Asian Americans are Racking up Successes — Except for Getting the Top Executive Jobs

Published on05 MAY 2022

Asian Americans are a tremendous contributor to the U.S. economy, with an outsized presence in everything from sophisticated patents to Nobel Prizes. But as the U.S. marks Asian Heritage Month, Goldman Sachs Research finds that this group still faces barriers in rising to the highest echelons of corporate America.

Asian Americans are the most highly educated group in the U.S. and have had marked success in terms of income and innovation: Despite only accounting for 6% of the population, Asian Americans represent 13% of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs and were behind 19% of high-impact patents, according to Goldman Sachs Research. Since 1980, they’ve won one-out-of-10 Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry. Asian Americans are over-represented in fast growing industries like information, corporate management and professional technical services.

But there are signs that what author Jane Hyun called the “bamboo ceiling” in 2005 is still there. While accounting for 13% of professional positions at large employers, Asian Americans hold just 6% of senior management positions. Across the country, there’s a persistent gap between Asian American representation in entry-level professional positions and more senior management roles.

Even when adjusted for age, U.S.-born Asian American men with graduate degrees are 15% less likely to be in executive positions than white men with the same education credentials, according to Goldman Sachs Research. Moreover, Asian Americans’ share of CEO positions in the S&P 500 Index of large U.S. companies has stalled at around 2% for the past decade.

Zeroing in on the 39 Asian Americans who have become CEOs at Fortune 500 companies, Goldman Sachs Research found that nearly all of them were born, raised or educated in the West. Of those 39 CEOs, 22 have a South Asian background. These Asian Americans execs are more likely to have graduate degrees and to lead younger firms than their white-CEO counterparts. More than 80% of the Asian Americans who got CEO appointments came after the company had had a financial stumble.

While Asian Americans have a long history in the U.S., their numbers were small until relatively recently. The Asian-American population has grown substantially since immigration restrictions were overhauled in 1965, rising from less than 1% in 1970 to more than 5%. The new immigration system was designed to attract highly skilled immigrants and to reunify families.

Goldman Sachs Research

Asianomics in America: Contributions and Challenges

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U.S. immigration policy with its preferences for highly skilled, highly educated people from Asia is part of the reason this group is so highly educated compared with other Americans, according to research by Jennifer Lee, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Irvine, and Min Zhou, a professor of sociology at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the University of California at Los Angeles.

But Asian Americans are obviously not a monolithic group, and much tends to depend on their pathway to immigration. Those who moved to the U.S. via high-skilled immigration programs (often from India and China) tend to have significantly higher incomes than those who arrived from Asia through other types of programs, and there is a wide gap in income inequality within the Asian-American population.

As the Asian American population grows, the group has had an outsized contribution to the U.S. economy, according to Goldman Sachs Research. Despite representing less than 10% of the population, Asian American made up nearly a quarter of U.S. employment growth from 2003 to 2019. This population also drove around 23% of private-sector output growth during that span, contributing $1.5 trillion in current dollar terms to the growth in gross domestic product.


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