Stereotype that East Asians lack creativity impedes promotion in US leadership roles, study suggests


Despite educational and economic achievements, East Asians in the U.S. face a unique hurdle to leadership positions —the stereotype of lacking creativity.

Stereotyping and the bamboo ceiling: The research paper, published in October in the Journal of Applied Psychology, reveals that East Asians, encompassing ethnicities like Chinese, Japanese and Korean, are commonly stereotyped in the U.S. as lacking creativity. Associate Professor Jackson Lu explained in his paper how the deeply ingrained perception is hindering the promotion of East Asians in leadership roles.

The impact on leadership emergence: Lu conducted two field studies at a U.S. business school, where he observed that East Asian MBA students were initially perceived as less creative by their classmates. This early bias influenced nominations and elections for class-section leaders, with East Asians being less likely to assume these roles compared to their peers from different ethnic backgrounds. These findings held true even after accounting for variables such as assertiveness, leadership motivation and demographics.

Causal evidence and vignette experiments: To strengthen his hypothesis, Lu conducted two vignette experiments involving non-Asian Americans with managerial experience. Even when East Asian American candidates had profiles identical to candidates of other ethnicities, they were viewed as less suitable for leadership roles due to perceived lower creativity.

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Why this matters: According to Lu, this suggests that creativity stereotypes put East Asians at a disadvantage despite no actual differences in creativity.

“Individuals and organizations should be mindful of notions that could exacerbate this creativity stereotype. For example, the stereotype that East Asians are good at math may imply that they are uncreative 'quant nerds.' Some East Asians themselves may embrace this math stereotype and neglect its negative implications for perceived creativity.”

Breaking the stereotype: Lu's research recommends that organizations shift their emphasis from individual leader creativity to encouraging leaders to foster creativity in others. By doing so, organizations can create a more inclusive environment and dismantle the barriers that impede the rise of East Asians in leadership roles.

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