Asian Americans are the forgotten minority in the glass ceiling conversation.
This was painfully obvious to us while reading the newly released diversity and inclusion report from a large Silicon Valley company: Its 19 pages never specifically address Asian Americans. Asian men are lumped into a “non-underrepresented” category with white men (we’ll say more about that below); Asian women are assigned to a category that includes women of all races. In contrast, the report addresses Hispanics, African Americans, and Native Americans as distinct categories. Ironically, the chief diversity and inclusion officer of the company remarked about its efforts, “If you do not intentionally include, you will unintentionally exclude.”
But excluded from the report was the fact that Asian Americans are the least likely racial group to be promoted into Silicon Valley’s management and executive levels, even though they are the most likely to be hired into high-tech jobs. This was a key finding in a 2017 report we coauthored for the Ascend Foundation (“The Illusion of Asian Success”), analyzing EEOC data on Silicon Valley’s management pipeline.
Across the country, the results are the same. Our analysis of national EEOC workforce data found that Asian American white-collar professionals are the least likely group to be promoted from individual contributor roles into management — less likely than any other race, including blacks and Hispanics. And our analysis found that white professionals are about twice as likely to be promoted into management as their Asian American counterparts.
It is easy to understand why Asian American representation in the workforce may not seem to be an issue. In some key measures, Asian Americans are the most successful U.S. demographic — more highly educated, for example, and with higher median incomes than any other racial group. More significant, Asian Americans are 12% of the professional workforce while making up only 5.6% of the U.S. population. This fact underlies the potential blind spot for many companies: Because Asian Americans are not considered an underrepresented minority, they are given little priority or attention in diversity programs. We have found that in many companies throughout the country, Asian-related programs are geared toward cultural inclusion, not management diversity.
When we were tech executives in Silicon Valley, our corporate responsibility was to grow the business by building a highly skilled and motivated workforce through hiring, developing, and promoting the best talent. The large numbers of Asian Americans in the professional workforce confirm that businesses are finding qualified Asian Americans to hire; however, the disparity between the lower ranks and the executive levels suggests either that leadership potential is disproportionately lacking in Asian Americans or — much more likely — that companies have not done an adequate job of identifying and developing Asian American talent.
These issues aren’t confined to the tech industry. Similar concerns were raised about the legal profession in a 2017 study coauthored by Goodwin Liu, associate justice of the California Supreme Court. Published by the Yale Law School and the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, the report found that Asian Americans are well-represented in law — they’re more than 10% of the graduates of the top 30 law schools — yet “have the highest attrition rates and lowest ratio of partners to associates among all [racial] groups.”
A similar finding with New York banks was reported in Bloomberg Businessweek last year. As one example, Goldman Sachs reported that 27% of its U.S. professional workforce was Asian American, but only 11% of its U.S. executives and senior managers, and none of its executive officers, were.
The list of industries goes on. The Ascend Foundation, a pan-Asian organization that published our 2017 paper, was established by a group of pan-Asian accounting partners. They had found that while over 20% of the associates in many of the larger accounting firms were Asian American, very few were being promoted to the partner level.
And this is not just a problem in private industry: While Asian Americans were 9.8% of the federal professional workforce in 2016, they are only 4.4% of the workforce at the highest federal level.
Fortunately, some companies have found ways to close the gap.
Several years ago, one global energy company commissioned an internal task force to review the status of women and minorities in its leadership pipeline. Reporting to the executive staff, the task force found insufficient gender and racial diversity in the pipeline, including Asian diversity, and recommended specific actions. With strong CEO and executive support, the company quickly moved to identify potential leaders and significantly increase its spending for leadership training for women and minorities. For its Asian workforce, it partnered with a major business school to integrate culturally specific training into its leadership development program for Asian American managers.
This example provides the key steps that corporations can take to address the Asian glass ceiling.
First, it is necessary to be data-driven and to carefully review the retention and promotion rates of Asian Americans in an analysis of race and gender. Our research suggests that men and women of different races encounter progression barriers at different levels of the management ladder. Our anecdotal experience leads us to believe that it also varies across different parts of the organization (for example, engineering versus marketing versus sales), though we would need specific data to explore that idea.
Second, it is essential to have open, visible, and proactive support from the CEO and the executive team. Without open support, it is difficult to get organizations to shift priorities and budgets to fund and organize new programs. Just as important, without proactive support, institutional inertia can create procedural potholes that can derail new initiatives.
Finally, it is critical to institutionalize Asian American leadership as one of the goals and sustained priorities of the company’s leadership development process, not just as a one-time special diversity project.
These steps would make for a diversity and inclusion report we would love to read.