America has a long history of racial discrimination, from being a country founded on the backs of slaves to one that still requires marches against Asian hate. Stereotypes are nothing new. However, just because stereotypes have been around for a while, doesn’t mean they have to be around forever.
The key to overcoming stereotypes, as one who might be affected by or a perpetuator of them, is to understand the harmful effects they can have on the individuals involved. At the end of the day, we are all human and race is just a social construct (but that’s a whole other conversation).
Asian women, in particular, face stereotypes that have been around for decades and are often in various forms of media. Because of these stereotypes, Asian women struggle to be successful in the workplace in the U.S.
You may be wondering, where did these stereotypes come from?
They weren’t just created out of thin air. Instead, writer Elyse Pham says in her article that they have been “continually established and re-established throughout the history of the United States” For example, The Page Act of 1875, banned the immigration of “Oriental” laborers that were brought against their will for “lewd and immoral purposes.” In other words, it banned all East Asian women from entering the country and labeled them as not only potential disease carriers but undeniable temptations for white men, simultaneously villainizing and erotizing them.
The United States’ military presence in Asia also contributed to these stereotypes. The high percentages of sex workers that stopped by the “camp towns” at the military bases gave the men a single idea of what Asian women were, and that idea is still prevalent today.
In short, stereotypes are a distasteful mix of years of racial profiling and just plain racism. Unfortunately, the media has done little to help.
Asian women in the media have a common set of characteristics that seem to align with the history of Asian women in America.
More often than not, as the APA Journal article spotlight notes, she is either “docile and subservient…, sensual or erotic,...manipulative and untrustworthy….or the hardworking, conscientious worker bee." Subsequently, women in the workplace tend to keep their heads down as people automatically view them as subordinates or secondary characters.
The stereotypes created from the history of Asian people in America have carried over into how Asian Americans are viewed today.
These traits are very common for Asian women in media, so common that terms, such as “Dragon Lady” and “Model Minority” have been made to represent them.
“Model Minority” is a stereotype placed on all Asian Americans that assumes that they are naturally smart in STEM related fields, wealthy, hardworking, and self-reliant. This stereotype can be difficult for many Asian Americans to overcome but Asian American women are especially impacted because they are already disadvantaged in the workplace on part of their gender.
Another common stereotype, for Asian women in particular, is the “Dragon Lady” character. This stereotype has been coined by tvtropes.org to describe an Asian woman in media who is “characterized by her overt sexual and physical aggression, untrustworthiness, and mysteriousness.”
These harmful tropes as well as many others are present in well known franchises and movies such as James Bond and Kill Bill.
Although some may think that a stereotyped character can be empowering, the Asian women are most often not given any personality beyond those traits. Not to mention, the traits they are given are hypersexualizing and violent. Subsequently, Asian women struggle to climb the corporate ladder that is America.
In fact, a study done in the Asian American Journal of Psychology, found that 14% of Asian women who experience discrimination said that others had viewed them as people who were incapable of being leaders, while another 34% said that others viewed them as “submissive” or “passive.”
This stereotype of Asian women being subservient is harmful, and makes being successful in the workplace nearly impossible.
The term “bamboo ceiling” is coined by writer Christine Ro, who describes in a BBC article the struggle of being a woman in the workplace: “In general, women are often called out for being ‘abrasive’ or ‘bossy’ when the same qualities would be praised as ‘assertive’ or ‘confident’ in men.”
A study found that, in Silicon Valley, one in five companies showed that Asian women were the most underrepresented and, therefore, the least likely to hold leadership positions. “The ‘Asian effect’ is 3.7X greater than the ‘gender effect’ as a glass ceiling factor,” the study notes.
In a study done on the stereotypes of Asian people in the workplace, it was found that East Asians in North America are more likely to be harassed when they violate the “prescriptive stereotype” that their white colleagues hold of them, who see behavior such as being assertive in the workplace as threatening.
A common response among Asian women in the workplace is to comply with the behavior expected of them in an effort to maintain professional relationships. It also puts pressure on women to try harder than their colleagues to succeed, a challenge that is only made harder by being Asian.
However, as Ro explains, there is still hope for keeping these stereotypes from becoming a “self fulfilling prophecy.”
The first step in overcoming these harmful stereotypes is to acknowledge their existence. Being aware that some people may have these preconceived notions is the first step in overcoming them.
Yet, as Ro states, there is “abundant research showing the importance of mentorship, networking, and social support for emerging Asian female leaders.” Which, in short, is The Women’s Network (TWN).
TWN is a national women’s organization that works to “redefine ambition.” In doing so, it brings together a diverse group of women that provide social support, mentorship, and networking opportunities, all of which Ro says are essential to overcoming the stereotypes Asian women face in the workforce.
Cover image courtesy of Today Illustration/Everett Collection.