Glass Ceiling remedies are well within reach, but the three main stakeholders — employees, employers and labor officials — have work to do

By Kurt Takamine, Ed.D., Chapman University

In a study conducted in 1992, two social scientists (Duleep & Sanders) made the following observation:

High educated men in all Asian groups earn less than comparable whites when occupation and industry are taken into account.  Conceivably, extensive formal schooling and particular fields of study enable American-born Asian men to enter high-paying occupations and industries, but within these occupations and industries, Asian men may be underrepresented in higher-paying positions because of discrimination. [Italics mine]

These scientists said, out loud, what other observers were only whispering at the time: that the glass ceiling was as real for Asian Pacific Americans (APAs) as it was for women, other minorities, and other disenfranchised groups.  But that was over ten years ago.  How does the APA scorecard look today?

Unfortunately, the current situation does not look much better. Dr. Clifford Cheng (1997) studied the Fortune 500, and found that only 0.3% of senior level executives were of APA descent.  This number is particularly disturbing when one considers that 8.9% of the scientific and engineering labor force was APA (Tang, 1997).  What accounts for the disparity between the APA labor statistics and the dearth of APA executive representation in corporate America?

In a more recent study, one researcher found that 87.1% of APAs personally witnessed the use of the “Old Boys’ Network” in their workplace (Takamine, 2000).   In that same study, 78.6% of APAs reported that they worked for companies with executive teams composed entirely of white males or a combination of white males and white females.  So, is the problem with discrimination, or is the problem with APAs not positioning themselves for career advancement opportunities?

The answer is probably “Yes” to both of those questions.  One action research study recently noted that three out of four APAs interviewed felt that their company did not actively promote and develop APAs as executives (Takamine, 2000).  What can be done to rectify this situation?

If this problem is to be properly addressed, all stakeholders have work to do.  There needs to be a three-pronged attack to alleviate this APA under-representation in the executive ranks.  The first prong is that Asian Pacific Americans (APAs) must first understand how to properly position themselves for executive advancement in their companies.  The second prong relates to alleviating misperceptions that European American executives hold regarding APAs in the workforce, including the elimination of any cultural barriers that preclude career advancement.  And the third prong raises the question as to the role of government [i.e., the Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)] in alleviating the disparity between APAs and executive positions.  Let’s examine each one of these concerns.


Prong Number One:  Position Ourselves for Career Advancement

APAs are often under the mistaken notion that hard work and technical excellence alone will get them noticed by upper management.  This is simply not true.  Technical competence is assumed at the middle management level. So the difference between those who are seen as strong executive candidates and those who are “not ready for prime time” can be related to what we can call “Emotional Intelligence”.

Emotional Intelligence (Cherniss & Goleman, 2001) looks at the interpersonal skills that are mandatory for executive performance (such as organizational awareness, development of colleagues, visionary leadership, and strong communication skills) and intrapersonal skills (for example, self-confidence, emotional self-control, adaptability, and risk-taking).  These are people skills that many APAs need to hone.

This is confirmed by the U.S. Department of Labor Glass Ceiling Commission (Wernick, 1994), which found that women and minorities (including APAs) must:

  • Learn to communicate in a compelling manner.  Communication, whether through verbal or written modes, is vital for a leader.  APAs need to find their voice in communicating their ideas, passions, and visions to others.
  • Understand the value of networking Networking, or Social Capital, is essential for climbing the corporate ladder.  One VP at Capital One described how poster boards are displayed in a meeting with executive candidates’ photos glued onto them. The CEO then will go to each display and ask, “How many of you know this candidate?”  If no one raises a hand, that candidate is summarily dismissed.  One question is, how many executives know you?  Another might be, how many company social events are you involved in?  Company parties are a great place to interface with otherwise inaccessible executives.
  • Seek out mentors and sponsors.  The Old Boys’ Network exists because young white males have traditionally understood that they need a champion to provide them with inside information and to act as an advocate for their career promotion.  APAs tend to feel that they don’t need anyone’s help, or can’t ask for it.  They couldn’t be more wrong.
  • Pursue broad and varied training. You’re highly accomplished in your engineering sector?  Great!  But you also need some experience in marketing, design, finance, perhaps even human resources.  If you can’t get transferred laterally, at least make connections with others in these key areas, and volunteer to work on multi-disciplinary teams.
  • Educate others about the culture.  White males might think that APAs don’t have the requisite leadership qualities because they don’t challenge their supervisors.  This reticence to challenge a supervisor might be a cultural value (called High Power Distance, as studied by Hofstede, 1991).  In some Asian circles, publicly challenging a superior is considered taboo.  The European American male needs to understand that there is value in exploring other leadership constructs.

Now that we have explored a few self-development tasks APAs must consider, let’s examine some areas where  the (usually) European American executive also has a little work to do.


 Prong Number Two:  Addressing the Misperceptions of European American Executives

In prong number one, we examined the problems from the APA vantage point.  In prong number two, the executive misperceptions need to be addressed.  For example:

  • Many European American executives believe that APAs are deficient in necessary communication skills.  There may be some truth to this.  Some recent immigrants or first generation employees, for example, may themselves feel that their vocabulary is not proficient enough for executive communication.  Two researchers (Blank & Slip, 1994) found that non-Asians would become impatient with some APAs in conversation and finish their sentences for them.  However, APAs are not a monolithic group.  You can’t compare a first-generation immigrant from Vietnam with a fifth-generation Chinese American who grew up solely in America.
  • Many European American executives assume that APA candidates are “in the pipeline,” so it’s only a matter of time before more APAs appear in executive ranks.  This is simply not the case.  Such a passive approach to executive development is little more than “wishful thinking”.  Mentors and sponsors must advocate for APA candidates, and mitigate the paucity of APA executives in the Fortune 1000.
  • APA managers are not aggressive enough and ignore the power “game.”  For some APAs, this is a truism.  There are others, however, who desire to learn about the power dynamics in their institution, but find that information is surreptitiously hidden from this ethnic group.  European American executives need to take the initiative in revealing the corporate protocol to the uninitiated.
  • APAs do not have adequate social networks, and are antisocial.  Are APAs antisocial, or do APAs socialize with the “wrong” crowds?  Ibarra (1995) found that minorities at first tended to aggregate with the dominant culture (usually European Americans).  In the second phase, minorities would exclude the European American workers, and attach themselves to their own (or similar) ethnic groups.  In the third and final phase, the minority employee would avail him- or herself of both the European American and minority groups, and find a balance with all groups.  So European Americans may feel that APAs are anti-social if they observe APAs during the second phase of social interactions. 

For an employer, as for the APA professional, education is in order.  Learning about Asian Pacific American cultures and values can be helpful in demolishing some stereotypes and positioning APAs for productive career advancement steps to the benefits of the employee and the organization.

From both perspectives, the last prong is perhaps the most controversial and least savory of the alternatives for rectifying this situation.  This is the government involvement or litigation prong.


Prong Number Three:  The Role of Government in APA Career Advancement

Is governmental pressure needed to force your company to promote APA middle managers into executive positions?  This question was asked of middle managers in a recent study, and the results were evenly split (Takamine, 2000).  One third of the respondents answered in the affirmative, 29% opposed any government involvement, and 38% were uncertain.  As any Human Resources Director will tell you, however, governmental pressure as related to federal contracts is highly effective.  When the government tells a company it must abide by federal regulations, that company will comply.  If the government restricted its business dealings with those companies that demonstrate an equitable distribution of APA executives in its ranks, the effect would be enormous.

What about litigation?  More APAs are beginning to bring their cases to the EEOC and to labor law attorneys.  As legal pressure begins to mount, more corporations will begin to examine their policies and procedures as they relate to the Asian Pacific American plight.



This three-pronged attack must be conducted simultaneously to experience its full synergistic effect.  APAs must take responsibility for their situation, and utilize resources at their disposal (legal, educational, social) to influence the power brokers.  European American executives need to avail themselves of expert studies and education resources to reshape and expand their thinking and alter misperceptions. And the courts and commissions relating to labor issues must intervene to eliminate this clear disparity with APAs and executive advancement.  In this way, corporations will “do the right thing” as they productively invest in their key resource:  their people.




Dr. Kurt Takamine is Assistant Professor at Chapman University’s Graduate Program in Organizational Leadership.  Some of his areas of interest are Emotional Intelligence, Multicultural Issues, Servant-Leadership, Organizational Change and Dynamics, and Spirituality in the Workplace.  His current book is Servant-Leadership in the Real World:  Re-capturing our Humanity in the Workplace (Publish America).  Dr. Takamine was previously a corporate trainer and senior research fellow with Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, a training company which catered to Fortune 500 companies on the West and East coasts. Kurt lives with his wife Paula and teenage sons Calvin and Davis in Southern California.  You may contact Dr. Takamine at or 310-727-3010. is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.