The 2019 MAKERS Conference - Day Two
Ellen Pao speaks onstage during The 2019 MAKERS Conference.
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images
May 13, 2022 7:00 AM EDT

Over the past two years, with anti-Asian hatred on the rise, each new high-profile act of violence or discrimination has been quickly followed by a wave of company statements in support of the Asian American community—announcing anti-bias and anti-racism trainings, or unveiling new initiatives for Asian American employees, or highlighting gifts to Asian American community organizations. Whether or not these gestures are displays of performative allyship, one thing is clear: They’re not doing enough. According to a USA Today report, businesses still have a long way to go to ensure equity for Asian American women at the top ranks of leadership.

The report, which examined workforce records for 88 companies in the Standard & Poor’s 100, found that Asian women are half as likely as white women to hold executive leadership positions, a data point that lines up with previous research: One 2018 report on the tech industry found that while Asians were the largest racial cohort among professionals, they were the least likely among all races to become managers and executives. Another survey, released by Bain and Company this month, showed that Asian American men and women report feeling the lowest levels of inclusion of any racial or ethnic group.

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In the middle of Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage month—a time in which companies have and will continue to release the same sort of statement—leaders have an opportunity to take stock of what concrete actions they can take to better support the advancement of Asian American women within their organizations.

We spoke with four Asian American women who have built successful careers within their own industries while advocating alongside other AAPI professionals to build better workplaces for their communities. Here’s what they had to say about where companies and managers should focus their efforts. Their answers have been edited for space and clarity.

Ellen Pao, former Reddit CEO and co-founder of Project Include, recommends we think more holistically about how to build equitable talent pipelines.

“Early on in my career, I found out, after being hired, that the person who hired me was looking for a ‘tiger mom,’ an Asian woman who would be really aggressive in taking care of the things that needed to be done. But when it came to promotion and a general partnership role, I wasn’t seen as showing enough leadership. My elbows were too sharp, or I wasn’t aggressive enough—the feedback wasn’t even consistent. Because they couldn’t really articulate it, I think it was the stereotype that they couldn’t view an Asian woman in that role.

It’s not just Asian women, but Asian people in general and women in general, as well as Black and Latinx men and women. And within the Asian community, there have been certain groups that have had a much harder time, like those in the Hmong community and folks with backgrounds from other Southeast Asian countries. They often face greater socioeconomic hardships and discrimination. We have to be inclusive of everyone and to make sure that we are bringing everyone along.

We need to think about these problems holistically. Where are systemic barriers? How are you recruiting? How are you promoting? Are you sure that you’re taking everything on actual results, performance, and potential, and not based on assumptions of how people will do because of what they look like or where they’re from? It’s so important to have a transparent view into how salaries are set, how promotions are made, what you need to do to be promoted, and how salary ranges and levels are determined. When you have that structure, it becomes harder not to promote a person based on stereotypes.”

Mythili Sankaran, CEO and co-founder of Neythri, a professional network for South Asian women, encourages organizations to invest in sponsorship programs.

“Within individual organizations, it needs to start early on in the pipeline process with management programs. I know in my own experience, having an incredible mentor who was more senior in the organization made the biggest difference in my transition from engineering and technical roles into management roles. We need more of those senior executive sponsors, both male and female, that identify high-potential women—South Asian and other minority women in particular—who can then be connected to sponsors and developed for senior leadership, which happens all the time with men.

Later on, I had a more formal sponsor through a program that worked very well: There was sufficient training for the sponsors, and their commitment and performance as a sponsor was reflected on their own performance reviews. A successful sponsorship program is done intentionally, where investment in sponsorship is associated with both the sponsor’s growth and the company’s trajectory.”

Jane Hyun, executive coach and author of Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling, highlights the importance of empathetic listening, noting that organizations can encourage the practice by training managers to develop their coaching skills.

“I think it’s important to recognize that while managers who do not identify as Asian or Asian American may have had their own career barriers, they don’t have the cultural experience as an Asian American. Being a supportive manager requires deep listening and empathy, and to not assume that your experience is the same. It’s about leaning in and asking what they need from you.

It makes me think of an Asian American woman that I coached who worked in a really combative work culture. Meetings often ended up as yelling matches between very senior leaders who didn’t get along. She went to a manager to ask for advice and explained how challenging it was to operate in these meetings every day, given her natural tendency to defer authority figures and to look for harmony. Her manager responded by saying, ‘It’s just really hard for all of us women, isn’t it?’ And then quickly moved on to the next thing, kind of expecting her to just get over it .

What a missed opportunity that was for a coaching conversation. It closed a door to the manager better understanding the experiences and cultural values driving her employee. Imagine if the manager had led with, “Tell me more about that,” and then, “How can I help? Can I help you navigate that before the next meeting?”

Anna Mok, president of pan-Asian leadership group Ascend and partner at Deloitte, argues that for Asian American women to succeed in the workplace, they need companies to support and celebrate caregivers of all kinds.

“Our identities affect how we talk about our weekends. Asians are more likely to have multi-generational caregiving responsibilities—whether they live in the same household or not—because of differing cultural expectations. I’m planning out how my 89-year-old father is going to live because I’m a good Chinese daughter, and it’s a privilege for me to have the responsibility for my dad. It’s not because he needs it financially, but that is just inherent in my value set. It’s not better or worse, but it may be different from a colleague who has a different parental relationship.

How do I talk about that, and how can people really understand that? Or the fact that as a Chinese parent—even though I’m very westernized and highly assimilated—I don’t believe that when my daughter is out of school and graduated from college, my job is done? Those are very subtle mindsets that impact us, how we show up, and what we talk about. And they affect both our relationships with our children and our relationships with our colleagues. Organizations that promote open communication, and create space for employees to candidly speak about their family and caregiver expectations and responsibilities without penalty to their career aspirations, can help improve the well-being of employees.”

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