EEOC Turns Attention to Asian American Workers

By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Concerned that federal agencies are not paying adequate attention to their Asian American employees, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has set up a working group to study how they are treated and promoted across the government.

The group will try to pull together a report by next year that examines allegations of discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who work in the federal government, how they are treated when it comes to promotions and whether they are reluctant to file discrimination complaints.

"Our work will begin with testing perceptions and gathering the realities Asian Pacific Americans face in the federal workplace," Naomi C. Earp, chairman of the EEOC, said.

Of the 2.6 million employees in the federal sector, 5.9 percent are Asian Americans, according to data collected by the EEOC. The Office of Personnel Management has described the overall representation of Asian Americans in the federal workplace as generally satisfactory when measured against the broader national workforce.

But relatively few Asian Americans make it into the highest ranks of the government -- 146 out of 6,349 career members of the Senior Executive Service, according to a congressional audit released in May.

That raises the question of whether Asian Americans face a " 'bamboo ceiling,' " said Gazal Modhera, who will head the working group.

Modhera met yesterday with federal executives to roll out a survey to collect information from agencies on how they staff, finance and organize programs for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, compared with other minority groups.

She said the working group will use the survey to help gauge anecdotal accounts from Asian Americans. Some say they are being denied time off to attend conferences or to take advantage of training opportunities, Modhera said. Others have noted that their agencies do not sponsor activities or programs for them to the extent that they do for other groups, such as African Americans, Hispanics and gays.

The EEOC's survey will ask agencies to provide information on who manages diversity programs, which committees oversee diversity initiatives, what activities are sponsored and whether they have identified issues and problems that lead to an under-representation of Asian Americans in the government.

In addition to looking at possible workplace barriers encountered by Asian Americans, the EEOC also is interested in why this group appears reticent to file discrimination complaints against their agencies.

A survey by the Gallup Organization in 2005 found that 31 percent of Asian Americans thought they had been discriminated against, but EEOC records show that only 2 percent of Asian Americans file discrimination complaints, regardless of whether they work in the federal or the private sector.

Most of the federal Asian American complaints cited race or national origin as the basis for harassment or for the denial of promotions, EEOC records show.

Members of the working group include Suzan Aramaki of the Commerce Department, Linda Bradford-Washington of the Housing and Urban Development Department, Sherrie Davis of the National Institutes of Health, Robert Jew of the National Archives and Records Administration, Farook Sait of the Agriculture Department, James Su of the Federal Asian Pacific American Council, and Sharon Wong of the Asian American Government Executives Network. All are leaders in civil rights, diversity management or equal employment opportunity at their agencies or groups.

"We want to break through and get to what are the issues," Modhera said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company