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IACM 2022

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Culture and Communication: The Surprising Underperformance of East Asians (but not South Asians) in US Business Schools

In the US, Asians are commonly assumed to excel across all educational stages. We challenge this assumption by revealing the underperformance of ethnic East Asians in US law schools and business schools, two prevalent professional schools that are consequential gateways to societal influence. Whereas most educational and governmental statistics lump all Asians together, we distinguish culturally between East Asians (e.g., ethnic Chinese) and South Asians (e.g., ethnic Indians), the two largest Asian groups in the US. We propose that East Asians—but not South Asians—underperform academically because their low verbal assertiveness is culturally incongruent with the assertive class participation prized by US law schools and business schools. Across six large studies (N = 19,194), East Asians had lower grades than South Asians and Whites despite performing well on admission tests (i.e., LSAT, GMAT, GRE). East Asians’ underperformance was not explained by academic motivation, but by lower assertiveness (whether assessed by self-ratings, peer-ratings, or class participation scores)—after controlling for factors such as birth country and English proficiency. Consistent with the assertiveness mechanism, East Asians’ underperformance was more pronounced in social courses emphasizing class participation (e.g., leadership, strategy) than in quantitative courses (e.g., accounting, finance). Notably, we found that East Asians’ underperformance was mitigated in online classes conducted via Zoom, a communication medium characterized by lower social presence than in-person classes. By revealing a “Bamboo Ceiling” in the classroom, this research highlights the importance of fostering an inclusive classroom for students from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Jackson Lu
MIT Sloan School of Management
United States

Richard Nisbett
University of Michigan
United States

Michael Morris
Columbia Business School
United States


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