Asian Americans Finding Cracks in the Glass Ceiling


Robert Nakasone grew up as one of a handful of Asian Americans in the San Fernando Valley community of of Tujunga. That, he says, forced him to assimilate early and prepared him for the corporate world.

But as he moved up the ladder at Toys R Us, the third-generation Japanese American also kept a reminder of his family’s history--a brown government blanket issued to his mother at an Idaho internment camp during World War II.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Jul. 17, 1998 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 17, 1998 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Asian Americans--A story in Wednesday’s Times about Asian Americans in business incorrectly stated that Robert Nakasone, chief executive officer of Toys R Us, is the sole Asian American chief executive officer of a Fortune 500 company that he or she did not found. In fact, Koichi Nishimura is CEO of Solectron Corp., a Milpitas-based electronics company that was founded by Roy Kusumoto.

Today, the blanket is a symbol of the strides that the 50-year-old executive has made. This year, he was appointed chief executive officer at the $11-billion toy company based in New Jersey, becoming the sole Asian American CEO of a Fortune 500 company that he or she did not found.

“I just didn’t feel myself as being a minority,” said Nakasone, a graduate of Claremont Men’s College and the University of Chicago business school. “I felt as good as anybody else and that I could go out and compete.”


Nakasone’s ascension and those of some others in recent months--including 39-year-old Andrea Jung’s promotion to president of Avon Products--are being taken as significant advances for Asian Americans, whose careers often stall at middle management despite their success at universities.

“We’re making some breakthroughs,” said William H. Marumoto, who as managing director of Boyden Global Executive Search in Washington has tracked Asian American managers in corporations. Marumoto, 63, knows what it means to break through. A native of Orange County, he was the first Asian American executive in the White House, serving as a recruiter for President Nixon’s Cabinet staff from 1970 to 1973.

By Marumoto’s count, 65 board seats in major public companies are held by Asian Americans, compared with fewer than a dozen 15 years ago. More Asian Americans are forgoing careers in technical work and entering sales and marketing fields--more traditional paths to corporate suites. And in growing numbers, they are working their way up as professionals in entertainment, legal and other industries where Americans of Asian descent have been underrepresented.

“I do see young up-and-comers rising within corporate America that create promise for the future,” said Bob Lee, who was president of Pacific Bell’s business communication services before resigning upon the company’s merger with SBC Communications.


Optimism Tempered by Modest Gains

But as Asian Americans head into the workplace of the 21st century--with ever-increasing numbers holding degrees from the best universities--their optimism is tempered by modest gains.

Some Asian Americans believe they are unfairly perceived as lacking the desire and skills for top jobs. But they also think Asian Americans tend to exhibit certain Eastern values and styles, such as showing deference to superiors, that may impede their progress.

The 65 Asian American board members account for less than 1% of the directorships at the 1,000 biggest public companies. Other studies indicate their share of senior management positions is even smaller.


In corporate California they have done better. A Times analysis of census data for 1993-97 found that Asian Americans, who make up 10% of the state’s work force, hold about that share of administrative and managerial jobs, but remain underrepresented in top jobs.

At San Francisco-based BankAmerica Corp., Asian Americans make up 17% of the employees, but just 5% of the senior vice presidents and none of the board members. At semiconductor giant Intel Corp., they account for almost one of every five professionals, yet occupy two of 26 offices of vice president and higher. At Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, one of the state’s biggest law firms, 45 of the 263 associates are Asian Americans. The number of Asians among the firm’s 162 partners: two.

“Asian Americans have been successful, but are running into barriers as they approach or reach middle management,” said Richard Zweigenhaft, a professor at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C. In their new book, “Diversity in the Power Elite,” Zweigenhaft and G. William Domhoff write that Asian Americans are often stereotyped as lacking in “interpersonal” and “leadership” skills and in their written or spoken English.

Other scholars think Asian Americans brought up in Confucian traditions tend to be more passive and express themselves in ways that often do not impress senior managers, who are overwhelmingly older white men. And history plays a role; most Asian Americans are immigrants, and many are relatively early in their careers.


Zweigenhaft and Domhoff nonetheless concluded that Asian Americans are poised to follow Jews in attaining significant numbers of important positions in large corporations.

The reasons, he and others said, are the growing numbers of Asian American workers and consumers, their high level of education and wealth, the increasingly global business environment and the emergence of role models such as Nakasone and Jung.

The last factor can’t be underestimated.

Lee, who built his career over 25 years at Pacific Bell, remembers when he spoke to Asian American students at Stanford University not long ago. When asked what they wanted to do, most mentioned careers in pharmacy, dentistry and medicine. When Lee pressed further, they told him:


“We don’t see many people who look like us in the corporate world. We want to pick the route where we have the most control in terms of success.”

Prowess as Entrepreneurs

Certainly Asian Americans have come to be known for their entrepreneurial prowess. Asians are credited with having founded a quarter of the companies in Silicon Valley, and they operate countless businesses in trade, toys, garment and other industries.

More than 11% of all Asian American workers in California are self-employed, the Times analysis shows. That’s double the rate of other minorities, although lower than the self-employment rate of 17% for whites.


While many Asian Americans run mom-and-pop retail shops, some have formed premier companies. Computer Associates International, a New York firm founded by Shanghai-born Charles Wang, ranks among the top 400 public companies in the nation. Its annual software sales of $4.5 billion are second only to Microsoft Corp.

“Clearly, Asians are extremely powerful in the economic life of America,” said Jon Goodman, executive director at EC2, a business incubator project at USC. “At venture capital-backed companies,” she added, “there’s absolutely no exclusion [of Asian Americans]. In fact, it’s perhaps the opposite.”

Steve Kim is founder and chairman of Xylan Corp. of Calabasas, which two years ago raised $280 million, one of the most successful initial public offerings that year. Kim, 48, was born in Seoul and moved to Los Angeles when he was 26. While working for Burroughs Corp. and Litton Industries, he earned a master’s degree in engineering at night from Cal State L.A.

Seeking more opportunities, he moved to a small manufacturer of modems, then started his own computer networking company, called Fibermux, in his garage in 1984. He later sold the business for $54 million, then formed Xylan in 1993. The company’s sales this year are expected to exceed $300 million.


Such stories point to the enormous wealth that Asian American entrepreneurs have created. “They will be corporate America,” said Los Angeles economist and author Joel Kotkin. “They’re going to be running a lot of the companies, founding a lot of the companies and, because of their access to capital, they will be taking over a lot of the companies.”

But for all their achievements in the educational and entrepreneurial settings, Asian Americans have been slow to advance in mainstream business. For now, they are more apt to be “middlemen” selling corporate products to low-income areas, or as one writer put it, stuck in “technical ghettos” at companies.

“When I go to a benefit dinner among all the upper management in the apparel business, I’m the only Asian,” said William Mow, 62, founder and chairman of Bugle Boy Industries, a Simi Valley firm that is one of the nation’s leading private companies, with sales of $550 million. There are thousands of Asian American entrepreneurs in the garment industry as contractors and wholesalers, said Mow, but few can sit face to face with executives of major apparel companies. “So how far have we progressed?” he asked.

Mow himself turned away from the corporate route after two years as a program manager at Litton Industries. Mow said he did not directly run up against barriers to advancement, but he perceived constraints in a highly political corporate environment.


“One does not have to experience it to understand it,” said Mow, who came to the United States from China at 13 and has a doctorate in electrical engineering. “I’ll be damned if I can be president of Federated,” he said, referring to the department store chain. “It’s never going to happen. . . . I’m going to make more money than the chairman of Federated. I created this [Bugle Boy]. For me, that has more joy and challenges.”

J.D. Hokoyama, president of the nonprofit Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics in Los Angeles, said: “We have plenty of entrepreneurs, but that’s not where it’s at. It’s the corporate business community that sets the agenda, and Asian Americans are simply not there at the table where the decisions are made.”

‘Model Minority’ Image May Not Apply

There is widespread perception that Asian Americans are not affected by an artificial barrier to senior management known as the glass ceiling. They are viewed as the “model minority,” and their struggles in the workplace often have been dismissed by policymakers and passed over by social scientists who see no problem to analyze.


But as more Asian American professors have joined universities, a body of research is emerging.

Joyce Tang, an assistant sociology professor at Queens College in New York, used the National Science Foundation’s database of 38,000 U.S. engineers and scientists to determine whether Asian Americans are doing as well as their peers. Tang focused on education, work experience, marital status, family responsibilities and country of birth.

Her conclusions: Asian American men do better than African Americans and as well as white men in getting entry jobs. But they significantly trail whites and blacks in reaching management positions.

In the private sector, she figures, the odds of Asian American engineers and scientists moving into management are 20% less than for comparable white men. “It’s premature to argue that Asian Americans are the model minority,” Tang said in an interview.


A Times analysis of earnings data for California workers suggests as much. Asian American college graduates employed in management jobs earned $46,706 on average. That was 38% less than white college graduates in such occupations, an analysis of 1993-97 census data found. That comparison did not take into account English ability, which can affect an employee’s success.

But separate reviews of 1994-97 and 1990 census data show a similar pay differential for male Asian American managers who were born in the United States and presumably speak English fluently.

A Different Way of Doing Jobs

Frustration has caused some Asian Americans to quit corporate jobs. Earlier this decade, William Ouchi, the UCLA business scholar and former chief of staff to Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, was retained as a consultant after three major aerospace firms found that Asian American managers had the highest rate of voluntary departures.


In analyzing the situation, Ouchi learned that Asian Americans stalled once they reached assistant general manager--where the responsibility is no longer technical, but more strategic, organizational and people-oriented.

Ouchi says it was not so much that Asians didn’t have those skills, but that they did those jobs differently. Asian managers often could not read signals by superiors, such as invitations to social events that could enhance their careers.

“You have to ask yourself: ‘Does an Asian American man or an African American woman express themselves in the same way as an Irish male?’ Almost surely not.”

Henry Tang, a New York investment banker who served as the only Asian American on the 21-member Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, says it is simply not enough for Asian Americans to focus on education and hard work--two core values of Asian culture.


“As Americans of Asian heritage, we must consider the variables that are necessary here,” he said. Asian Americans have to win the “comfort and trust” of senior managers, he said.

That implies assimilation and playing by Western rules, knowing how to speak up, when to question superiors, working under pressure with the glare of the press and tooting one’s own horn--things many traditional Asians find uncomfortable.

Although the majority of the nation’s 10 million Asian Americans today are immigrants, those who have reached the top levels of major corporations tend to be native-born. Glenn Osaka, 43, vice president and head of Hewlett-Packard Co.'s extended enterprise business unit, was born and raised in Gardena and attended Gardena High School, where a third of the students were of Japanese heritage. His interest in flying and the military pushed him to join the Civil Air Patrol, where he was exposed to a very different culture.

“I think that helped quite a bit,” said Osaka. “As a military-style organization, it focused my attention on the demands of structured organizations. . . . Style, leadership, communication--those are the things I learned there.”


But there is also strong anecdotal evidence that even time may not naturally bridge the cultural divide.

Mitzi Murakami, a third-generation Chinese American who manages minority vendor development at Macy’s West in San Francisco, says her cultural upbringing affected her participation at the company. She rarely spoke up at board meetings; she was always the last to raise her hand, even when she had something to say. She was not used to questioning authority and surely, she thought, it was impolite to interrupt a superior.

At the family dinner table in San Francisco, where Murakami grew up, she remembers what happened when she interrupted her father: “I got a whack over the hand with the chopstick.”

This spring, Murakami signed up for an intensive weeklong program at the Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, an organization that for 15 years has helped workers understand their Asian values and develop management skills.


“I’m still not the first one to raise my hand,” said Murakami, 37. “But I won’t be the last one, either.”

The complete series will be available on The Times’ Web site beginning today. Go to:


About This Series


As California’s fastest-growing ethnic group, Asian Americans find greater numbers bring greater successes and greater problems.

Sunday: They are influencing everything from cuisine to commerce, while struggling to become fully vested in American life.

Monday: Teens face a double identity crisis--battling the usual conflicts of adolescence while defining themselves in two cultures.

Tuesday: An Asian American enrollment boom is transforming the nation’s top universities.


Today: In the corporate world, Asian Americans often stall in the middle ranks, but there are cracks in the glass ceiling.

Pay Gap

Like other minorities who land management jobs in the private sector, college-educated and U.S.-born Asian Americans get lower pay on average than similarly qualified whites. Census data also suggest one reason is that minorities are more likely to be relegated to middle management rather than top management posts.

Racial/ethnic group: Average pay


Asian American: $50,510

African American: $42,982

Latino: $50,064

White: $65,234


Source: Census Current Population Surveys, 1993-97

Asian Americans in the Workplace

Occupations and Industries: Compared with other workers in California, Asian Americans are more concentrated in manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade, and the health care industry. They are less likely to work in construction and government. More Asian Americans are moving into administrative, professional and sales occupations.

Major Industries (1994-97)


Agriculture: 1%

Construction: 2%

Manufacturing: 21%

Transportation/communications: 7%


Wholesale, retail trade: 21%

Finance, real estate: 8%

Business and repair services: 6%

Entertainment: 2%


Hospital/medical: 11%

Education: 5%

Government: 4%

Others: 12%


Source: Census Current Population Survey, 1994-97


Shifting Job Categories, 1980-97



Percentage Percentage of Asian of Asian workers workers 1980 1997 Administrative 10% 15% Professional 15% 18% Technical 6% 4% Sales 9% 13% Clerical 19% 18% Service 15% 11% Skilled crafts 9% 8% Semi-skilled 9% 8% operators, laborers Farming, fishing 5% 1% Other 3% 5%


Sources: 1980 census, Census Current Population Survey, 1997



Entrepreneurism: Asian Americans are far more likely than other minorities to run their own businesses. This is particularly true for Asian Americans who are foreign-born.

Self-Employment, 1993-97

Racial/ethnic group: Percentage who are self-employed

Asian American: 11%


African American: 7%

Latino: 6%

White: 17%

Sources: Census Current Population Survey, 1993-97


Compiled by Times director of computer analysis Richard O’Reilly and analyst Sandra Poindexter.