As an undergraduate, I was once interviewed by a female (Caucasian) professor who exclaimed mid-interview that she’d never before “met such an aggressive Asian woman!” I was flabbergasted by her comment and was not sure how to interpret it.
Had I impressed or disappointed her with my goals and ambitions? Had I inspired or intimidated her when I described my leadership experiences and aspirations? Was her comment actually a compliment or a put-down?
I grew up in mostly white suburbia, with a few Asian-American female friends who, aside from their overachieving abilities in math and science, did not seem to be more or less aggressive than my non-Asian friends.
Only after I became fully immersed in science (aka grad school) did I start to understand the professor’s perspective. The technicians, grad students, and postdoctoral fellows around me included several Asian women, usually new immigrants, and I found many of them to be infuriatingly unobtrusive, possibly their natural disposition but probably more so because of language barriers and a cultural fear of “rocking the boat.”
I found myself trying to speak up even louder and with more frequency, hoping that I could battle the submissive, docile, obedient Asian woman stereotype that I found surrounding me in that environment. Somehow, I wanted to represent those Asian women who had no voice to be aggressive like me.
These memories surfaced when a colleague shared a recent article in Issues in Science and Technology, entitled, “Asian Women in STEM Careers: An Invisible Minority in a Double Bind” (http://www.issues.org/28.1/realnumbers.html).
The article noted that “The advancement of Asian female scientists … lags behind not only men but also white women and women of other underrepresented groups.”
I was troubled to read that the lag may be due 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.”
After reading this article, I started to wonder. Perhaps others perceived my demeanor as aggressive only because they expected me to fit nicely into the expectations they molded from observing other Asian women, who have clearly not advanced at the pace and to the professional career levels of their male and non-Asian peers. Will these perceptions create an even steeper uphill battle for me as I pursue a career in science?
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Government.
Wenny Lin, PhD, MPH, is a fellow in the Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program at the National Cancer Institute. Prior to joining the Nutritional Epidemiology Branch in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology & Genetics, Wenny earned her MPH from the Harvard School of Public Health in 2009 and her PhD in Cell & Molecular Biology from the University of Pennsylvania in 2008.