By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Asians in America are the least likely of any ethnic group to be promoted to senior management positions, according to a nonprofit that provides training and education for Asian professionals.
Despite representing 6% of the population and 12% of the professional workforce, when it comes to promotions to the top executive level, only 1.5% of Asians will make it, said Iris Yen, a Nike executive, speaking at a forum sponsored by Ascend Foundation.
The May 11 virtual forum, the first in a series, brought together Asian corporate leaders who argued that the past two years of overt racism has also brought about an empowerment and understanding among the Asian community about the struggle it faces.
Executives said that while there has been two centuries of racism in this country against Asians, new data and understandings shed a new light on ways to counter it.
Sharing that 76% of Asians had perceived themselves as subject to discrimination, according to the PEW Research Center, Yen said that seeing a statistic like that validated her own observations.
“What you thought might be happening, is happening,” she said. “It was a relief, it made me think I wasn’t crazy.”
Professionally, the understanding of such data, she said, was essential for corporations.
“Any company that has Asians in its workforce needs to understand this,” she said.
Beyond outright discrimination and aggressions, Asians are much less likely to be promoted to top positions for two reasons—radically different work cultures and unconscious bias against them, said Rob Ohno, an executive with PGA Tour.
The culture gap
Acknowledging that he was speaking generally of a diverse group that encompasses different cultures, he cited a paper by Joyce Chen called “The Massive Culture Gap.”
“This is something I wish I had known about when I was just starting out,” said Ohno.
Asians value social order and harmony, they don’t want to rock the boat, he said.
Moreover, the Asian workplace emphasizes tasks, rather than emotional connection, especially between subordinates and their bosses.
“Be modest and keep the boss happy,” he said regarding the key to success in a paradigmatic Asian company.
In the western, or Anglo, world, however, power comes from “influence.”
While getting results matters, promotion depends, if not more so, on building emotional connections with other employees at all levels—even with those above one’s own boss.
Such an imperative might seem inappropriate to Asians.
“The higher you get, the more this matters,” he said.
In her paper, Chen describes the fallacy of many Asian immigrant families who believe that “Harvard plus hard work” will mean success.
Her father, who was courted from Taiwan on a full scholarship to MIT, shunned Christmas parties at his company because he was “afraid to talk to white people,” and so his advancement was impaired.
She also did a survey of the leaders of top Fortune 500 companies and found that very few went to Ivy League schools.
“In America, an Ivy League degree helps you most before you hit age 30, when you’re looking for that first job out of college or graduate school. At that point, it can be a huge plus indeed. Some of the most prestigious law, banking, and management-consulting firms recruit almost exclusively from the most elite schools,” she wrote.
But, she added, the very traits that many Asian parents foster—coaching kids to work hard on studies and eschew play—prevent their children from developing the skills necessary to build relationships and schmooze, which in the end determine who makes it to the top in American companies.
“Growing up, while the other kids are playing and learning to be a friend and to make friends, we’re isolated, working so hard, to get the perfect test scores, and to win the math competitions… to get into Harvard,” she writes.
She added, “And now we see why the Harvard and Hard Work doctrine is such a dangerous fallacy for our community. Not only does it seduce families into investing massive amounts of time, money, and energy to try for those Ivy League degrees, but even worse, it prevents us from developing the very connection skills we need to put all that education to use and lead.”
Unconscious bias against Asians is the other factor working against them from riding up the corporate chain.
David Wurm, an executive at Blue Buffalo, only realized he was mostly Filipino five years ago after taking an Ancestry.com test.
It was after his revelation, and his choice to embrace his Asian heritage, that he fully became aware of all the ways Asians were categorized in virtually every conversation about leadership advancement, including in his prior position, as an executive at General Mills.
“I was in the room,” he said.
Such code phrases as, “not a good fit,” or “quiet,” or “lacking leadership presence to lead a broad diverse team,” all signaled an unconscious bias against Asians.
His current and former employer, like others, now have mandatory leadership training. On the corporate level, there is a growing understanding of the nature of unconscious bias, he said.
How to rise
At the same time, the executives encouraged Asians to draw strength and inspiration from their own background and culture.
From an immigrant family, Yen said she thinks about the “maverick” immigrant spirit when facing challenges.
“I think about that in what I try to bring to my team every single day and then the enormous responsibility that I have to think about what people before me did for me and my family,” she said.
Facing the increase in violence and antagonism toward Asians in recent years, and encouraged by her participation with Ascend, Yen said she came face to face with the question, “What do we stand for?”
Part of the answer might be surprising to non-Asians.
With over 20 countries of origin accounting for the population, “We embody diversity and all that comes along with diversity,” she said.
Asians also represent the future, she added.
The current population of 22 million is expected to reach 46 million by 2060.
Besides being the consumer group with the fastest-growing buying power, Asians are particularly equipped to navigate an increasingly diverse workplace in which new ideas grow out of the “mishmash of cultures,” she said.
“We as a community really share so much of that cross-cultural, multicultural insight.”
As for educating others, she said, sharing personal stories is highly effective.
The series of virtual forums “is geared toward helping Asian professionals maximize their potential in the workplace,” wrote Ohno, in an email. “We have a grand vision to help the next generation of Asian leaders, regardless of whether they are beginning their careers or midway through their careers or anywhere in between. Attendees don’t have to be in a sales or revenue generation role. They can work in any discipline as the subject matter will be relevant to any Asian professionals.”
To join upcoming ASCEND events, go to the RISE SERIES LinkedIn group: linkedin.com/groups/12658770
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Betty Lau says
Several important points were raised in the article about what’s keeping Asians from rising in corporate America. One is friendship development, which leads to networks. Parents bringing their children to youth activities is critical to socialization, getting along with others, forming connections in team play, collaboration and decision making. From these early friendships and experiences, future networks will naturally arise and develop if nurtured. Opportunities to socialize abound locally, from the Wing Luke Museum’s youth programs to language schools, to the Chinese Community Girls Drill Team and Chinatown Dragon Team to Seattle Chinese Asian Athletics basketball. More families should bring their kids and get them involved as part of their foundation for adulthood.