Commentary on Margaret Chin’s “The Hidden Rules of Work for Second Generation Asian Americans” by ARC Student Fellow Sarah Molinari

Margaret Chin is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY and a Faculty Associate at Hunter College’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute. Her research broadly focuses on immigration policy, race, families, work, and Asian Americans. Dr. Chin is the author of Sewing Women: Immigrants and the New York City Garment Industry (Columbia University Press, 2005). On March 23, ARC welcomed Dr. Chin to discuss her new book project on second-generation Asian American professionals and corporate culture.

Dr. Chin’s research focuses on why Asian Americans do comprise a larger portion of employees or executive roles in big companies in the U.S. Despite stereotypes of being the “successful immigrant group,” she argues that Asian Americans indeed encounter a “glass ceiling” and are underrepresented in professional industries. Dr. Chin’s work promises to make a number of scholarly contributions. There is a lack of research specifically on Asian Americans within the literature on second-generation immigrants and work, and one major explanation for the “glass ceiling” is that “it’s only a matter of time” before Asian Americans attain more executive roles. Dr. Chin, however, argues that this explanation is too reductive and instead demonstrates the complex factors intervening in professional attainment processes and the uneven rewards employees receive for certain “cultural strategies.”

Dr. Chin employed ethnographic methods for her research, which included interviewing 103 second-generation Asian Americans between 28 and 57-years-old and observing corporate panels and professional events. Her interviewee sample is elite, but with a paradox: all make over $90,000 per year and 46% attended ivy league colleges and graduated between the 1980s and 2000s, but very few had achieved positions high up on the “corporate ladder.”

Informants obtained professional jobs directly through college recruitment at elite universities, or through college fairs and foundations’ affirmative action-like programs. Dr. Chin argues that during recruitment, companies seek a certain “cultural fit” to reproduce a corporate elite among a small group of people. Dr. Chin’s informants often spoke about “success” in terms of what their parents wanted and could easily explain their school successes, but had difficulty explaining work successes or seeing structural explanations like discrimination as a cause for not attaining executive roles. While “soft skills” are important to both school and professional success, Dr. Chin demonstrates that factors such as “polish and trust”—getting to know and being trusted by others in the company—are even more necessary to achieving executive roles.

Despite the diverse skill sets that second-generation Asian Americans bring to the corporate workplace, Dr. Chin’s research shows that Asian American employees are often pigeonholed into more “quantitative-type” jobs in line with stereotypes that circulate in the workplace. Micro-aggressions in the workplace also impact whether or not they get promoted. For example, Dr. Chin’s informants were often asked, “where are you from?” or told, “your English is very good.”

Dr. Chin explains that two factors made a difference for the few informants who attained executive roles: the employee learning and reproducing the company’s “cultural knowledge” and practices, as well as the particular company’s investment in minority groups. It would be interesting to compare Dr. Chin’s research findings with other second-generation immigrant groups or underrepresented populations to determine how the particular Asian-American experience might reflect broader trends in corporate culture.

~ Sarah Molinari