Career Opportunities and Barriers: An Asian-American Perspective

By Keith Sun posted 01-08-2021 09:42

January 8, 2021

Keith W. Sun is the assistant director of  the Lindner Career Services Center at University of Cincinnati.  He is a member of NACE's Principles for Ethical Professional Practice Committee.

With the increased focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion in light of the recent protests and movements for racial justice, I find myself in an uneasy middle as an Asian-American professional. The current climate of social unease and unequal opportunities puts my cultural senses on high alert, demanding that I withdraw myself from the discussion and keep to my own business quietly. On top of all these rancorous voices both within and without, we’re all facing an uncertain job market. I’m left wondering as a career services professional, what is my perspective from an Asian-American point of view? How do the career opportunities and barriers of today show themselves through my oriental filters? 

Minority in the Middle  

As a second-generation Chinese-American professional, I’m forever caught between two worlds—one in which I am too assimilated from the view of the more traditionally Asian community and the other in which I am not assimilated enough to stand out in a traditionally White mainstream culture. I’m married to a woman who is White, and work on a team of mainly White colleagues. When I walk into a room, it doesn’t surprise me if I’m the only Asian-American representative in the crowd. There’s a lot I’ve experienced when it comes to ethnic differences, mostly positive, but some experiences better than others. How do I respond?  

First, I celebrate with my fellow minority groups, who are getting both greater recognition in the workplace and greater justice in a hopefully more equitable society. My black and brown brothers and sisters deserve our every support for the equal opportunity to achieve and fulfill their dreams in a 21st century world. Their underrepresentation in the higher echelons of both public and private sectors is plainly obvious. And to see more of them climb the ladder of success is welcome.  

Yet, a sense of separation lingers. Though I am a person of color by the classic definition of the term (i.e.anybody who’s non-white), mainstream society really only means blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans when minority rights and initiatives take center stage. Even though Asian-Americans make up about 4% to 5% of the American population, no one is itching to remember our minority status and deliver us similar programs. It seems we truly are the “model minority,” such a good model that we are overlooked as a minority.  

Second, I do delight in the relationships I have with my White colleagues and friends. It is clear they usually appreciate my hard work and recognize my nuanced brilliance at certain subjects. I have experienced very little overt ethnic hostility or aggressions because of my dark brown eyes, light yellow skin tone, and brownish-black hair. Given such a professionally cordial reception in most environments, I am thankful.  

However, I can still get misunderstood by the mainstream American ethos, prominently White in its cultural rules of engagement. When I am slow to speak, I get misinterpreted as shy or socially awkward instead of being commended for being quick to listen. The infamous bamboo ceiling reveals itself. I see few Asian-Americans in professional leadership roles despite our high representation in educational achievement.  

I’m tempted to feel resentful about the diverse and inclusive initiatives that prop up black, indigenous, people of color, but turn away the low-income and recently immigrated Asian person. I’m tempted to sell out and act more White in order to gain credibility in the professional workplace. Often, my Asian-American peers and I reflect that we’re too good of a minority to deserve any extra assistance/leadership development and we’re not good enough at being culturally White in order to warrant advancement, promotion, and publicity. 

Possibilities for Actionable Change  

Even still, I see opportunity for growth, for both myself and for my non-Asian counterparts. 

For my Asian-American peers, learn to anticipate the unspoken rules to “listen, but speak quickly” in organizational behavior and prepare your thoughts before any group meeting, so that you’re able to share at least one valuable statement or question each time. Don’t be afraid of letting the room feel the weight of your presence. You and I are saying, “I am here. I’m not afraid to speak up when needed.” Consider pursuing leadership roles and public speaking opportunities intentionally so that we can start changing the social perception of an Asian-American leader. It’s uncomfortable and stretches many of us, but let’s choose to advocate for ourselves so that more of us can rise to higher levels of leadership together. 

For my White colleagues and leaders, consider investing in the leadership development of your Asian-American peers. Don’t mistake their reluctance to speak as social shyness or not having anything valuable to share. They actually have a lot of useful insight to add and simply need the permission to do so in a less competitive manner. Praise their accomplishments and achievements in the public sphere wherever that may be. Intentionally encourage them to stand up and speak out. Empower them through promotion and advancement. Next time, you need someone to oversee a team or project, give them a chance to showcase their unique abilities to coordinate, manage, and lead. 

For career services members of NACE, think about the Asian-American students in front of you and recognize their unique talents. Be cautious in pushing an individualistic view of career choice and interests when many Asian-American students feel the need to recognize family interests as well. Talk to them and speak into their lives that they can be leaders and should be leaders. We often don’t get enough encouragement to be leaders from our teachers, supervisors, and co-workers. There’s certainly not any pressure towards leadership from our families and ethnic heritage. 

For university relations and recruiting members of NACE, are you encouraging your company’s stance on diversity, equity, and inclusion? Do you have affinity groups within your organization for Asian-American and Pacific Islanders? Consider adding more Asian-American representation on your company brochures and internship handouts. In your interview process, check for any implicit bias when you’re reviewing a candidate if his or her name is hard to pronounce. 

My perspective will not capture the entirety of the Asian-American experience when it comes to careers and professional growth, but it does contribute a voice to the opportunities and barriers we face. The work is not complete; there’s still a future ahead where Asian-Americans can flourish too in an increasingly heterogeneous workplace and America as a whole. 




01-26-2021 16:05

Dear Keith,

I definitely can relate personally with your post. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and perspective.  As a Latina, I also see this pattern  within my  community.  Thank you for  providing solutions to overcoming these barriers. I had never heard of the term "bamboo ceiling", I looked it up, and now I need to read the book by Jane Hyun, Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians.

A deeply appreciate your input. 



Esperanza A. Gonzalez 
Associate Director, Student Success
Vocatio Center for Life Calling and Career
Union University
Jackson, TN