Working as a high school teacher in an underserved community in the San Francisco Bay Area sparked Dr. Sarah Lee’s interest in studying minority groups’ barriers to upward mobility in the United States.
Today Lee, an assistant professor of management in the Barowsky School of Business, draws on social psychology and organizational behavior to understand how an individual’s demographic characteristics and communication style could hurt their careers.
Her recent research sheds light on understanding when and why Asian Americans are underrepresented in top management positions, despite their label of being the “model minority”, referring to their educational and occupational achievement. Her findings suggest that culturally grounded communication differences pose an obstacle to Asian American employees, causing them to be inaccurately perceived as lacking social skills, thus “deficient as leaders.”
In 2012, having recently graduated with degrees in psychology and music from UC Berkeley, Lee was teaching at an inner city high school in Oakland when she became acutely aware of the many challenges faced by the students in her diverse classroom, from food and housing insecurity to daily struggles finding transportation to and from school.
“The students faced so many challenges on so many levels. This was the first time I saw inequity up close and witnessed the many pressures minority students – especially low-income students – face both in and out of school,” she recalls. “It was then that I became interested in studying the longer-term impact of social challenges.”
Lee studied diversity and leadership as a graduate student at Emory University, where she received a Ph.D. in Organization & Management from the Goizueta Business School. Her research dissertation addressed the barriers to leadership faced by Asian Americans, with a focus on the paradox of Asian Americans' experience in career mobility.
“As a first-generation Asian American woman, my research questions are personally motivated. My work not only addresses issues but also explores solutions.”
While Asian Americans receive the highest college graduation rate of any ethnic group in the U.S., they often face obstacles as they move up the career ladder. This phenomenon, known as the bamboo ceiling, led Lee to explore whether Asian Americans are seen as less leader-like because their communication styles “do not map onto that of the prototypical leader in the United States.”
“Asian Americans are overrepresented in universities and in entry-level jobs, but they are underrepresented in leadership roles, relative to their proportion in the population,” Lee says. “This is true even in industries in which Asian Americans are well represented, such as engineering and medicine, and even in areas where they are highly populated, such as Silicon Valley.”
Her ongoing research is focused on studying the mismatch between Asian Americans’ communication style and norms for leaders in the United States. A study, published in The Academy of Management Proceedings, tested the link between communication styles on leadership evaluations.
Using a sample of aspiring entrepreneurs on YouTube, who were all fluent in English, she found that Asian-Americans would speak with less self-expression, less confidence, and less optimism than their White-American counterparts.
“When I asked participants to listen to the audio clips of the YouTubers, Asian-Americans were rated lower on leadership potential, reliability, and promotability,” she notes.
Lee also tested whether speaking in the “Asian” style would hurt interviewees in the job placement context.
“I found that undergraduate business students speaking in the style that was more representative of Asian American entrepreneurs received lower ratings on hireability, promotability, and leadership potential when evaluated by business executives with hiring experience,” she says.
These findings, Lee notes, provide important practical implications for hiring practices, leadership selection, and workplace performance.
“As an educator, my aim is to best equip young people entering the workforce, as well as the future leaders who will be making hiring decisions,” she notes. “I want my students to be able to apply my research to their own careers, both for their own benefit and for that of their organizations.”
In the future, Lee plans to conduct more qualitative work to capture Asian Americans’ experiences with inclusion. She also plans to expand her focus on how discrimination toward members of minority groups in the United States persists over time and over various economic cycles, particularly economic downturns. One current project examines the link between job loss threat and workplace behaviors in industries where the threat of job loss due to automation is high.
In February 2020, Lee presented her research on Asian Americans’ communication style and leadership norms in the United States at the annual meeting of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology in New Orleans.