Breaking the Glass Ceiling
Asian-American Workplace Issues
By Rhea Borja
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, June 25, 2004;
When Sou Wong-Lee began her career in the defense industry 25 years ago, she was a quiet but personable woman who worked long hours, kept her nose to the grindstone and assumed that her hard work alone would get her promoted.
It worked for a while. Starting as a program control administrator for the California-based Hughes Aircraft Company, she moved up the corporate ladder to become a business manager 10 years later. Then Wong-Lee hit a roadblock.
She was promised a highly coveted assignment: Wong-Lee was confident her long hours and hard work had paid off. She would head a new $50 million project. Then came the bad news: She didn't get the promotion.
"That was a rude awakening," says Wong-Lee, 46, who now lives in Northern Virginia. "I thought, 'What did I do wrong?'"
Like most workers, Wong-Lee believed her industriousness and technical skills, her de-votion to the company, her good relationships with both her bosses and her underlings meant it would be smooth sailing into the executive ranks.
That's how some Asian Americans tend to think; and partly as a consequence, most still find it difficult to break corporate America's glass ceiling, says J.D. Hokoyama, the president for Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, Inc. (LEAP), a nonprofit professional development group based in Los Angeles.
Both national and regional statistics bear this out. According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, U.S.-born Asian American men, for example, are up to 11 percent less likely than white men to hold managerial jobs, even though they have the same education and experience. Statistics from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission show 18 percent of white Americans had managerial or executive-level positions in 2000, compared with only 8 percent of Asian Americans. The numbers for the metro Washington area are almost identical.
There are two factors that can work against Asian Americans, says Hokoyama. "People often don't see women and minorities as senior management material, that we don't have the qualifications. Secondly, we're often not even seen as being interested in moving into that area."
That's because in traditional group-oriented Asian cultures, employees defer to their superiors and don't point the spotlight on themselves, Hokoyama explains. It would be seen as arrogant, an unwelcome display of hubris.
Asian Americans must realize that success in the United States not only depends on hard work and finely honed technical skills, but also on leadership skills, assertive communication skills, networking within the company, seeking and attaining high-profile projects.
Hokoyama contends that Asian Americans need to be more proactive in their careers. They, like all employees, should seek out a mentor; speak up and contribute in meetings; let their bosses know that they want to work toward a higher-level position.
He advises taking small steps: Practice speaking in front of your local networking group or community organization, jot down the points you'd like to make in a meeting before going in; ask your mentor to coffee or lunch.
"Breaking the glass ceiling is a two-way process. In America, we value people who say, 'I'm going to go for it,'"Hokoyama observes. "In corporate America if you wait your turn, you're never going to get one."
Wong-Lee realized that when she was passed over for the plum assignment. Instead of stewing about it, she got busy.
She volunteered for key assignments, especially those that involved several departments so she could gain support and recognition throughout the company. She got more involved in community organizations to develop her leadership skills, sought out mentors and even started carpooling with some of her bosses. In the daily half-hour commutes, they got to know each other better and built solid professional relationships.
Wong-Lee says she had to push herself beyond her comfort zone. It worked. She's now the director of the Raytheon Learning Institute, an arm of the defense industry giant, Raytheon, Inc. She's also the vice-chair of the board of directors for Leadership Education for Asian Pacif-ics, Inc. (LEAP).
"I'm an introvert at heart, but I learned to be an extrovert," Wong-Lee shares. "It's im-portant to be visible. You need to share your ideas with your peers. Every individual has to be his own best marketer."
She also stresses the need to build and seek the support of colleagues. "Don't just look up, but look across and down."
Editor's note: This article by Lynn Rhea Borja, was acquired by washingtonpost.com on May 8, 2003.
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