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Leon Kaye headshot

For Asian American Women, DEI Needs to Be Addressed as a Progression Issue, Not a Pipeline One

By Leon Kaye
asian american women

When perusing through the raw numbers, Asian American women certainly appear to be a rising force across corporate America. But while they may be visible within U.S. offices, their accomplishments and contributions largely go unacknowledged and unappreciated by many companies. That’s the finding of a McKinsey report, which last month concluded that Asian American women comprise less than 1 percent of any promotions from the senior vice president level to the C-suite.

Asian Americans are often viewed as a monolith when their reality is vastly different. In fact, Asian American women currently experience some of the most drastic income inequality in the U.S. For example, more than 20 percent of South Asian women who are not permanent U.S. residents earn less than $30,000 a year. Further, several “Asian” ethnicities, among them Chinese, Hmong, Laotians, Nepalese and Pakistanis, have higher poverty rates than the overall U.S. average of 12 percent. Chinese Americans account for approximately one-third of all Asian Americans who live in poverty.

In addition to the tropes and stereotypes that linger within the workplace, part of the challenge is understanding the experience of Asian American women in the workplace day after day. Enter Pam Yang, an executive coach, speaker and a founder of Agency DEI, her ongoing work, and determination to reframe how companies approach diversity, equity and inclusion.

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The goals of Yang and Agency DEI include moving U.S. corporate culture toward more transparency around workforce data. Such information is crucial, says Yang, so that employees, customers and other stakeholders have the information they need so that they can trust the companies for which they work and from which they buy goods and services. In order to cement that trust, Yang says it’s important to hold companies accountable to their DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) efforts while offering prospective employees the best possible information to make informed employment decisions. From Yang’s point of view, such disclosure should be a requirement, not cherry-picked information released solely on a company’s terms. (Employers interested in disclosing such diversity data can do so here.)

To do that, Yang says workforce data needs to be in one centralized place. She and the team at Agency DEI are starting with the advertising industry, in which she has more than 15 years of experience. Centralized and standardized data, insists Yang, will enable workers to make those “apples to apples” comparisons. In the long run, this increase in transparency, and consistency, will allow all stakeholders to see how DEI is progressing across companies, as well as view where ongoing problems on this front need to be addressed.

Companies have long framed their DEI efforts as important to their “pipeline of talent.” But from Yang’s perspective, companies need to take on their DEI efforts as a progression issue, not a pipeline one.

“Since the Civil Rights Act ‘banned’ employment discrimination in 1964, the rationale for why there’s a lack of diversity in almost every arena —work, education, military, etc. — has centered around there not being enough ‘qualified’ diverse people," Yang told 3p. "As a result, the most common solutions have focused on ‘expanding’ the pool through recruitment efforts often at the junior levels, generating interest in particular pursuits and fields often at younger ages, early-stage talent development, etc."

“But, discrimination has never been a consequence of age or inexperience," she continued. "It is a feature of human behavior regardless of age, gender, race, creed and can impact people at every stage of their development. So, it makes zero sense that we have focused the supermajority of our time and resources on pipeline programs, except for the fact that they’re easier to [act on] and [publicize] and thus virtue signal that ‘we’re doing something.'”

One result of this dynamic, says Yang, is that diversity in corporate leadership is actually decreasing, not increasing. “We see decreases in representation for every non-white, non-men group from the professional levels to the C-Suite, i.e. there’s an inverse correlation between the increasing representation of men and white people compared to the decreasing representation for women and non-white people,” said Yang, adding that Agency DEI’s research has backed up her conclusion.

“If diverse recruitment and development programs were really the answer and they’ve been around for as long as the issue of diversity has existed, surely, we wouldn’t be having the same conversation six decades after the Civil Rights Act passed," Yang added. “If we don’t solve the problem of progressing the endless stream of ‘qualified’ diverse people, we will never get away from the red herring of the seemingly unsolvable, six-decade-long problem of ‘not enough diverse talent.'” 

Tomorrow, we’ll discuss with Yang the specifics of how companies can truly recruit, welcome, retain and acknowledge the accomplishments and achievements of Asian Americans, especially Asian American women, who remain underrepresented in leadership positions across corporate America.

Image credit: Adobe Stock

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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