The Glass Ceilings Are Breaking: Asian American Women in STEM

Today, young Asian women across the United States are pursuing higher education to further themselves in professional sciences, engineering, technology, and mathematics (STEM). 

There is no doubt that people of color, particularly women of color, face greater struggles in their pursuit of a career in STEM. According to the National Science Board, women only make up 28% of the science and engineering workforce, despite making up half of the total US college-educated workforce as of 2018. However, Asian Americans in the college-educated STEM field were considered to be overrepresented by Pew Social Trends, making up for 13% of the overall professional pool, with white Americans at 69% as Black and Brown professionals were underrepresented, with Black Americans at 9% and Latino Americans at 7%. 

Because of the surplus of Asian professionals in STEM, the popular stereotype associating Asians with mathematics and sciences creates an additional layer of intersectional struggles for Asian women entering and pursuing a career in the world of STEM. With cultural expectations to delve into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics on one hand and the pressure of potentially competing with a copious amount of testosterone in the workplace on the other, cognitive dissonance is at play. What is it like to be an Asian woman in STEM? What does it mean to be an Asian woman in STEM?

“Knowing that I’m breaking society’s norm and changing the face of STEM industries is such an empowering feeling,” said Summer Ngo, a freshman studying Biomedical Engineering with a Cellular-Molecular emphasis at the University of Southern California. She shared the emergence of her passion for math, reminiscing about how instead of reciting fairy tale stories, her mother would recite multiplication tables. 

Cultural and parental influence in the Asian American community take a large part in the formation of many Asian American individual’s personalities and interests, ultimately shaping one’s character. “Growing up in an Asian household, certain majors were deemed acceptable in my family households, and many of these majors are the typical parents wanting kids to be doctors, engineers, the list goes on,” shared Ngo. 

Sharada Pillai, a second-year master’s student at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, found her ethnic identity to play the largest role in her pursuit of Neuroscience. 

“Both my parents are very strong in math, and my father loves science. Naturally, I inherited both of those qualities, so as a kid, I just always assumed I’d either be a doctor or engineer, shocker!” she joked. “In fact, for Christmas, just before I had turned 3, my mom got me a toy doctor kit, which was probably the least subtle hint possible.”

Pillai recounted her experiences entering STEM, recognizing the nuanced and seemingly formulaic process of trying to account for expectations based on Asian-related stereotypes. Affirmative action controversies and widespread fears of “Asian American students raising class grade curves” among white students, according to Ronald Takaki’s Strangers From a Different Shore, also play into the tricky nature of applying to higher academia and jobs as an Asian American.

“One of the toughest parts of that was needing to find a way to stand out: on paper, I seemed like every other first-generation Indian trying to get into medicine,” explained Pillai. “Additionally, if I had gone out of my way to start a club or enrich myself outside the classroom, it probably would’ve been seen as either trying too hard or just finding another way to build my resume rather than it actually being genuine.”

In some cases, these harmful stereotypes encourage Asian Americans to go against what is expected of them. Soumya Kamath, a Biology and Spanish junior at East Carolina University, found herself compelled to challenge the Asians-in-STEM expectations.

“… when I applied to university, I didn’t want to be the ‘stereotypical brown kid’ [who took up the pre-med route] and picked Public Health as my major…” Kamath explained, soon realizing she really did want to enter the field as a doctor. “I thought I was standing out from the crowd and was different…”

In other cases, the stereotypes regarding Asians being “inherently smart” have caused Asian-Americans to doubt their own abilities as they attempt to live up to said expectation. Ashley Luo, sophomore Electrical Engineering & Computer Science major at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, opened up about her self-doubts while immersing herself in STEM. 

“Imposter syndrome can kick in pretty hard when others ask me for help in STEM classes when I haven’t grasped a concept yet and can’t provide them with an answer,” Luo explained when delineating the pattern she gets caught up in, where she seeks help, but sees that her peers are doing just fine, so she feels less inclined to continue to do so. “It’s a dangerous cycle though since that mindset will often lead to lower grades, which builds on the insecurities from imposter syndrome, which then shreds motivation and continues to lead to poor performance and so on, which often ends up in strong urges to just give up.”

On top of the racial stereotypes held over their heads, Asian American women also face prejudices due to their sex. According to the American Association of University Women, STEM fields tend to encourage adamance in regards to the exclusion of women, non-binary folk, and people of color due to the saturation of male presence.

Kamath found that whenever she is partnered up with other women to work on projects, she feels that everyone is able to cooperate well, whereas in co-ed groups, men were mor
e likely to become “apathetic or resentful.”

“Oftentimes I have to speak over my male classmates in lecture or lab. I’ve had to be assertive and direct, which to some of my peers makes it seem like I am a ‘bitch.’ Their words, not mine,” she affirmed. 

However, not all Asian American women get the chance to hold their ground like Kamath did. Some feel the need to stray away from having to constantly be pit against men. “I’m scared of being the only girl in the classroom and being looked down by my professors for asking basic questions,” Katherine Guo expressed when reflecting on her decision to study Mechanical Engineering, a major considered to be “safe,” over Math or Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I feel like the community at MIT is pretty supportive in general, although Math and Physics do have a lower percentage of female students,” the sophomore explained. 

Guo’s recollection of talking to upperclassmen and alumni aligns with the aforementioned statistic of women making up 28% of the STEM workforce. “Many graduates end up being the only woman in their team, or even their larger department,” she explained. “There’s nothing wrong with non-female peers, but being the only person who looks like you, who experiences more or less the same things as you can be very difficult, especially when it comes to mentorship and having difficult conversations…”

Moving forward, there is exceeding hope for Asian American women and Asian women in general within the STEM professional realm. Although they face an arduous uphill battle as they don’t fit into the traditional white, cisgendered male scientist standard, they are more than willing to prove this construction wrong and are already doing so as we speak. 

“Having a sense of community when being a minority is so important, and knowing that there are other people who look like me and have similar struggles as I do automatically gives me something in common with every other Asian woman and non-binary person in a STEM field,” Pillai concluded. “Being a part of this community of incredible people doing notable work makes me so excited to see all the glass ceilings that will be broken in STEM within the next few decades.”

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

We have grown since then, putting out bimonthly issues (we are contributor powered: apply to write for our next one!), and weekly reviews of culture, and news that is important to us.

You can find announcements, more news, and get to know our staff on social media: give us a follow, and learn how you can get involved today!

We do not claim to speak for all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. We are just here to give them a place to speak for themselves.

We hope you’ll join us.

My Cart Close (×)

Your cart is empty
Browse Shop