Tips for Helping Asian American Workers Progress Professionally

Global HR

​Joy Chen is an Asian American executive who has achieved a lot in her career.

At 31, Chen became the deputy mayor of Los Angeles, where she helped create new programs that expanded access to skills and jobs. She’s authored two books and has served as CEO of a leadership training company whose courses, speeches and videos teach leadership skills to people in China.

Chen, now CEO of the Multicultural Leadership Institute in Los Angeles, spoke about the unique challenges that Asian American workers face on Oct. 26 at the SHRM INCLUSION 2022 conference in San Diego.

“As HR professionals, the DE&I [diversity, equity and inclusion] challenges of Asian Americans are fundamentally different than those of other groups,” Chen said. “We must enable them to succeed.”

Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) workers are well-represented in corporate America. Chen mentioned that AAPI individuals make up 6 percent of the U.S. population but 13 percent of the workforce. In some companies, Asian Americans account for 30 percent of the workforce.

However, AAPI individuals are largely absent from leadership roles, creating what is known as a “bamboo ceiling” that prevents these employees from progressing to a certain level of success.

In 2021, Asian American employees accounted for 9 percent of senior vice presidents but just 5 percent of promotions from senior vice president to the C-suite, according to a McKinsey & Co. report. Asian American women make up less than 1 percent of these promotions.

Stereotypes of Asian American Workers

Why do Asian American workers have trouble securing leadership roles? Chen says stereotypes are partly to blame. She noted that AAPI individuals are often viewed in Western culture as smart and hardworking but lacking leadership skills.

“Starting out in life, Asian Americans are successful,” Chen said. “They get great grades and enter great companies. But after age 30, their careers plummet. Their rate of promotion into management is less than that of whites, African Americans and Latino workers.”

Factors that can prevent AAPI workers from reaching leadership positions include:

Biased perceptions. The idea that AAPI individuals are “tech, not exec” and the stereotypes of “the perpetual foreigner” and “the interchangeable Asian” hurt their careers.

The culture gap. Chen pointed to research revealing that 71 percent of Asian American adults were born abroad compared with 17 percent of all American adults. AAPI individuals born abroad are expected to adjust their lifestyle to that of the traditional Western culture.

Majority-group homophily. Chen also noted that 75 percent of white Americans have core social networks entirely made up of white people. This can lead to unconscious bias against other racial groups.

“[The majority-group homophily] happens because white Americans are human beings,” Chen noted. “This is how humans unconsciously form groups. Every race does this, not just white people. It feels cozy and comfortable to have that joy of instant understanding.”

Increasing Equity and Inclusion

Many Asian American workers do not feel included in the workplace. This is particularly true among AAPI employees who are part of Generation Z.

Just 19 percent of Asian American workers ages 18-24 completely agree that they feel a sense of belonging and acceptance at work, according to the 2022 STAATUS Index Report by the Asian American Foundation. Less than 30 percent of AAPI workers ages 25-34 agreed with this sentiment.

“This idea of having to code-switch creates a great deal of angst,” Chen said. “You’re constantly having to suppress yourself and act like other people to fit in. That can create burnout and lack of belonging for groups of workers.”

Vivian Carter is an Asian American woman who serves as a diversity, inclusion and belonging coordinator with software company KnowBe4 in Upper Marlboro, Md. The idea of adjusting yourself to meet certain expectations resonates with her.

“There is an American standard placed on us,” said Carter, who attended the session. “It’s stressful and overwhelming at times, so I’m really glad [Chen] talked about that.”

Chen offered a researched-based, five-step road map for HR to help AAPI workers progress into leadership roles:

  • Gather mobility data and set equity goals that include Asian American workers.
  • Offer learning and development that meets the unique needs of Asian American employees.
  • Facilitate one-on-one collaboration and social opportunities for Asian American workers with better-networked peers.
  • Strengthen employee resource groups (ERGs) with intra-group and inter-group networking; include all racial groups in these ERGs.
  • Incentivize all employees to create inclusion.

Creating inclusion is the unpaid housework of corporate life that women are often tasked with completing, Chen said. It is important for all employees to focus on creating an inclusive culture for workers of all demographics.

“The lack of inclusion is a systems problem; when we don’t reward inclusion, that inclusion is disincentivized,” Chen explained. “A lack of inclusion means lack of equity.”

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