80/20 and Asian American Salaries in the Sciences

Followers of this blog will remember that I’m not the world’s biggest groupie of 80/20, a political action committee (or P.A.C. as the lingo goes) that I find self-promoting and an embarrassment to the grassroots Asian American political movement. As far as I can tell, 80/20 sends poorly worded, all-caps emails (with lots of red text, because we all find red text more persuasive than black text) imploring listserv members to donate after stirring up rage over poorly cited and often misguided statements describing real (or not-so-real) forms of discrimination that we as a community face.

80/20 excels at stirring up political awareness; no one can criticize the fact that this single P.A.C. stays in business by taking money from a large swath of West Coast Asian Americans who want to see improved civil rights. In fact, the very success of 80/20 is an indication that there is a hunger for political change within the APA community. It’s how 80/20 goes about doing it that bothers me; most of their communications to their members are self-promoting, and frequently riddled with errors.

Case in point, this morning, I received an email from 80/20 telling me that Asian Americans in the sciences receive the lowest wages of all ethnic groups. Donate $50, said the email, because 80/20 will protect me and you from this kind of discrimination.

Do you believe in equal pay for equal work? What if YOU are denied your due? It’ll not happened to YOU? Hope not! However, if it does, what are YOU going to do abut it?

   Look at this SALARY SURVEY published by The Scientist in its September, 2009 issue. We again came out on the shortest end.It shows that Asian Am. M.Ds. and Ph. Ds in life science are paid the lowest salaries when compared with all other races. Visit http://www.the-scientist.com/salarysurvey/

    Combine this knowledge with Chart 1 shown below, where we again came out on the shortest end in terms of the odds to be promoted to managers, then ask yourself

(1) Which organization brings to you information of such vital bearing on your life?
(2) Which organization is working effectively to keep you from being shortchanged like that in the future?

   JOIN 80-20. Help 80-20 to help YOU and YOUR children.

[insert payment methods, with random red text, here]

Your payment of $35 or $50 is not even 1/100th of your salary. Don’t let yourself get stepped on and be paid less! JOIN 80-20 and forward this info to every Asian Am. you know. Why? TO STOP SUCH DISCRIMINATION AGAINST YOU FROM CONTINUING ASAP!

Being an Asian American, who will soon be getting a PhD and working in the life sciences, I was curious to see this survey. It’s been long known that Asian Americans have a hard time breaking the glass ceiling into management positions. However, it’s not clear that this translates into the sciences, where doctoral holders have a choice between being a “primary investigator” (managing a lab) or a post-doctoral (not managing a lab). I have yet to track down statistics that break down presence of Asian Americans doctorates into “management” and “non-management” positions. 

That being said, I hadn’t yet seen a study that had also shown a salary discrepancy for Asian American doctorates in the sciences. So, I clicked on the attached link and saw that The Scientist has indeed published a chart claiming that Asian doctorates make less money than non-Asian degree-holders. In fact, according to the chart, we make less money than all other ethnic groups! Oh, no!


(According to the graph accompanying this one, women also make less money than men).

Then, like any good scientist, I did my homework. Actually, before I even went and clicked on the results of the survey, I checked the methodology. And here’s what it is:

The survey was conducted via a web-based survey which was open from March 5 to May 31, 2009. Participation in the survey was promoted by e-mail and advertising to readers of The Scientist and visitors to The Scientist web site. It was also promoted by participating member societies to their members. Usable responses were received from 4,738 individuals in the United States. Since many individuals are subscribers to The Scientist, and/or registrants on their web site, and/or members of one or more of the sponsoring societies, it is not possible to compute an accurate rate of response.

Respondents were asked to provide demographic data about themselves in 18 categories, and give their base annual salary and other cash compensation. The responses were carefully filtered to eliminate duplicate or misleading responses. Not every participant provided all of the information requested. If the participant provided income data, plus information concerning at least one demographic characteristic, the response was included in the study.

Let me emphasize the important points: this is a voluntary. web. survey. that The Scientisthelped run. In other words, it’s about as scientific as CNN’s daily web poll. Sure, the study collected information from more than 4,500 respondents, but none of the summary information contains sample size. More galling, none of the bar charts contain a single error bar. Oh, and did I mention that this was a voluntary. web. survey.?!?

Lest we forget, the science of voluntary surveys was debunked decades ago when one voluntary mail survey conducted by a woman’s magazine concluded that an obscenely high percentage of female respondents have cheated on their husbands (I can’t find the link now, will try again later). It was later determined that this conclusion was due to a faulty assumption that the respondents were a random sampling of all women. Unfortunately, they weren’t: a high percentage of angry or dissatisfied women found the time to answer the survey compared to women who were satisfied with their marriage.

The basic premise as to why you’re liable to obtain faulty conclusions from voluntary surveys is that you’re sampling from a non-randomized (and thus non-representative) population. You can’t be certain that all the people who responded a certain way didn’t choose not to respond to the survey, in part because the way they would have responded biased them against responding. For example, if you wear a “Vote Liberal” button and try to conduct a non-partisan exit poll at a polling station, you’re likely to get more Democrats than Republicans opting to stay and tell you who they voted for. Since more Democrats responded than Republicans, you might therefore conclude that Democrats will win the precinct when in fact the majority of folks who voted might have voted Republican and walked right past your pollster. Thus, care must be given to experimental design to try and control for variables of self- and voluntary reporting, and all results have to be taken with a grain of salt (and with a mind for methodology). The fact that there is no error or sample size included in the survey data suggest to me that The Scientist‘s “scientific” survey was decidedly non-scientific.

Take, instead these data compiled from the National Science Foundation, which is based on national survey data collected from (among other sources) the U.S. Department of Education. In short, the data was compiled by some poor intern sitting in a dark, stuffy office inputting data about every doctoral degree awarded in this country — by definition, a representative sampling. I don’t envy that dude’s job, but I do know that we’re not talking about some voluntary. web. survey.

This PDF shows that while females in the sciences still make about $6,000 less in median income than their male counterparts, Asians in the sciences make $5,000 more than the median income for all races in the sciences. This trend holds true across all industries within science and engineering.

Why? Because, compared to virtually all other workforces, Asians are grossly over-represented in the sciences. While Asians are roughly 5% of th national population, we represent more than 17% of scientists, and more than 30% of engineers.


The problem for Asians in the sciences just isn’t as simple as 80/20 would have us believe. There is no vast (right-wing?) conspiracy to under-pay Asian scientists. 

Rather, the problem for Asians involves underrepresentation of specific Asian ethnic groups. Demographic studies such as those shown above don’t distinguish within Asians: it’s very likely that American-born Asians are underrepresented compared to foreign-born Asians. And some Asians are underrepresented, such as Pacific Islanders, Hmong, and other groups who tend to have reduced access to higher education.

In addition, Asian scientists tend to face workplace discrimination, prejudice and stereotyping that’s difficult to quantify in numbers from national surveys. Because English is the language of science, I’ve often seen an ingrained distaste for Asian accents or a presumption that a person with a foreign name will suffer from an inability to communicate with English-speaking investigators. There’s also a culture gap that Asians in science deal with: Asians are occasionally perceived as less willing to challenge their scientific peers because of our culture of collectivism, which is perceived as a detriment in establishing a forum for scientific debate.

And as with women of other ethnic groups, Asian/Asian American women face difficulties being taken as seriously as their male counterparts, let alone receiving equal wages.

Asian/Asian American scientists also lack access to specific grants, awards, and funding geared towards improving Asian/Asian American participation in science, since most Asians are not able to apply for any funding set aside for underrepresented minorities. What we really need is for 80/20 and other organizations to establish travel grants or small young investigator grants specifically focused on aiding Asian American scientists.

So, 80/20 gets it partially right: Asian/Asian American scientists face discrimination in the workplace. But it’s not due to salary iniquity — it’s about challenging a culture of stereotypes. This stereotyping will not be defeated by a $50 donation to 80/20, but by a collected effort on the part of all Asian Americans to start a national dialogue about the falseness of anti-Asian stereotypes.

And, with all of the money 80/20 rakes in from Asian immigrants hoping for a more equal tomorrow, they should really shell out the money to hire a fact checker and a PR person. I think 80/20’s persistent inaccuracies, not to mention their shoddily written emails (that, thankfully, contain fewer typos and spelling errors now than they have in the past), make one of the more visible Asian American P.A.C.’s look unprofessional and incompetent. If a mere blogger like myself was able to poke a gaping hole in 80/20’s argument regarding discrimination against Asians in science, than what hope does 80/20 have lobbying Washington? And if 80/20 presents such an easily debunked argument to the powers-that-be, how does that do anything but hurt those of us who actually do experience a real, if different, form of discrimination in science? 

Personally, I’m keeping my $50, thank you very much. Besides, it is a significant chunk of my salary and I’d rather use it to buy groceries.

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