Diversity in STEM

Aggregating Asian demographic data hinders diversity initiatives

by Dr. Karena Nguyen & Dr. Leah Mupas Segui


Disaggregated Asian and Pacific Islander demographic data reveals heterogeneity in college attainment. Figure originally published in Equitable Growth (Edlagan and Vaghul 2016).

Given the sheer number of countries and ethnicities included in the broad definitions of Asian and Asian American, the backgrounds and experiences of these groups are vastly different. Someone Asian could be from the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent. Similarly, Asian American is defined as Americans of Asian/Pacific Island ancestry according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In this post, we provide evidence and argue that the large umbrella terms of Asian and Asian American mask differences in immigration histories, economic and social capital, and higher education attainment among immigrant groups. As such, diversity and equity initiatives in academia that deem “Asians”* as represented rarely make resources (e.g. grants, fellowships) available to individuals belonging to underrepresented Asian or Asian American groups. This aggregation of data has affected us as Asian American ecologists.

To begin, our personal stories represent similar yet different experiences of how our parents were given the opportunity to immigrate and obtain meaningful employment as a result of U.S. political involvement in their respective countries. Karena is second generation Asian American. Her parents immigrated to the United States after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Her father obtained a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota, but her mother was unable to finish college. Leah is also second generation Asian American. Both of her parents have bachelor’s degrees. While living in the Philippines, once a U.S. colony, her father joined the U.S. Navy in 1975 and her mother was recruited to Florida to work as a nurse in 1982.

Despite these and other differences in immigration history, however, Asian Americans are often lumped together in one category and depictions of Asian Americans as “model minorities” persist in both American culture and within academia. This myth negatively impacts efforts to increase diversity in STEM fields because it ignores how selective recruitment of highly educated Asian immigrants has led to success for some Asian American groups and not others and thereby assumes erroneously that Asian Americans have equal economic and social capital to pursue higher education. Currently, the median household income for Asian Americans averages $74,000 but ranges from American Bhutanese families earning slightly more than $30,000 per year to Indian American households earning >$100,000 per year. Current research suggests that this gap is widening, with income inequality rising most rapidly among Asians.

When and how Asian American groups have arrived in the U.S. influences their ability to gain economic and social capital, which are critical components of gaining access to higher education. For example, although aggregated data suggests that Asian Americans have the highest rates of bachelor’s degrees or higher compared to other racial groups, disaggregated data shows that several Asian groups have lower rates of college attainment than the national average (Figure 1). Unsurprisingly, issues with data aggregation extend to the Masters and PhD level. A 2016 NSF report counts 708/8,884 doctoral degrees awarded to “Asians” in the biological and biomedical sciences in the U.S. and thus categorizes “Asians” as being relatively represented in STEM fields. Breaking this down by subfield, however, shows that only 8/482 were awarded to “Asians” in ecology.

Data aggregation for Asian and Asian Americans is therefore troubling for two reasons. First, it assumes that all groups have similar opportunities to pursue and complete higher education. Second, it conflates degree completion across broad categories with retention and representation within subfields, which leads to erasure in fields where Asian and Asian Americans are underrepresented, such as ecology.

The evidence and personal stories presented here demonstrate that Asian and Asian Americans have varied immigration histories, which lead to differences in the ability to pursue higher education. As a result, representation and retention at higher levels of education, especially at the faculty level, are limited. Personally, we have not encountered Asian or Asian American faculty with whom we identify with, which we believe speaks to the lack of mentorship and support for Asian and Asian American ecologists at many institutions.

To close, the term Asian American was created as a political statement to unify against racism. Though there is power in unity, this term also marginalizes South and Southeast Asians, such as ourselves, who are often left out of discussions involving the Asian American community. Moving forward, funding agencies, research societies, and departments who are pursuing diversity measures should analyze both aggregated and disaggregated data to determine which Asian American groups are underrepresented and if additional funding or support can be allocated for individuals who identify with these groups. By being more conscious about avoiding umbrella terms that can exclude individuals, we can move forward as a field towards equity and inclusion.

*We use “Asians” in quotes where definitions of Asian and Asian American are combined.

Sources: All sources have been included as links in the text.

Author biographies:

Dr. Karena Nguyen is a postdoctoral fellow with the FIRST program at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. You can find her occasionally on Twitter @Nguyen_4Science or at her website.

Dr. Leah Mupas Segui is a 2020 Knauss Fellow at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Satellite Oceanography and Climatology Division in College Park, MD. You can find her on Twitter @LMSegui or her website.