WE are hearing a lot about the importance of culture for career success. “Why Microsoft and everyone else loves Indian CEOs,” announced a recent headline from Bloomberg, after the company named Satya Nadella its new leader.
Amy Chua, author of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” and Jed Rubenfeld claim in their new book that “The Triple Package” of traits explains the rise and fall of cultural groups in the U.S. And a growing number of news stories marvel at the sudden political rise of Asian Americans from California to Washington, D.C.
Many of us recoil at the simplistic nature of these pronouncements because they often ignore other factors that shape group outcomes, such as discrimination and unequal opportunities. These declarations are eerily reminiscent of the way in which culture was invoked in the 1960s to explain the exceptional outcomes of Asian Americans vis-à-vis African Americans, who reportedly lacked these values.
While this earlier scholarship has been widely discredited, Chua and Rubenfeld are re-invoking it in their latest work. They claim that three cultural traits — a superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control — explain the success of eight exemplary American groups, including Chinese, Jews, Indians, Cubans, Iranians, Lebanese, Nigerians and Mormons.
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However, culture is not simply a set of values, behaviors and practices that individuals or groups possess. Culture is powerfully shaped by institutions, opportunities and policies.
For example, although Vietnamese came to the United States with few resources and low levels of education, federal refugee assistance played a critical role in allowing one parent to stay at home and help with raising a child. Our research in Southern California shows that Mexican immigrants who do not qualify for refugee assistance hold similar values about parental involvement, but cannot rely on similar government support to implement them.
Also, culture is not uniform. Our research shows that Chinese immigrants are not representative of their homeland counterparts. Not only are immigrants much more educated, they also bring a certain set of class-specific values and practices unavailable to the average Chinese, such as high entrepreneurship, appetite for risk and belief in the importance of after-school education.
Asking the average American to replicate the norms of this highly selective group is unrealistic. It would be akin to asking us to adopt the same values and practices as Americans who live abroad.
Impressions of group culture also change over time. For example, Asian humility, whether based on Confucian or Buddhist values, was often used to justify the glass ceiling that many Asian Americans faced while vying for leadership positions. Now, some of those very handicaps are being redefined as virtues, as in the case of Microsoft’s new chief executive officer, who is widely touted for his humility, empathy and patience.
What this suggests is that the relationship between culture and success can indeed change, depending on what American society values at a given point in time.
Which brings us back to Chua and Rubenfeld: There is no standard definition of traits that are needed for career success. These vary widely depending on the trajectory that individuals choose, or have available to them. This is particularly true for people who have varying access to resources and opportunities. But it also applies to elite professions.
Just take the example of doctors. A successful pediatrician would be valued for his or her high levels of empathy and ability to listen, while a successful neurosurgeon would be valued for his or her ability to shut out emotions and focus on detailed tasks without distraction. While the three traits that Chua and Rubenfeld identify — superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control — may fit well with the career of a surgeon, they would limit the career success of the pediatrician or other professions that require high levels of empathy.
And there are many other jobs, requiring creativity or consensus-building, for which the “triple package” would be ill-advised.
Jennifer Lee, professor of sociology at the University of California Irvine, and Karthick Ramakrishnan, associate professor of political science at the University of California Riverside, are working on a book about Asian Americans and race.