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Making the Best of Workplace Stereotypes

Three years out of college Elise Chun had just landed a sales engineer job with a dynamic, fast-growing, mid-sized Bay-Area communications technology firm. It was her dream job. The pay was great, the company had prestige and the working conditions were pleasant.

A week after she completed her training, she and a colleague, a caucasian man named Rowan, were called into their manager’s office to be assigned to a new client. Chun was excited. It would be her first opportunity for client contact, a chance to prove that she was a great people person, someone with the potential eventually to move up into management ranks. But as she listened to her manager, a no-nonsense middle-aged caucasian woman, Chun couldn’t believe her ears. Her manager was assigning Rowan to act as the liaison who would meet with the client’s staff to go over requirements and coordinate the installation. Chun was charged with processing the technical specs and documentation, the gruntwork.

“I was flabbergasted,” recalls Chun. “My whole life I always considered myself a people person. I think I’m presentable and articulate. I’m good at making people comfortable. But my manager was telling me to stay holed up in the office. Rowan was as surprised as I was. He’s a very shy, fussy person who likes to work alone figuring out technical problems. It would have made a lot more sense to put him in charge of the paperwork, or at least split the gruntwork between us.”

From then on, Chun became acutely conscious of the subtle ways she felt excluded from client contact and pushed toward becoming a technical workhorse. She seethed for weeks before getting up the nerve to approach her manager. When Chun finally confronted her in an awkward closed-door conference, the manager seemed surprised and uncomfortable.

“She said she thought I wanted the opportunity to learn the technical side better,” recalls Chun, shaking her head. “I thought that was really lame.”

The only explanation, Chun decided, was racial stereotyping. She took offense, expressed her displeasure, and decided to avoid further contact with her manager while keeping an eye out for other opportunities. Within six months Chun got an offer from a small firm that promised lots of client contact. She now works there as a one-person sales team, handling both the people contact and the paperwork. Is she happy? Chun shrugs but her expression betrays regret. She admits feeling as though she has lost a valuable opportunity by leaving her prestigious former firm. She puts the blame squarely on her former manager for having painted her into a corner that left no choice but to leave.

“It was a self-respect issue for me,” she says. “It was a stroke of bad luck to be stuck in her area. If I hadn’t been put in that situation, I’d still be there, making a lot more money, with better benefits and working conditions. I feel like I was cheated out of a job I had worked hard for,” says Chun bitterly. “I ended up paying the price for someone else’s ignorance.”

Chun isn’t alone. Her story is repeated thousands of times a year among Asian American professionals — a promising opportunity left behind in the name of rejecting racial stereotyping. Unfortunately, in many cases it amounts to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Most of those situations can be saved. With the proper counseling, Elise Chun could have kept her hard-won professional opportunity and turned what she saw as a bad situation into a professional advantage.

Don’t Take It Personally

The first step is to recognize that everyone stereotypes and is streotyped in return. A blonde woman may be pigeonholed as a ditzy party girl even if she’s a serious-minded professional. A debonair preppy may be seen as a stuffed shirt devoid of creative instincts even if he’s a creative genius. A handsome jock will likely be taken for a clod even if he has a 140 IQ. It may be irrational, but it’s human nature. A little reflection will convince us that we all do it. Have you ever assumed that a person is or isn’t interested in participating in certain activities simply because of her race or ethnicity or even the way she dresses? Who hasn’t? Next

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