By Carolyn Bick
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Whenever Linda Akutagawa would meet someone in a professional setting, she found they almost always assumed she was extremely smart.
“On the one hand, it’s kind of nice to be made to feel that way, but, on the other hand, it’s hard to live up to,” Akutagawa said.
But that assumption is part and parcel of a larger stereotype many Asians and Pacific Islanders (APIs) face in the United States. It’s called the model minority myth, which puts APIs into the box of smart, but quiet, submissive, and unable to lead.
Akutagawa is the president and CEO of Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, Inc. (LEAP), a national nonprofit that works to overturn that stereotype and whose mission is to achieve full participation and equality for APIs in both society and the workplace.
Akutagawa said Western society usually puts the stereotype of the smart, quiet Asian on those of East Asian descent, and it harms their career choices and prospects. It doesn’t give them the opportunity to grow or demonstrate their leadership abilities, she said. And it doesn’t just apply to one gender, either.
“The stereotype of me as an Asian American woman is that, okay, I am supposed to be quiet. I am supposed to be easygoing. I am going to be somewhat submissive, not assertive. I’m going to never say no, or rarely say no. I’ll always be accommodating,” Akutagawa said. “If you get an Asian man, I think there are similar types of stereotypes that exist for Asian men … not very assertive, also passive … quiet, highly technical, not good social skills, won’t be able to interact with other people.”
LEAP has several programs and workshops meant to help combat the myth on both sides of the aisle, programs like Assertiveness Training, Managing the Asian American Career, and Understanding the Asian American Workforce. The organization’s work also involves teaching students how to lead in a way that feels authentic to themselves, how to navigate a diverse workplace, and how their values, as well as others’ values, influence their behavior.
In addition to LEAP’s work, Akutagawa belongs to CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion, a coalition of more than 650 CEOs and presidents committed to increasing diversity and inclusion in the workplace, created by PwC, a global accounting firm. She is one of just a handful of Asian Americans in the coalition, a makeup that PwC’s U.S. Minority Initiatives and Talent Management Leader Elena Richards said is reflective of the very problem the coalition is trying to help solve.
“When we think about even just the coalition as a whole … we have roughly about 24 of them identifying as being Asian or of Asian descent,” Richards said. “That, in itself, gives you a landscape that is very typical of what corporate America looks like. … The way we can help is, how can we get more Asian leaders in the room to share their stories with their fellow signatories.”
One of Akutagawa’s fellow coalition members, Jeff Chin, is a retired Ernst and Young partner, and currently heads the nonprofit Ascend Foundation. Started in 2005, the nonprofit is the largest Pan-Asian organization for business professionals in North America, and serves 60,000 people, with 40 student chapters and 17 professional chapters throughout the United States and Canada. Though he eventually became partner at Ernst and Young, Chin admits the road there wasn’t easy, at first.
“Someone would see that I was very hardworking, a high-level achiever, in terms of grades, but I kept my head down. … The problem was that I did not promote myself, and I also did not speak up, because, from a cultural point of view, I was taught to speak when spoken to,” Chin said. “So, I had mentors, sponsors help me to develop those leadership skills, to work in a team environment, to make sure that my viewpoint, which is valuable, is understood, and that I am a contributor.”
And this is part of what Ascend does, Chin said. Though membership in the nonprofit is open to all ethnicities and backgrounds, its work is focused on elevating leadership and business potential of APIs, and breaking the stereotypes associated with the group. Ascend also created the Pinnacle program, which aims to increase the percentage of Asian Americans on the boards of Fortune 500 companies to reflect the percentage of Asian Americans in the U.S. population.
The nonprofit also compiles research on API leadership, which it periodically publishes on its website. Ascend uses the research to inform its programs and sessions, such as the Myths of Asian Leadership session that talks about the disparities between the group’s educational attainment and its career opportunities.
For instance, according to Ascend’s latest research of the tech sector in the San Francisco Bay Area, between 2007 and 2015, “there were no major shifts upward for racial minorities in climbing the management ladder to become executives.” Moreover, the report found that though Asians outnumbered white people in entry-level positions by 2015, their white colleagues were twice as likely to become executives and held three times the number of executive jobs. Using the Equity Parity Index it created, Ascend also found that though white women made progress in leadership in the San Francisco Bay Area’s tech field between 2007 and 2015, moving from below 12 percent parity to above 17 percent parity, Asian men and women remained below parity, at 38 percent below and 66 percent below, respectively.
But Chin understands that the work is a journey, and said this is why he joined CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion.
“I am relatively new to it, but my intention is to share these best practices with those that are part of the network, and help be the voice and get the voice out to more people and organizations,” Chin said.
Carolyn can be reached at email@example.com.