Standing up for the Height Challenged

A lot of Asian Americans are short, yet they seem to defy research that says taller people are more successful.

August 1, 2007

Let's face it, it is not easy being short. Taller people have received preferential treatment ever since Homo erectus first stood up. A proud 5-foot even (yes, I qualify as a "short Asian"), this is a phenomenon that I have paid particularly close attention to.

In high school, I learned that taller people (most often men) are more likely to receive higher paying jobs, hold high ranking political office, marry and have more children than their shorter counterparts. In college, I learned that Fortune 500 CEOs and US presidents are on average 3 inches taller than the average American man, and that every inch of height amounts to a salary increase of almost $800 a year. By the time I landed my first real job, it hit me: heightism, a form of discrimination based on height, is as prominent in Western culture as the high-heeled shoe.

A recent study conducted by Princeton economists Anne case and Christina Paxson, however, sheds new light on this sad social reality. In their controversial article, "Stature and Status: Height, Ability and Labor Market Outcomes", case and Paxson argue that on average taller people earn more because they are actually smarter. Needless to say, processing the implications of this information is no easy feat (even, I imagine, for someone at the top of the growth chart). If there is a positive correlation between intelligence and height, what does this mean for, well, people like me?

Given that Asian populations have been historically shorter than most other racial groups (although there have been recent height increases in China and South Korea due to a change in diet), upon first glance things look pretty grim. Not only are we supposed to be submissive and docile and really bad at dancing, but now we are supposed to be dumb, too!

Thus, intelligent (well-paid) members of the Asian American community like Jerry Yang, Mira Nair and Vera Wang are anomaliesmere blips on the taller person's radar-while the rest of us vertically challenged folk have little hope. This seems unlikely at a time when California's most selective state-run school, the University of California, Berkeley, is struggling to keep its campus diverse. Asian Pacific Islanders were 41.4 percent of the student population last year, surpassing all other racial and ethnic groups. Yep, higher education institutions throughout the country, not to mention Fortune 500 companies, research laboratories and Hollywood studios have watched as short-legged, big-brained Asian Americans make small but meaningful cracks in that shiny "glass ceiling."

In fact, the achievements of Asian Americans, despite our shorter stature, may help debunk case and Paxson's findings altogether. According to the US Census Bureau, Asian Americans currently have the highest proportion of college graduates (49 percent) and the highest median household income ($57,500) of any racial or ethnic group in the country (although this data can be misleading as it masks over the Asian American groups who lack education and live in poverty). It doesn't seem to matter that on average an Asian person is 3 to 4 inches shorter than a person of Caucasian descent. Our ability to achieve high degrees of academic and financial success renders much of this research useless.

Or does it?

What about that super anxious kid in math class? The girl with slanted eyes and straight black hair, wearing a shirt whose label reads Made in Korea, although she certainly was not. You know the one. The kid everyone expects to be really smart and good at taking tests, who not-so-secretly stinks at math almost as much as she stinks at taking tests. Have case and Paxson's findings finally set me free? Can Asian Americans everywhere breathe a sigh of relief, grateful that now we do not have to be smart and good at everything?

Perhaps it is too soon to tell. Perhaps this height and intelligence hypothesis needs more looking into. Hopefully, case and Paxon's article is just the beginning of a long body of literature full of endless possibilities, the tang at the edge of a tape measure. 

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