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Bamboo Ceiling Emphasizes Need for Strategic Diversity Insight

By Melissa J. Anderson

According to a recent Fortune article, 16% of all Ivy League graduates describe themselves as Asian or Asian American. And at some top schools, like MIT and Stanford, that percentage is even higher. While only about 5% of the US population is of Asian descent, these graduation statistics should point to a large Asian population of top business leaders.

But they don’t. In fact, only 1.5% of executives at Fortune 500 companies are Asian – and only 8 Asian professionals occupy the CEO seat in this top echelon of business. Why are there so few Asians in senior leadership in the US’s top companies?

It’s certainly not a lack of ambition. In fact, research by the Center for Work-Life Policy revealed that Asians are just as likely as other groups to ask for a raise or promotion. And as Sylvia Ann Hewlett, President of the CWLP, wrote in a Forbes article, “64 percent of Asian professionals aspire to top jobs, compared to only 52 percent of their Caucasian peers.” What’s keeping this highly educated and ambitious group from reaching the top?

Cultural Expectations

According to Hewlett, 25% of the study’s Asian respondents said that Asians are treated unfairly at their company, and the CWLP reports, “Nearly half of Asian men and women (48%) report that conformity to prevailing leadership models—having to act, look, and sound like the established leaders in their workplace— is a problem.”

Hewlett added, “Asian men are more than three times as likely as Caucasians to have one foot out the door and are looking to quit in the next year, and Asian women are 40 percent more likely to plan to quit within the year.”

The study said that communication styles may be part of the reason for this frustration. According to the CWLP, “Revealing differing communication styles, results from the study show that Asians, particularly Asian women, are less likely than people of other ethnicities to share new ideas or challenge a group consensus in a team meeting.”

This reluctance to stir the pot may be one piece of the puzzle. In a recent article for New York Magazine, writer Wesley Yang explained:

“To become a leader requires taking personal initiative and thinking about how an organization can work differently. It also requires networking, self-promotion, and self-assertion. It’s racist to think that any given Asian individual is unlikely to be creative or risk-taking. It’s simple cultural observation to say that a group whose education has historically focused on rote memorization and ‘pumping the iron of math’ is, on aggregate, unlikely to yield many people inclined to challenge authority or break with inherited ways of doing things.”

But, Yang continues, there is more to this inequity than traditional values that differ from the majority’s or a particular education style. Unconscious bias comes into play as well. He writes:

“More likely, the discrepancy in these numbers is a matter of unconscious bias. Nobody would affirm the proposition that tall men are intrinsically better leaders, for instance. And yet while only 15 percent of the male population is at least six feet tall, 58 percent of all corporate CEOs are. Similarly, nobody would say that Asian people are unfit to be leaders. But subjects in a recently published psychological experiment consistently rated hypothetical employees with Caucasian-sounding names higher in leadership potential than identical ones with Asian names.”

People are more comfortable promoting (and being led by) people who look and sound like themselves – but that doesn’t excuse institutional bias against any group. As Hewlett wrote in her Forbes piece, “Managers can no longer fall back on the conventional excuses for not promoting Asians. However, in order for Asians to reach their full potential within U.S. companies, progress must continue on expanding notions of what leadership looks like.”

What Corporations Can Do

Hewlett identified several companies that are working to help develop Asian leaders. For example, she mentioned AllianceBernstein’s Asian American ERG’s partnership with Toastmasters to improve public speaking skills and Merck’s Asian Leadership Program to build cultural fluency.

These kinds of programs are a good first step at empowering individual Asian Americans to take control of their leadership development and promotion prospects. But they fall short of challenging the institutional systems at play, which discriminate against individuals who look or sound different, or come from a different cultural tradition than the dominant group.

On the level of strategic diversity, teaching Asians professionals to fit in with white male leadership won’t help companies reap the benefits of diversity either. Twenty-first century diversity and inclusion programs must compel corporate leadership to accept and embrace diversity as a top down, strategic growth initiative.

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