to leadership — and the limits of charisma. (I’ll post more about this research in future.)

It also seems to ignore examples of effective Asian-American leaders: people like Andrea Jung, CEO of Avon (who, incidentally, described herself as “reserved” in a USA Today article called “Not all Successful CEOs are Extroverts“), pictured above. Outside the business world, there’s  David Ho, pioneering AIDS researcher; novelist Chang Rae-Lee; film director Ang Lee; fashion designer Vera Wang; New York Times literary critic Michiko Kakutani…the list goes on and on.

But facts are  nothing compared to perceptions.

How many capable people are held back unfairly as a result of this bias? “We’ve been taught that if you have greater education, skill and experience, you will succeed,” Thomas Sy said. “That falls apart when it comes to Asian-Americans.”

I also wonder whether we might eventually see a brain drain of talented Asian-American leaders. One well-heeled housewife I interviewed in Cupertino, California confided that many of the husbands in her Chinese-American social circle had recently accepted jobs in China. They were now “commuting” between Cupertino and Shanghai, partly because their quiet styles prevented them from advancing locally.

The American companies “think they can’t handle business,” she said, “because of presentation. In business, you have to put a lot of nonsense together and present it. My husband always just makes his point and that’s the end of it. When you look at big companies, almost none of the top executives are Asians. They hire someone who doesn’t know anything about the business, but maybe he can make a good presentation.”

What about you? Have you observed this bias in your workplace? Any ideas for how to correct it? If you’re Asian-American and have a quiet personality, are you interested in leadership, and does it seem attainable?


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15 Comments

  1. Luna on 21.02.2011 at 16:15 (Reply)

    Oh I love that comment “you have to put a lot of nonsense together and present it,” it is bang on with observations my husband has made and the comment about hiring someone who does not know a lot about business but can make good presentations again, absolutely true. Though I am not sure if the bias re: Asians runs true in Canada. I would be curious to find out.

  2. Susan on 21.02.2011 at 16:52 (Reply)

    That’s an interesting question re: Canada, Luna. I’ll let you know if I come across anything.

    Is your husband of Asian origin?

  3. Luna on 22.02.2011 at 13:38 (Reply)

    No but many of the key people in our business were. My thoughts were that the stereotype of Canadians is that we are quieter and less assertive than Americans (whether or not that is true I don’t know) so following that reasoning perhaps that would make Canadian businesses more comfortable with thus more accepting of the personality type described in your article.

  4. Anna on 22.02.2011 at 19:54 (Reply)

    True. So very true-at least in my case. There have been many times when I was the principle person for the project-a.k.a. the person who does most of the work-only to have a Caucasian colleague asked to present it, therefore, receiving all the recognition. My Asian-American colleagues and I are commanded for our hard work and quiet diligence, but when I look around my department, none of us is head of any unit.

  5. Susan on 22.02.2011 at 20:53 (Reply)

    @Anna, this is terrible. Any ideas of how to change it? Could you let them know how enthusiastic you are about the project and ask to be included in the presentation? And/or…ask boss for a meeting to discuss your performance and your goals for the year to come, and let them him or her know during that meeting that you are interested in leadership roles?

  6. Dave on 23.02.2011 at 11:55 (Reply)

    I recently found your blog and love it. The information you provide is fascinating. I’ll be following your postings with great eagerness. (By the way, your link to “Recent research documents the strengths that introverts bring to leadership” is not correct; it has an extra http:// in it.) Keep up the great work!

  7. Susan on 23.02.2011 at 13:08 (Reply)

    Thanks, Dave! Comments like yours mean a lot to me.

    1. marilyn r. donato on 17.03.2013 at 19:26 (Reply)

      I was born in the Philippines, came to America for my post graduate in nutrition and dietetics. I have become an American citizen and resided here for 48 years of my life. Even as a child, I have been outgoing , not scared to speak out, adventurous, tactful and diplomatic, sort of like a ‘tomboy’ in my youth, religious and the mother of 6 college educated professionals and grandmother to 9 grandchildren. I’m a member of 80-20 National Asian Americans PAC (80-20initiative.net)founded by S. B. Woo to improve Asian-Americans to be more assertive. Thank you Susan Cain for your article and book.

  8. Melissa on 15.08.2012 at 12:46 (Reply)

    As a Chinese-American, an introvert, and someone who used to be terribly shy (I’ve learned to be a skilled fake extrovert), I have no doubt leadership is something Asian-Americans are interested in…I just feel like many are choosing to make their mark in their own ways away from the big American companies.

    Sites like angryasianman.com attest to the intense desire Asian-Americans have to be respected and acknowledged for our diverse capabilities beyond the cultural stereotyping.

    While I’m not sure if there’s a way to correct the bias, I believe recognizing and appreciating our own worth is helpful in dealing with it.

    I’ve had my own share of fighting for respect in public school, college and work. It never sat well with me-people poking at my Asian heritage or my quiet demeanor.

    Fortunately, being raised in a family with a fighting entrepreneurial spirit rubbed off on me.

    I had trouble finding a place that I felt I could thrive so my sisters and I made the scary decision to create our own businesses instead. While it was tough, knowing what we were fighting for helped us through. We may be small business but we have our own voice and we’re not afraid to speak up.

    I never want anyone to define my worth for me. It would be disrespectful to myself, my ambitions, and all the struggle my family went through to give me a better life.

  9. The Quiet Minority? | fictions on 21.02.2013 at 17:18

    […] of perceiving all Asian Americans as quiet introverts, at least in the realm of business.  In an earlier blog post on her website, Cain cited a UC Riverside study in which a group of businesspeople, given identical […]

  10. Ang Lee: The Director, The Introvert | The Creative Mind on 26.02.2013 at 20:20

    […] From Are Asian-Americans Too Quiet to Lead U.S. Businesses? […]

  11. Director Ang Lee: The Artist, The Introvert on 26.02.2013 at 21:40

    […] From Are Asian-Americans Too Quiet to Lead U.S. Businesses? […]

  12. Rich Day on 12.03.2013 at 19:05 (Reply)

    I have to stop and think to realize my wife, Cindy, is in fact Asian American. She would not describe herself that way, nor do I see her that way every night when I get home. She simply became “Cindy” to me once I had spent some time with her. She isn’t in business, she’s a teacher. Is she quiet? Yes, except for those moments when she won’t stop talking! :-) We humans with all the limitations we deal with as we try and understand people so many times opt for a shortcut. We peg people. We peg them on a racial basis at times, we peg them by personality type, and there are so many times we peg them on a very limited basis of experience with them. We pay a huge price for this simplification, because in fact people are not simple, nor are they static. I share in this temptation to get a “read” on people, and I have to fight it, in favor of pursuing an ongoing “process of discovery”. Are Asian Americans capable of leading business successfully seems to me as ridiculous as asking myself am I capable of loving one. Please God, do not allow me to form any static opinions, because all the good stuff in people are only masked by this.

  13. Alexia on 13.03.2013 at 19:05 (Reply)

    I’m Asian-American. I’m the LOUDEST person at school, but really, I’m socially retarded. I have like three friends and everyone thinks I’m annoying. But I am a natural born leader and I’m the smartest one at my school. (no seriously I am. I’m in all of the academic stuff and my teachers have put me in all of the highest level classes) :)

  14. Wesa on 07.12.2013 at 22:56 (Reply)

    Thanks for your article and just got your book. Can’t wait to read it. I’m Asian-Australian, it is the same here and your book provided me a framework to base my work. Thank you very much! I am wondering if you might have research to show the percentage of introverted Asian-Americans as oppose to the wider American community, or places I can do more research in? Thanks once again!

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