Is there a glass ceiling for non-native English speakers? Part one of Vinay Kolhatkar’s investigation into subtle prejudice (read part two here)
By Vinay Kolhatkar
Fevers above 103F can cause confusion, even hallucinations . Above 107.6F — brain damage is possible, even a chance of death enters the equation. Mukul’s temperature was running at 104F, but his hazy mind thought of money — it was running out.
Mukul Pandya, thirty one, dark hair, affable demeanor, was a journalist based in India. Visiting Montreal to cover an event, he and his wife Hema, also a journalist, intended to uncover a few stories in the US on the way back to India, when illness struck.
Constrained to $500 each by foreign exchange regulations, and with no medical insurance, the illness was a calamity.
“It’s typhoid,” said the doctor in New Jersey. This doctor was right.
In New Jersey, two weeks went by before the previously misdiagnosed Mukul got to his feet. Gnawing away at the bacteria invaders, the antibiotics and the pathology tests had also nibbled away his precious few dollars. Mukul forced himself to focus — the mental switch clicked to freelance work, but nothing turned up. Finally, one kindly editor gave him something scribbled on a sheet.
He clutched at it like a drowning man to a piece of wood in a sea of uncertainty.
On this wood, that had long become paper, there was a name and a phone number.
Charu Khopkar, then twenty nine, landed with his wife, Alka, who had earned a scholarship to study German at Frankfurt University. Both had been educated at English-language convent schools in Bombay, India. Despite the odd incidences of “The apartment just got rented,” “They always get the best seats,” “When are you going back?” and “You are not here permanently, are you?” they stayed for ten years.
While fluent in German, at home they conversed in English. When their first child was born, they thought of moving to an English-speaking country, and Australia happened to be advertising for immigrants in Germany. By then, Charu was also armed with a four-year full-time master’s degree in Economics from Frankfurt University.
I have driven to Charu and Alka’s home. It’s on a narrow street in Sydney’s south. A signature upper-middle-class area — tall gum trees outline the street on both sides, the sidewalks are neat, the grass trimmed. The aging trees bend over the bitumen below, creating a tranquil, leafy canopy that keeps most cars in the shade.
The house is a picture-postcard of suburban bliss — a well-maintained grassy front lawn, an attached brick double garage, its white doors adorned with a green pattern matching the green of the fence and the rain gutters on the roof. French windows with striped green canvas awnings are everywhere. No need to ring the doorbell, a Golden Retriever and a Labrador announce my arrival.
Charu and I sit at a long, narrow dining table with coffee. We talk for almost three hours. Charu is wistful as he remembers the early days:
“When I was new to Australia, a German company advertised through CES (Commonwealth Employment Service) for a representative with German experience and German qualifications, but resident in Australia. Liaison was required between Germany and Australia. CES sent them my CV.”
“I got a call for an interview. I was excited.”
“The interviewer was a middle-aged German. We spoke initially in English, and then in German. He asked about what I did in Germany. It all went smoothly.”
“When I inquired with CES about the outcome, I was told that they were looking for an Australian-born person.”
“CES said they couldn’t do anything about this; it was a private sector company.”
This was a recollection from 1982.
Scoring an interview is still hard for many — the foreign-born are even stratified. Australian National University researchers sent over 4,000 fictional resumes to employers in response to job advertisements.  In all cases, they submitted a CV showing that the candidate had attended high school in Australia. Despite that, not only did minority groups suffer discrimination, but Italian names suffered much less than the Chinese and Middle-Eastern fictional names. Worse, the higher level jobs, as well as those that required customer contact (such as waitstaff), suffered more than say, data-entry operators.
In academic parlance, this is called the “glass gate”. If the gate providing an entry — to an elite university, a profession, to firms at the better end of town — is unfairly shut, then the groundwork for a ‘ceiling’ is already laid. If someone is jumpstarted to a managerial level, like Rupert Murdoch’s sons, they are on a “glass escalator” . According to research reported to the US Glass Ceiling Commission , white males are more likely to get the benefit of a glass escalator. The better assignments and mentoring neglected, the career-enhancing moves omitted — they are the invisible “glass walls” — the neglect by omission of a people with no connections.
You can walk in the main entrance of this bank every day of the week, and still never stop noticing the large, arched windows and the enormous columns of green marble with brass tops in the main banking chamber, one of the largest in the world.
I entered a fourth-floor office, rather large for a mid-level manager. My supervisor, Lalit (not his real name), wasn’t there. I sat across his desk on the visitor’s side, solemn, staring out the window to my right, wondering why I was being summoned. Lalit appeared with his customary delay to indicate how busy and rushed he was.
Like many upper-crust city bankers, Lalit always flaunts tailored suits and brand-name shirts and ties. He drives a BMW and boasts of an affluent suburban address.
Lalit is not super rich. He bought a high mileage three-year-old car and he rents. He tries to speak with a posh accent, but his subcontinental origins slip out every now and then, like cleavage showing through a loose kimono. Aware and self-conscious, he repeatedly closes the kimono, jittery and uneasy about how flimsy his cover is.
He speaks in trivialities, until I lose patience.
“So what are we here about?” I ask.
“Umm … there’s a course I want you to consider doing. It will be good for you.”
“What kind of course?”
He fidgets and squirms.
“It will be worthwhile. The company will pay for it.”
“Yes, but what exactly are we talking about?”
He is adjusting his fancy tie.
“Err … you will be working with a voice coach. She comes highly …”
“What’s wrong with my voice? I just did a presentation to over a hundred people that was very well received.” I feel indignant. My ire must be apparent, he picked up on it, his demeanor noticeably softens.
“It was, indeed. But … how do I say this … you deserve better. You are clever, technically adept. It would be better … better for you if you neutralise your accent.”
I am silent. I mull it over. My gaze shifts, first to the sunlight filtering through the window and then downward to the floor under the table between us. I notice a pointy sparkle, like a small torchlight beam — how long does it take for him to get his shoes shining like that every morning?
“You can stop any time. Why not try it out?” He is persistent.
I nod to that. He smiles.
“On one condition,” I say, “will you join me? Don’t you need it as well?”
Touché. There is a stunned silence.
Uncannily, Simon Wong (not his real name) tells me the same story — different company, different manager — a Caucasian white who told Simon to his face, “With that accent, you can forget about career progression.”
Simon too, had given several presentations, “They were fantastic,” said his boss, “the public speaking is fine.”
Simon has even tried to enter politics, only to be advised that it is really hard for an ethnic person to win a lower house seat.
Puzzled, I decide to call Carlos, the most multi-ethnic person I know.
I remember vividly the day I first met Carlos four years ago on a film set. Sydney Film School is housed behind a two-storey, warehouse-like structure next to a loading dock. The lower level is painted pink, perhaps to hide the rust on the metallic roll down doors.
He was seated behind a large wooden desk, sporting a jacket on a summery day, looking cool, as though he was underneath a fan.
We were helping students shoot the first scene of Chinatown. I was cast as Curly, the private detective’s client who just found out his wife has been cheating on him. Carlos was playing Jake Gittes, the detective embodied in Hollywood by Jack Nicholson.
Several retakes later, we finished to a heady applause, and I got to meet the real Carlos.
Carlos Sivalingam is five foot three, dark-skinned, a fraction stout and immensely articulate. He has a fascinating theory about why so many Australian movies never feature ethnic identities. To get the call for an audition, you have to first look the part.
Carlos tells me he is half Malaysian, half Sri Lankan. He is in his forties, and he wants to become a day-job actor, as in make those irregular cheques frequent enough to not need a full-time job. My jaw drops — the odds against him making it are spectacularly high. I marvel at the audacity of his resolve.
He is eloquently aware of the gravity of the challenge — “I am the wrong shape, size and colour,” he says.
I met Carlos again recently. He lives by himself in a terrace flat in an inner-city suburb of Sydney and invites me in enthusiastically. The living room is homely, the furniture is old but well-kept, sunrays stream through the windows stained more by age than artwork.
I find out more about him — born in Malaysia, he went to school in New Zealand, and to high school in Perth. But meningitis as a child left him with an inability to concentrate for long periods. Learning lines must be twice as hard.
He still holds a telemarketing job, but only part-time. He has landed many an acting role. I congratulate him — he has ascended to Base Camp at Everest, and the paid actor summit is not yet out of his reach.
“Accents and looks are overrated by acting coaches & managers,” he says, “look at Sidney Poitier. He never got rid of his Caribbean accent. At first, Arnold Schwarzenegger got rejected a lot in Hollywood because of his Austrian accent. But when the films became successful, it became a strong point, his calling card. I think the audience loves to see a good performer performing. It becomes about the performance. They are drawn into it. They go with it. Look at children. Mixed ethnicity does not bother them when they are playing with each other.”
Carlos, you are a sage. Excited on the way back, I head straight to the library.
In 2013, Laura Huang and two others led an interesting experiment . Aware from several other studies that non-native English speakers experience discrimination in the English-speaking West, they sought to devise a theory for why it occurs, as well as test for it. They propose that the glass-ceiling bias impeding immigrants is manifested in a bias against those speaking with non-native accents, the strongest signal of immigrant status — detected quickly and apparent almost continuously.
Huang’s team quotes other researchers who contend that a non-native accent is distinct from language fluency or competence. So, they controlled for communication clarity. Two experiments were set up. A diverse (by race, gender etc.) group of 179 students assessed four candidates by listening to job interview audio, but each student only assessed one candidate. The four candidates were: a white Caucasian American and a Japanese-American, both speaking with a native (American) accent; Japanese and Russian individuals, both of whom had been in the US for only five years, and spoke with a non-native accent. The resumes, gender, and the dialogue were identical. In the second experiment, the same candidates were assessed similarly by a large group of MBA students, but the interviewees requested venture capital funding. Minorities frustrated by the glass ceiling will often look to start their own venture as a means of getting ahead.
While assessing all four candidates as ‘comparable’ for communication skills, collaborative skills, intelligence, confidence and attractiveness (they were shown a photo), the respondents assessed the two native-accented men as having significantly higher political skill (the ability to influence others).
There was no pronounced difference between the locally raised Japanese-American and the European-descent white American. The researchers inferred that accent alone mattered, at least in that experiment. They even counseled immigrants to convey political skill in the interviews.
If children play innocently, how do we get this way?
The journal “Frontiers in Psychology”  inferred, “Both monolingual and bilingual preschoolers preferred to be friends with native-accented speakers over speakers who spoke their dominant language with an unfamiliar foreign accent.” So much for the innocence of preschoolers. Carlos wasn’t right either. But at least race is not an issue, it seems.
But there are other claims. A University of New Mexico paper reports that “foreign-born Whites with poor language and communication skills do not face problems in promotion and mobility,” and that ‘language capital is not required of foreign-born Whites.’ 
Language capital not required? Perhaps, for some, the bar isn’t as high.
Indeed, The Corminator, Belgian (foreign-born white) Mathias Cormann, has the physique and accent reminiscent of the Terminator, but he always talks at a hundred miles an hour, like he is about to miss a flight. It has not stopped him from becoming the Australian Minister for Finance. He even survived a political coup while backing the loser.
So what should the non-whites do?
“One has to be careful not to overplay the race card. It’s a bad tendency to cry race each time things don’t happen the way we would want them to” — that’s advice from Carlos.
Poitier is the role model, not the victim craftsman who got compensated in a lawsuit. Poitier’s real-life story is what Hollywood scriptwriters dream about inventing.
Sidney Poitier left behind his parents and his Bahamas’ home at fifteen to join his elder brother in Miami. Upset by the racism of the South, he decided to try his luck in New York. He was barely sixteen when he arrived in Harlem with only a few dollars left in his pocket, having been robbed along the way. He had no education; he was black; he had no money; he didn’t know a soul; and it was 1943.
He slept in bus stations until he could afford a rented room. He lied about his age to join the army, which he did to escape the New York winter and heating bills he could not afford.
The army was not his calling, so he feigned insanity to secure a medical discharge. Feigned? The audacity of what followed was insane.
He auditioned for the American Negro Theater, but the theatre director ridiculed his Caribbean accent and poor reading skills. Incensed by the rejection, the young man resolved to become an actor, if only to prove his detractor wrong.
Reading newspapers between shifts as a dishwasher, struggling to learn by himself, listening to the radio for hours on end, repeating every word to modify his accent, offering to serve as a janitor in exchange for acting classes, Resolution and Resilience, you were Sidney. The rest is history.
In 1967, a mere twenty-four years later, guess who came to dinner and broke every taboo in the Hollywood canon? Yes, we know. But let’s keep our mind attuned to 1943. That’s the long struggle we need to imbibe the spirit of.
Vinay Kolhatkar averaged High Distinction in his Master of Journalism and Communication course at UNSW (Sydney, Australia) and this was his final project. He is also a Columnist at Savvy Street, and a novelist (The Frankenstein Candidate, published by Leadstart Publishers). He just completed a manuscript for a second novel.
 Booth, Alison, Leigh, Andrew and Varganova, Elena, ‘Does Racial and Ethnic Discrimination Vary Across Minority Groups? Evidence From Three Experiments’, Economics Program, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, 29 June 2010.
 Guo, Shibao, ‘Economic Integration of Recent Chinese Immigrants in Canada’s Second-Tier Cities: The Triple Glass Effect and Immigrants’ Downward Social Mobility’, 12 Dec 2013, 95-115.
 Woo, Deborah, ‘The Glass Ceiling and Asian Americans, A Research Monograph’, University of California Santa Cruz, US Department of Labor Glass Ceiling Commission, 1 July 1994.
 Huang, Laura, Frideger, Marcia, and Pearce, Jone L., ‘Political Skill: Explaining the Effects of Nonnative Accent on Managerial Hiring and Entrepreneurial Investment Decisions’, Journal of Applied Psychology, Online First Publication, 12 Aug 2013.