Prescriptive Racial Stereotypes of Asian American Leaders

In an article entitled “Why So Few Asians are College President,” Dr. Santa J. Ono, President of the University of Cincinnati, indicates that he finds himself among a very small group of Asian American leaders in higher education: only 1.5 percent of college and university presidents are Asian American and 3.4 percent are administrators in higher education. By contrast, Hispanics comprise 3.8 percent of presidents and African Americans hold 5.9 percent of these roles. This pattern also holds true for the corporate sector, such as the low representation of Asian Americans as corporate officers and members of corporate boards.

Why are Asian Americans so underrepresented in leadership roles? Ono suggests two major factors at play: cultural differences deriving from home environments that value preferences for indirect communication, emotional restraint, and an egalitarian view of power as well as contradictory perceptions about Asian Americans such as being conspicuous but self-effacing, hyperambitious but timid. Frank Wu, Chancellor of the University of California Hastings College of the Law, similarly points out that the model minority myth transforms positive qualities into negative attributes: intelligence is seen as lack of personality, family-oriented as clannish, and hard-working as unfairly competitive.

Ono, however, points to significant new research by Jennifer Berdahl and Ji-A Min at the University of Toronto that sheds light on the particular barriers Asian Americans face in leadership roles. Berdahl and Min distinguish between descriptive stereotypes or generalized beliefs about what members of different racial groups are like and prescriptive stereotypes which, when violated, are likely to provoke social disapproval and backlash. Since East Asians in North America are often descriptively stereotyped as relatively competent, cold, and nondominant, Berdahl and Min identify “nondominant” as a prescriptive stereotype that, when violated, causes negative consequences in the workplace. As a result, when East Asians remain in subordinate, nonleadership roles, and do not try to assert their own viewpoints or ideas or take charge, the competitive threat to valued resources they pose is neutralized. Through a series of four studies, the research findings reveal that not only did East Asians report more racial harassment at work than other employees, but, more importantly, those individuals that violated racial stereotypes were more likely to be the targets of such harassment. Berdahl and Min report that the negative responses to dominant East Asians did not depend on gender and appeared to be unique to this racial minority group.

This promising line of research on prescriptive stereotypes helps explain the hurdles faced by Asian Americans in their efforts to attain leadership positions and how these stereotypes can influence their ability to break through the so-called “bamboo ceiling” or what Sylvia Ann Hewlett calls “the marzipan layer” just below the upper rungs of power.

The notion of prescriptive stereotypes can also apply to the challenges faced by other racial minorities and women when they violate expected stereotypical behaviors and experience backlash. As Santa Ono notes, unconscious bias may be more difficult to address in academe where intellectual fairness and rigor are already presumed to be present. In this regard, he aptly suggests that academe focus some of its energy, acuity, and empathy toward tearing down existing social and psychological barriers to success, “particularly those all the more imposing for being invisible.” Perhaps greater understanding of the influence of prescriptive stereotypes will provide the opportunity for reexamination of the impact of subtle, unconscious bias on organizational processes and allow us to develop truly inclusive definitions of leadership capabilities.

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