When you think of a leader, who do you see?
You might think of someone heroic or motivational, wealthy or in-your-face, but you probably wouldn’t think of an Asian American woman — at least according to human resource professional Ryan Namata.
“East Asian females tend to be more modest and quiet, which doesn’t fit many people’s description of a leader,” said Namata, president of the Washington D.C. chapter of the National Association of Asian American Professionals. “And that preconceived notion hurts Asian females.”
Despite this this perception, society tends to have a largely affluent and successful view of Asian-American women, according to Katie Apolinario, an Asian-American-identified leadership development analyst for the Virginia-based hospitality company Hilton.
According to a recent Pew Research Center study, Asian American women are the closest demographic to bridging the wage gap with white men.
The study found that Asian women make 87 percent as much as white men, compared to white women’s 82 percent. In average hourly earnings, that’s $18 to a white man’s $21 and a white woman’s $17. Asian women also out-make both black and Hispanic men and women.
But some experts say such financial triumph doesn’t come without strings — education levels and cultural differences cause a skew in these numbers.
According to the Institute of Education Science’s National Center for Education Statistics, 54 percent of Asian-American women have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 44 percent of white men. Fifty-seven percent have an associate’s degree, compared to 39 percent of white men.
Steven Gold, professor of sociology at Michigan State University, said many Chinese, Korean and some fractions of South Asian groups are highly educated, and high education ultimately leads to higher income.
“Generally speaking, education is viewed as a key to success in Asian families,” Apolinario said. “You hold a degree, than that is the ticket to do better than your parents did.”
Post-degree, Asian Americans were most likely to work in management and professional occupations — the highest paying occupational grouping — in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fifty-one percent of Asian Americans fell into this category, compared to 40 percent of white Americans.
Earnings for Asian-American women in management and professional occupations were higher than women of all other races and ethnicities, the bureau said.
While wages appear high for Asian-American women, Namata said the numbers would tell a different story if comparing only white men and women who have a college degree and a management or professional occupation.
“Another factor is that Asian-Americans are disproportionately located primarily on the west coast and some in Chicago, which are high-earning areas,” Gold said.
According to Pew Research Center, 47 percent of Asian Americans live on the west side of the U.S. The other half primarily live in the south and northeast.
Though Asian women largely work in management and professional occupations, they are the least likely group to negotiate salary or ask for a promotion, Namata said.
“Anecdotally in my career, I do notice that women tend to not negotiate their salary at all or as aggressively as men,” Namata said. “The Asian Pacific Islander woman, in my mind, is even less likely to negotiate salary.”
Namata said that extroverted or outgoing personalities tend to be rewarded in the workforce, but some Asian cultures are taught not to “rock the boat.”
Growing up in an Asian-American household, Apolinario said she recognized that Asians are also not often as forthcoming about what they would like to achieve.
“Between a white male and an Asian male, the white male is often viewed as the alpha or the one who is more bold or forthcoming. The Asian woman would be viewed as third in line,” she said. “Traditionally, women don’t speak up, we just follow.”
Though Asian-American women remain statistically ahead of white women, Namata argues that this cultural lack of assertiveness may be one of the key factors preventing the group from bridging the wage gap with white men. By not negotiating salary, Asian-American women enter the workforce at a disadvantage, and when they do not ask for a promotion or raise, fall even farther behind competitively.
Cases of discrimination are likely another cause for the gap, which are also skewed by cultural implications.
According to Namata, many employers wrongly believe that Asian-American women do not make good leaders, preventing them from being promoted and increasing the group’s economic disadvantage with men. Many cases of discrimination go unreported.
Because Asian-American women are less likely to file as many discrimination lawsuits, even if workplace discrimination is occurring, it creates what’s called a model minority myth — a perception that a group is doing better than the population average.
“As an American, your job is very much a part of your identity. In the Asian Pacific Islander community, there is probably less focus on things that happen at work than at home,” Namata said. “If someone makes a racist statement at work, it’s obviously disturbing. But many people are probably taught to roll with the punches.”