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Asians in Big Three Automakers See Glass Ceiling

April 27, 1995

DETROIT (AP) _ As the Big Three automakers regained their dominance of the U.S. car and truck industry in recent years, the workers who helped General Motors, Ford and Chrysler reassert themselves included hundreds of Asian-Americans.

Many of these employees work in technical fields, as designers, researchers or engineers. Some hope to advance in the corporate hierarchy.

But that dream is elusive for Asian-Americans, some of the employees say. They’ve found themselves hitting the glass ceiling, the invisible barrier to promotions that, many workers charge, exists in many U.S. companies.

``If an individual from an Asian country decides to do research, then that will fit him or her well,″ said David Chock, 50, a Chinese-American supervisor in Ford’s research division. ``If he or she wants to move into management, then he or she will run into a lot of frustration.″

More than a dozen Asian-American employees at the Big Three said in interviews they haven’t encountered overt discrimination at work. But some said stereotypes about Asian-Americans _ for example, that they excel in the sciences but not in verbal or interpersonal skills _ hinder their advancement.

In some cases, they said, the stereotypes were backed by reality: Many Asian-Americans indeed lack English skills. Some Asian-Americans speak English fluently while others do not.

Others, like Jamie Hsu, executive director at GM’s Manufacturing Technology Center, said Asian-Americans could easily learn enough English to be effective managers.

Hsu said that sometimes his cultural background makes him a better manager. It was easier for him to grasp the idea of lean production, a manufacturing method that minimizes waste, because he was brought up not to waste anything, he said.

But Francis King, a Hong Kong-born middle-level Chinese-American manager at Ford, said most Asian-Americans lack what it takes to be executives at U.S. companies.

``You have to be realistic. I’m not accustomed to the language. I’m not accustomed to reacting quickly, to think on your feet,″ King said. ``That’s partially culture, partially education. One of the key things to being in top management is to be able to communicate concisely and quickly.″

Shirley Young, GM’s vice president for consumer market development and the highest-ranking Asian-American at GM, said demoralization was obvious at a meeting of Chinese-American GM engineers last year.

``There was a kind of hopeless attitude about well, you know, we’ve hit top, once we got to mid-level,″ she said. ``For them to say I couldn’t get any further _ it didn’t give me a good feeling. That’s not the American way.″

But many Asian-Americans do not complain because most want to avoid confrontation, Young said.

A recent U.S. Labor Department study on the glass ceiling in business found the highest levels of business remain closed to minorities and women, although many corporations say they need to diversify.

The Big Three all espouse equal employment policies.

``GM has come to recognize that diversity in ideas, in contributions, in resources and in perspectives is becoming an increasingly important success factor for our business,″ said William C. Brooks, GM’s vice president for corporate relations.

Chrysler vice president of corporate personnel Kathleen M. Oswald said she was not aware of any complaints from Asian-Americans about career opportunities.

The programs at Chrysler to help employees move up treat them as individuals, rather than groups or stereotypes, Oswald said. Recent changes in structure and pay scales ensure that those who hold top technical jobs are rewarded on a par with top management, she said.

Romeo McNairy, the manger overseeing diversity at Ford, suggested that Asian-Americans bring up their complaints with supervisors, personnel offices or the company telephone number provided for that purpose.

``We see cultural differences as part of our strength and diversity,″ he said.

A University of California-Los Angeles study found evidence of a glass ceiling for Asian-Americans, although it was more prevalent among those who were not fluent in English.

The study, which used Department of Commerce data on 13,000 scientists and engineers nationwide, found non-Hispanic whites had about a 28 percent chance of becoming managers. Asian-Americans, who made up 10 percent of the sample, had about an 18 percent chance of becoming managers.

Paul Ong, a UCLA professor who oversaw the study, said a perception of Asian culture as favoring self-effacement rather than aggressiveness is a drawback in some bosses’ eyes. But he also questioned the notion of equating aggressiveness with good management.

``There is the problem in terms of giving Asian-Americans a real sense they do have an opportunity, so they will start seeking it. That’s a much more difficult problem to tackle,″ Ong said.

But David Chang, a manager at GM’s Midsize Car Division, believes Asian-Americans are in the technical field by choice.

``They’re not shooting for chief engineer or president of the company. They’re shooting for a respectable position where their knowledge and technical abilities are valued,″ he said.

``Because we’re brought up differently, we’re more conservative. We want to build a sound foundation for our careers. We’re less aggressive,″ Chang said.

But there are signs of change. John Siak, 52, a staff research scientist at General Motors, says the glass ceiling was part of a fading ``old boys network.″

``GM is becoming a more global company,″ Siak said, citing the automakers’ joint ventures and market-expansion efforts in Asia. ``They have to utilize whatever talent they have.″

Steve Won, 27, a Korean-American designer, said race has never held him back at Chrysler. In fact, he is confident he can help Chrysler sell cars in Asia.

``I believe the company hired me because of what I can do for the company, not because of race. On top of that, I do have something strong to offer the corporation, being Asian,″ Won said.

Nazario Mansilla saw things differently. The 48-year-old Filipino-American GM engineer has been waiting 10 years for a promotion he says he deserves.

``I always ask myself, What do I have to do in order to achieve what I want to achieve? And in my line of thinking, I think yeah, I’ve done it, but how come I’m not getting there?″ Mansilla asked.

``Being a white person helps. There’s no question about it.″

End adv for Sunday, April 30

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