Shattering the Glass Ceiling: an Interview with Journalist Peter Hong

By Gilbert Gimm


Peter Hong is a Washington correspondent covering environmental and energy policy issues for Businessweek magazine. Before joining Businessweek in 1989, he worked in the Washington Bureau of ABC News. Born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, Hong graduated from Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he received a poetry scholarship and was active in student politics. Following graduation from college in 1987, he lived for a year in Korea and Poland as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow, studying student activism in both countries. He is on the National Board of Directors for the Asian American Journalists’ Association, and commits much of his spare time to Asian American issues. This interview was conducted over the phone in March of 1992.


YISEI: One focus of Asian American issues is the term "glass ceiling." Often used in studies of wage gaps between males and females, it describes situations, particularly in management and professional occupations, where women are limited in what jobs they are able to take. They may be hired by one firm but within that firm, they’re kept on the lowest rungs of the firm’s promotion track. In the context of Koreans specifically and Asian Americans more broadly, how do you define the term "glass ceiling"? Does it really exist, and if so, can you provide an example from your own experience?


PH: I think the real problem is that no one has made a very serious effort yet to determine if it does exist. There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence; we hear a lot of things from different people—we hear a lot of stories about people’s personal experiences. For instance, I have seen some data which show that overall, Asian American men receive less pay for doing more work, although in the figures I’ve seen, the gap wasn’t very large (about $1000 over a year).

The problem is that the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not have a good set of data on Asian Americans. The glass ceiling issue is an important one for minorities, but in order to keep the issue alive the Labor Department has emphasized it as a women’s issue because it has become very difficult to deal with racial issues-there's a great resistance among people in the government to confront racial issues in the same way that they did in the past. Now when racial issues are confronted, they're usually looked at in the context of how we can undo certain things that were done in the past—the attempt by some in the federal government to eliminate race-based scholarships is one example.

So, in order to bring an equality issue like the glass ceiling to the fore, it has to be a women’s issue—one that crosses racial lines. The unfortunate result is that there isn’t a serious effort being made to quantify the anecdotal evidence which suggests that minorities, not just Asian Americans, are victimized by something called the glass ceiling. Many believe that Asian Americans simply need to be patient. In a few years, they will rise to the top of their respective professions and fields. But the same idea was suggested to African Americans twenty years ago when the most visible part of the civil rights struggle ended. Has patience worked in this case? We do something at Businessweek called the "Businessweek 1000" that lists the one-thousand largest corporations in America. One doesn’t need extensive studies done by any group to see that there are no blacks among the chief executive officers of those thousand corporations.


YISEI: What do you think are some of the causes of the glass ceiling? Is it that employers make a statistical decision where they say Asian males on average, or Asian females on average, do not "fit in"--they're not aggressive enough, or they're not tough enough to handle a managerial job-and so because this is true statistically, this person would not make a good manager? Do you think that there just aren’t that many Asians who have enough job experience to be promoted? Or do you think it's a matter of choice-do you think that Asian Americans are not interested in management positions per se?


PH: I think within professions like medicine and the scientific community, there have been very large numbers of Asians represented in those fields for years, yet the number of Asians in very prominent positions in those fields remains very small. I think the problem is that when you approach the highest level in any field, the selection process—the process that determines who is admitted into the higher circle or elite circle—becomes very subjective. It becomes increasingly subjective the higher up the ladder you go. And when you have a process like that, factors like stereotypes and cultural dissimilarity play a more important role.


YISEI: Can you illustrate, specifically, in the case of Asians?


PH: I think a good example would be if you look at the recruiting process for elite law firms. An Asian American might be able to get into a first-rate law school based on quantifiable data—SAT scores and grades, for instance-that step of the process might be more open than the next step, which would be entering a blue-chip, elite law firm. Anyone who’s gone through that process knows that it’s a very subjective, very social process with a series of interviews and also many social situations like dinners and things like that. In those situations, speaking with an accent, one’s dress, the types of food one chooses to order at a restaurant—can all be factors in the degree of comfort that the hiring partners feel with the applicants. And without even realizing it-or perhaps being very aware of it-they might end up discriminating against someone who looks different, speaks differently, or behaves somewhat differently. And I think, at that stage, we really need to ask the question of these people—are they really being fair? And those Asian Americans who have managed to get positions where they’re doing the hiring, have to see what kinds of adjustments they can make in the process and what kinds of changes in attitudes they can bring about among partners in firms, for instance.

I think if you’re an Asian American, there are basically two ways you can make it into these elite circles: (1) If you're very good at mimicking and adapting to the ways of the establishment, so that you become almost indistinguishable from anyone else that you encounter-which is very difficult to do just because of the color of your skin. But somehow there are some people who manage to do it very well, who pass through the right elite institutions on their way up or live in an affluent neighborhood and are keenly aware of the various codes of the establishment. These people may very well be able to penetrate the top circle. This first group is very small and exceptional. It is neither realistic nor fair to expect their experiences to be followed by most Asian Americans.

(2) Another way that Asians have been able to get into management positions has been by specializing in Asian issues. A lot of businesses, for instance, see that there are chances to make a lot of money in Asia, so that if you have some sort of expertise in Asia, you may have a leg up in the hiring process. Now, is that fair? That’s the next question you have to ask. Why should an Asian American have to meet that type of standard in order to make it? Would another type of applicant—would a white applicant—be held to the same scrutiny? Would any differences in background in a white applicant be seen as something foreign as they are with an Asian American? And should Asian Americans be limited to being Asian specialists? I’ve heard of many of my friends at job interviews, who were asked what kind of expertise they had in Asian affairs. And when they said they had none, all of a sudden, the interviewer was far less interested in them and didn’t want to consider them on the same terms that they would consider other applicants. So, that’s really an example of racism. However, I’m not so sure that the people who were hiring were even aware that they were being racist at the time.


YISEI: In occupations that are deemed to be stereotypically Asian, like engineering, the natural sciences, or health fields, where does the glass ceiling appear?


PH: I think in many large corporations, engineers in manufacturing often rise to management or top management positions. Lee Iacocca, who is about to retired as chief executive officer of Chrysler, has an engineering background. Yet it does not seem like there are a lot of Asians or Asian Americans breaking out of engineering ranks and moving into upper management. That’s not something where I have a lot of direct experience. Most of the people I know are in the legal and financial world.

In science and medicine, we’re starting to see a few Asian Americans becoming deans at medical schools for instance, but there’s not a lot of that. I’ve heard about people from stories of friends, parents, etc. about Asian Americans who have been professors but were passed over for deanships or people who worked in the labs as technicians but couldn’t get up into the higher administrative positions within a department. But I don’t have direct experience with that.

I think one problem in traditional fields is that Asian Americans might be well represented in medicine, but we haven’t been able yet to change a lot of the direction in medicine. In medical research, for instance, Asian Americans are often excluded from clinical studies. It’s a similar problem with women. When people do a clinical trial, often there are no women or minorities included among the research subjects. If there are many Asian Americans in the medical field, hopefully they can start to make a difference. One of my friends who worked in health care told me about attending a federal government conference a couple of years ago on substance abuse. A person at the conference was talking about Asian American issues and explained how the one research area where federal resources were being devoted to Asian American substance abuse concerns was a medical study on why Asians’ faces become red when drinking. That’s just ridiculous. I think that’s a good example of how there’s no media attention focused on the problem of alcoholism among Asian Americans. You and I probably know a lot of Asian Americans with an alcohol problem. A serious problem like that is ignored by the media, so in turn, it is ignored by the scientific community which focuses its resources not on Asian American alcoholism but on why Asians’ faces turn red from drinking. That’s an area where large Asian representation could make a difference. But if the Asian American professionals in that field are being kept out of upper management positions or decision-making positions in medical research, then our issues are not going to be addressed.


YISEI: Given that there is some kind of implicit barrier that exists at the advanced stages of promotion, what steps do you think can be taken to overcome this barrier? Do you think that there’s something that should or can be done through legislation? And is it in the best interest of Asian Americans, or Korean Americans specifically, to tailor themselves to this environment?


PH: On the issue of cultural fit, we have to start questioning the elite circles which use this criteria and ask if this is the right thing to do. I don’t think Asian Americans should devote their energy to working at achieving this type of cultural fit—that’s absurd. What we really need to do is to make sure that we’re being evaluated fairly. Why is it that the only Asian Americans who can make it are the ones who are able to blend in with whites to the point that whites forget they are Asian?

When you look at cultural fit, elite white organizations are more than willing to accommodate differences among whites. I think of people like Henry Grundwald, who was the editor of Time magazine until a few years ago. He was an Austrian immigrant with a pretty heavy accent. Or Bob Strauss who’s not the ambassador to whatever they call the Soviet Union today—that guy has a very thick Texan drawl. We need to ask several questions. Why are their accents okay and accepted? And why are Korean accents seen as funny, foreign or something that makes us a less desirable candidate for a job? Why is Henry Grundwald’s European accent seen as urbane and Bob Strauss’ drawl seen as charming, while a Korean or Latino accent carries connotations of incompetence?

I don’t know how much can be done legislatively—we already have civil rights laws—it’s a question of their enforcement. So, I think people who feel they’ve been discriminated against—maybe people who have had a certain racist remark made to them during the hiring process and were not hired, or people who lost a job and have clear evidence that they’ve been discriminated against because of race—maybe they need to start suing. In those cases, I think there must be more litigation and that litigation needs to be publicized so the issue can rise to the forefront of national consciousness. People ought to become aware that it is a problem—right now, people think that Asian Americans don’t have any problems.


YISEI: To what extent do you think this phenomenon is being reinforced by images of Asian Americans and Korean Americans, specifically, in the media? How important a role does the media play in terms of reinforcing racial stereotypes, and which stereotypes are they reinforcing?


PH: I think they can be attributed almost completely to the media. And the unfortunate result is that our problems are not being addressed. Nobody is introducing legislation to help us, and on a smaller level, we’re not being included in affirmative action programs in many businesses and in academic institutions, even though there are many members of the Asian American community who should be. Because of this perception that all Asians are doing well, many members of our community are not getting the help they deserve.

I think Asian Americans represent a very fragmented community. We’ve had very diverse types of immigrants come into the US. There’s a unique mix of socioeconomic backgrounds in the Asian American community, of very elite immigrants who may now be employed in blue-collar occupations, but who, nevertheless, have college degrees and come from prosperous urban backgrounds. And these people often have successful children or do very well themselves. But they’re incorrectly perceived by the general public as people came to the U.S. with nothing and somehow managed to achieve miraculous success. They are then used by conservatives to legitimize the status quo. The implicit message is that, if Asian Americans can become successful, other minorities should also be able to. Therefore, if African Americans and Latino Americans are not achieving success, those who use us will suggest that the blame for the problem lies in the African American or Latino American communities, and not in racism practiced by society at large. Some Asian Americans are foolish enough to take a hollow pride in these superficial stories of our success.

We have a large number of Asian American immigrants who were illiterate even in their native language; many of them were refugees or children of U.S. servicemen abroad. Many were illegal aliens who entered the U.S. unofficially—and these people suffer from the same acute social problems that any member of any other minority group may suffer from. Often, they live side-by-side in the same communities as African Americans and Latino Americans. This Asian American child comes from an equally poor family and goes to school alongside an African American or Latino child. When he applies to college, he’s ineligible for the same affirmative action programs that these other minorities are eligible for.

I’m not saying that we should do away with affirmative action—what I’m saying is that, because of this incorrect perception that all Asians are successful, those of us in our community who are deserving of these programs are being left out. And these programs are, in fact, created to help those people who are in financial need and victimized by racism.


YISEI: Please describe the media’s image of Asian Americans.


PH: Well, the media stereotype is probably a man and a woman who came to the U.S. on a boat, had no money (but worked in menial jobs for several years), saved, bought a small business—a restaurant or a dry cleaner’s—and suddenly their children win the Westinghouse science talent competition, go to an Ivy League institution, and dream some day of becoming prosperous Americans. The End.

Beyond this, you never see anything about non-immigrant Asian Americans. A lot of us have been here for many generations. Yet our role in American history has been ignored. When I was growing up, I was aware of two Asian Americans on television shows depicting America’s frontier heritage. One was Hopsing on the show "Bonanza," and the other was Kwai Chang Cain on the television "Kung Fu." In the popular media you are never aware that Asian Americans fought bravely in World War II, or the Korean or Vietnam Wars.


YISEI: If this image is to change, what steps do you think can be taken within the media? Do you think that a greater presence of Asian Americans in decision-making positions within the media is important? Do you think greater exposure in positions of prominence—whether that’s being an anchorperson or just a leader in the community—is important? What steps, do you think, are necessary?


PH: Yes, we need more Asians in the media, and we need more Asians in nonstereotypical roles. We need more Asian Americans on network television, especially males. Now, each of the television networks has one Asian male working on the air. But we need more than that. Why should we be limited to one per network? It reminds me of when the television comedy series "Saturday Night Live" had one rotating black male. Asians in the media—those of us who already are working as reporters, editors, or staff—need to take an active role in changing the status quo. We need to remind our colleagues that coverage should not be limited to these stereotypes.

There’s a lot that people outside of the media can do. What I’d really like to see more of are very simple things, like more Asian Americans writing letters to newspapers, or magazines, or television studios or radio networks, to complain about coverage when coverage is poor. And I’d like to see more Asian American organizations working with the media to try to get other types of stories across. I’m very discouraged when I see an outrageous article in a newspaper or magazine that maligns Asian Americans, and then I don’t see it followed by letters from angry and concerned Asian Americans. People in the media do respond to pressure from readers, listeners, and viewers.

I think Asian Americans need to become more active in directly confronting those who perpetuate stereotypes of us. There are some encouraging signs in the past when Koreans in Los Angeles picketed Time and Rolling Stone magazines. I would like to see more of that. Publication editors need to get it into their heads that before they print something, they ought to think about what the reaction will be from the Asian American community. Or, more importantly, if they’re writing a story about Asian Americans, they ought to get Asian American input into a piece. One of the ridiculous things you see in coverage not only of Asian Americans but also of Asians in general is that they’ll interview a lot of non-Asian experts [on Asia] to comment about our community or in foreign policy stories.

When I was working at ABC News during the Tiananmen Square killings, my colleagues kept scheduling interviews with American professors when there was a large number of Chinese experts in the U.S. at the time. The dissident journalist Liu Binyan was at Harvard on a Nieman Fellowship back then. Although he was widely acknowledged as one of the leading critics of the Chinese government at the time, he was ignored by the American media. After raising this matter with producers at ABC News, I was able to get him on Nightline. It always helps to have Asian Americans in the newsroom or at the editor’s desk.

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