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Leon Kaye headshot

Asian American Women Face Far More Than a Glass Ceiling in Corporate America

By Leon Kaye
Asian American Women

Yesterday, TriplePundit launched a discussion with Pam Yang, an executive coach, speaker and a founder of Agency DEI, about her ongoing work and determination to reframe how companies address challenges related to diversity, equity and inclusion. From Yang’s perspective, companies need to approach their DEI efforts as a progression issue instead of focusing on a "pipeline" of talent, especially when it comes to rewarding and acknowledging the efforts of Asian American women within corporate America.

But going beyond securing the best possible data in order to ensure that DEI efforts can actually succeed, 3p asked Yang what employers can do now to ensure that their Asian American employees, especially women, feel valued and welcomed in the workplace. (Employers interested in disclosing such diversity data can do so here.)

Yang's high-level response at first comes across as simple and plain-spoken: “Take more time.”

But that investment in time requires a three-step approach, she continued. “The strategy for making Asian employees feel valued should be the same as any employee. Take time to center their humanity and their experience; take time to understand the history and context in which their experience exists; and take time to speak with them to learn about their needs and challenges so companies have accurate information to ideate what they can do."

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It’s also time, says Yang, to move away from the catch-all phrase, “Asian,” as that does not fully explain the experience of this widely diverse group of individuals, and that is particularly true of Asian American women. “To start, taking time to break down the definition of Asian is critical as it refers to 60 percent of the world’s population on the Asian continent,” Yang added. “South Asian culture is very different from East Asian culture, and the challenges those groups experience will differ. Plus, treating Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders as an independent group — we’re one of the few countries to group them together — with unique concerns is necessary as their needs disappear in the broader umbrella grouping.”

That “umbrella grouping” is among the reasons why stereotypes and assumptions of Asian American women often persist in U.S. society and within far too many workplaces. “One of the greatest challenges for Asian talent — and others who grew up in cultures or environments that value different leadership and relational qualities — is the wide acceptance of a standardized prototype of leadership in corporate America… i.e., aggressive, assertive, dominant [usually white] men,” Yang continued.

Redefining what “leadership” means in the first place is needed if U.S. companies will ever attain a truly inclusive work environment. Again, this is where investment in time is crucial. “For many women, especially Asian women due to the added biased stereotype of their docility, embodying this prototype can hurt them since it runs counter to how women have been traditionally expected to behave," Yang said. "For everyone’s sake, we need to take time to diversify the definition of what makes a good leader and take time to recognize the value in each person’s varied style and approach."

How companies could actually take the time to understand the complexities of their employee’s backgrounds will vary. What is often consistent across the varied experiences of Asian American women is that they not only confront the “glass ceiling,” but what some observers call a ”bamboo ceiling" as well. Underlying factors such as their immigrant upbringing, a legacy of hypersexualization, as well as unfair stereotypes such as “timidity,” add to the challenges that all women face at work, explaining why Asian American women often rank among the least likely group to be promoted to senior leadership roles.

Taking time to understand how those dynamics and stereotypes show up at your specific workplace, then proactively taking time to identify systemic changes to combat them, is the hard work that needs to be done,” Yang told 3p.

The challenge in presenting this approach to companies, however, is whether from a human resources or public relations perspective, it is more expedient to simply spend money on yet another “pipeline of talent” program rather than investing time and resources into fully understanding the challenges that many Asian American women confront in offices across the U.S. Yang acknowledged this dilemma herself: “The question is: How many companies actually want to take the time to do this kind of hard work, vs. 'investing” X amount of dollars in a talent development program for first-generation students to learn about the biotech industry?'”

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.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye