The U.S. continues to attract foreign-born scientists and engineers with its strong educational system and leadership in world-class research. In 2003, 16% of the 21.6 million scientists and engineers in the U.S. were immigrants, according to the 2007 National Science Foundation report “Why Did They Come to the United States? A Profile of Immigrant Scientists and Engineers.”
Despite their significant contributions to the growth of the U.S. science and engineering workforce, many foreign-born scientists say that their potential for career advancement plateaus after reaching a certain point. The difficulties these scientists face in attaining high-ranking positions are largely anecdotal, but some data do exist to corroborate their experience. For example, a 2007 study conducted by researchers at Arizona State University suggests that foreign-born academic scientists and engineers are more productive than their U.S.-born peers, but their average salaries and work satisfaction levels are lower than U.S.-born scientists’ (Res. Higher Edu. 2007, 48, 909).
“A foreign-born chemist looking up doesn’t see a glass ceiling,” says David Rahni, a professor of chemistry at Pace University, in New York, who was born in Iran and came to the U.S. for graduate school in the late 1970s. “They see an armored concrete ceiling with no light coming through.”
Part of the challenge may be cultural. “Foreign-born chemists, especially those coming from introverted cultures, may not step up voluntarily or be as aggressive or assertive in trying to leverage themselves,” Rahni says. “We tend to go into our cocoon, publish, get grants, and be happy, or at least we believe that’s all we have to do.”
Ye Ling, a manager for global R&D collaborations at Hospira, a specialty pharmaceutical and medication delivery company based in Lake Forest, Ill., cautions against blaming society for the glass ceiling. “If you want to fulfill your American dream, then you have to be willing to change yourself,” she says. “Just blaming the society for the glass ceiling, or using it as an excuse, is of no use. When there’s a glass ceiling, you have to recognize it, and you have to break it. Nobody will open it up for you.”
Lubo Zhou, a senior R&D manager at Honeywell’s UOP, in Des Plains, Ill., and president of the Chinese-American Chemical Society, encourages his foreign-born colleagues to speak up about their career ambitions. “We usually don’t tell people, ‘I have ambitions,’ or ‘I want to be a manager,’ ” he says. “ In our culture, we think that speaking up will maybe damage our reputation. Or the manager should see us and we’ll be promoted.”
Zhou says he has learned to be proactive by taking leadership roles in professional organizations such as the Chinese-American Chemical Society and the Association of Chinese Scientists & Engineers. Zhou also founded the Chicago chapter of the Honeywell Asian Network. “Don’t wait for people to promote you,” he says. “That’s not going to happen. You have to speak up.”
It’s important for foreign-born scientists to empower themselves, Rahni says, but society has to take it to the next step. “There needs to be a clear mandate from professional societies as well as the federal government to provide specific policies with respect to creating and nurturing equal opportunities for career development and career advancement for foreign-born chemists,” he explains. “That part is still missing.”