Asian-American women are making their mark in a widening diversity of fields in the US work force. Although they are considered the least vocal of women's minority groups, inroads into the professional world have been made by determined individuals from Filipino, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and Southeast Asian backgrounds.
''The stereotype of Asian-American women as passive, the Susie Wong-type servant, is beginning to break down,'' says Elaine Kim, associate professor of Asian-American studies at the University of California, Berkeley. ''It's getting a lot better now, especially in California.''
While Asian-Americans may not face blatant discrimination, they do encounter it in more subtle forms, says Janet Wu, State House reporter for WCVB news, the Boston affiliate of ABC. As a first-generation Chinese-American in a highly visible profession, she has had people comment to her: ''I don't even think of you as Chinese.''
While they may mean it as a compliment, she says, ''To me it implies, 'You're almost good enough to be white.' But I'm not white and I'm proud I'm not white. Americans are tolerant in many ways, but they have a lot to learn culturally.''
Despite lingering stereotypes, unemployment is generally not a problem for Asian-American women. Sixty-four percent of these women are in the work force, compared with 58 percent of white women and 62 percent of black women.
According to Professor Kim, however, under employment in terms of pay and skill level is a major characteristic of Asian-American working women.
As project director of Asian Women United of California, an organization studying educational and employment issues affecting Asian-American women, Ms. Kim sees a pattern of both immigrant and American-born Asian women employed in jobs for which they are overqualified, based on their educational level. Although lack of English skills may be an obstacle, underemployment also affects those who are fluent, she says.
Viewed in a larger context, pay levels of Asian-American women fall below those of US women as a whole. In 1981, US women earned only 64.7 cents for every dollar earned by a man. US Department of Labor figures show that income levels of Asian-American women vary fall roughly between 38 and 48 percent of white men's income.
For Asians working to gain equity in the workplace, cultural beliefs may hinder progress. In the Chinese community, for example, Janet Wu says, ''Their first instinct is 'work hard, be quiet, and you will see your reward.' But that doesn't work in this country. There are a lot of people in my generation - in their early 30s - who are trying to be more vocal.''
According to a recently published study of Asian-American women in the work force, ''With Silk Wings'' (San Francisco: Asian Women United of California, $10 .95), while some Asian-American women have established careers with higher levels of salary and responsibility, most continue to be clustered in low-profile, low-status, low-paying jobs, primarily in the clerical ranks. Other traditional occupations for Asian-American women include jobs as garment factory workers, seamstresses, waitresses, cannery workers, and domestic servants.
Many recent Asian immigrants with limited English abilities and few marketable skills choose to establish family-owned businesses as an alternative to a low-paying menial job. Wives in these families often work for little or no pay to help the business survive. In many cases, the younger members of the families do their share of work as well.
Asian-American families often sacrifice a great deal to provide for their children's education as a steppingstone to a professional career. Children are expected to excel in school and often grow up with this idea: ''To make your way in this country you have to be better than everyone else.''
Asian-American students, particularly those with immigrant parents, tend to view their college education in highly practical terms and choose majors that will ensure a good return on their parents' and their own investment.
This may help explain why some professions considered nontraditional for white women are traditional to Asian women, such as accounting or computer programming. In today's market, Asian-American women are able to take advantage of the expanding opportunities in technical and scientific fields. In communication-related fields, however, while American women are found in acting, journalism, and creative writing, Asian-American women generally are not.
In addition to individual efforts, affirmative action has had a positive effect on expanding career opportunities for Asians in the United States. Elaine Kim reports that more than half of the 150 Asian-American women interviewed by Asian Women United during the past two years found their current jobs as a direct result of affirmative action, particularly in fields such as law and medicine, dentistry, architecture, and engineering.
With more employment opportunities opening up, Ms. Kim voices a primary concern for Asian-American women: ''The dilemma we have is, Are we going to give up our cultural identity and become white women in disguise?'' She believes the challenge is to maintain a strong sense of self and maintain ties to the Asian community while fitting effectively into work situations.
Janet Wu, whose family observed Chinese customs including food, language, and traditions, says: ''There was a generation that tried abandoning Chinese ways of doing things. That's denying something that you are. For some things I believe the Chinese way is right; for others, I think the American way is better. Asians should take advantage of the fact that they can pick and choose.''
Many Asian-American women regard their careers not only in terms of self-fulfillment, but as a contribution to their families and community.
Sookie Choo, a New York lawyer chose law as a career because she saw a need for bilingual lawyers to serve Koreans who may not understand English or American laws.
Sharon Maeda, a Japanese-American who lives in Los Angeles, sees the news media as a powerful force in promoting understanding among people. As executive director of the Pacifica Foundation, which operates the largest noncommercial radio network in the US, she develops programs to serve minority groups, women, and the poor.
Helen Chin-Schlichte, who has worked for Massachusetts state government since 1949, says, ''One of the reasons I stayed in public service is, I thought I could help my people.''
Mrs. Chin-Schlichte devotes much of her free time to helping the Chinese community in Boston gain access to the state bureaucracy, to work for better housing and other needs. In this capacity she sees herself as a role model for other Chinese women.
''They need to work within their own community to assess its needs. But they also need to become involved in outside activities so the larger community can see who we are and what we can do.
''I have Asian women come to me to talk about their careers and some of their feelings. 'Why is it we stand out?' they ask. I tell them we stand out not because of our yellow skin or slanted eyes, but because we are bright, motivated , and we work hard to achieve.''