Asian Women in STEM Careers: An Invisible Minority in a Double Bind

By Wu, Lilian; Jing, Wei | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Asian Women in STEM Careers: An Invisible Minority in a Double Bind


Wu, Lilian, Jing, Wei, Issues in Science and Technology


In the effort to increase the participation of women and people of color in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers, a common assumption is that Asian men and women are doing fine, that they are well represented in STEM and have no difficulty excelling in STEM careers. This belief is supported by the easy visibility of Asian faces on campuses, in STEM workplaces, and in government laboratories. Indeed, Asians are generally considered to be overrepresented. Data from the 2009 Survey of Earned Doctorates from U.S. universities show that 22% of the 2009 doctoral recipients planning to work in the United States were individuals of Asian descent. With so many entering the workforce, it is easy to assume that Asians women are progressing nicely and that they can be found at the highest levels of STEM industry, academics, and government institutions. The data tell a different story.

The advancement of Asian female scientists and engineers in STEM careers lags behind not only men but also white women and women of other underrepresented groups. Very small numbers of Asian women scientists and engineers are advancing to become full professors or deans or university presidents in academia, to serve on corporate board of trustees or become managers in industry, or to reach managerial positions in government. Instead, in academia 80% of this population can be found in non-faculty positions, such as postdocs, researchers, and lab assistants, or non-tenured faculty positions, and 95% employed in industry and over 70% employed in government are in non-managerial positions. In earning power they lag behind their male counterparts as well as behind women of other races/ethnicities in STEM careers.

The challenges faced by women of color in STEM fields were clearly articulated 35 years ago when the term double bind was first used in reference to challenges unique to the intersection of gender and race/ethnicity that are faced by women of color in STEM fields. At the time these challenges were, and still are, commonly thought to apply less to Asian women than to black, Latina, and Native American women.

This data presented here point to the existence of a double bind for Asian women, facing both a bamboo ceiling because of Asian stereotyping and a glass ceiling because of implicit gender bias. The scarcity of Asian women in upper management and leadership positions merits greater attention, more targeted programmatic efforts, and inclusion in the national discussion of the STEM workforce.

Academic faculty

The percentage of Asian women employed by colleges and universities who are tenured or who are full professors is the smallest of any race/ethnicity and gender.

Percentage of doctoral scientists and engineers employed in
universities and 4-year colleges (S&E occupations) who are
tenured, by race/ethnicity and gender (2008)

              Percent

White women     40.2%

White men       58.2%

Asian women     20.6%

Asian men       42.3%

Black women     32.1%

Black men       48.7%

Hispanic women  30.0%

Hispanic men    50.0%

Source. National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources
Statistics, Survey of Doctorate Recipients: 2008. Table 9-26 "Employed
doctoral scientists and engineers in 4-year educational institutions,
by broad occupation, sex, race/ethnicity, and tenure status: 2008"
http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/pdf/tab9-26.pdfAccessed July 16,
2011

Note: Data of American Indian/Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian/Other
Pacific Islander is suppressed for data confidentiality reasons.

Note: Table made from bar graph.
Percentage of doctoral scientists and engineers employed in
universities and 4-year colleges (S&E occupations) who are full
professors, by race/ethnicity and sex (2008)

              Percent

White women     22.1%

White men       43.6%

Asian women      9.3%

Asian men       29.1%

Black women     14. … 

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