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Corporate Talent & Inclusion

4 ways to increase advancement of AAPI professionals within executive ranks

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & advisory services / Thomson Reuters Institute

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & advisory services / Thomson Reuters Institute

As part of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Month, we look at ways that organizations increase the career advancement of AAPI professionals, especially within their top executive ranks

Anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 339% in 2021, according to the Center for Study of Hate and Extremism; and further, these incidents of hate surged in some of the largest cities in the US, breaking records previously recorded only the year before.

As a result of these hate incidents, many Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI) employees and colleagues fear for their safety as they go about their daily lives. Employers need to pay attention to this for two primary reasons: i) it is the right thing to do to demonstrate care and concern for their employees; and ii) to retain their AAPI employees in order to maintain and build the leadership pipeline of diverse talent.

Indeed, employer actions to address these concerns and retain their AAPI team members are critical now, especially during the return-to-office phase of the post-pandemic environment. Ignoring these issues will adversely impact retention and advancement of high-potential AAPI employees later.

And these concerns about safety and mental health are occurring on top of previously existing structural barriers to AAPI employees that existed before the pandemic, which include:

      • Model minority myth — The perception that Asian Americans do not have any special needs or concerns in the workplace or society, unlike other people of color. Jean Lee, CEO of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA), frames the myth this way: “People assume that all Asians are successful and that they don’t have any issues, when that is just not true.”
      • Bamboo ceiling — A term coined to reflect the stereotype that AAPI professionals are good workers, but not effective leaders.

At the same time, the pandemic did allow some progress in how some AAPI professionals were able to approach work. For example, pandemic-enforced remote work helped some AAPI professionals deal with the one of the most cited structural barriers by professionals of color — their lack of access to senior people and ways to gain visibility. In this way, the situation allowed for:

      • Improving access to executives and influencers — The pandemic created an equal footing for AAPI professionals. The structural barrier to gain access to influencers and leaders has been easier to overcome during remote working, according to Lee based on feedback from MCCA members.
      • AAPI communities to become much more vocal and visible — The attacks on women and elderly Asian Americans in early 2020 spurred many in the AAPI community to speak up. AAPI professionals outraged by the violence took their activism to the workplace by demanding that employers respond.

Despite some positive implications, it has been challenging for some AAPI professionals during the pandemic in many ways, including:

      • Those whose primary language is not EnglishSandra Leung, Executive Vice President and General Counsel at Bristol Myers Squibb and president-elect of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, has observed that the virtual environment has made it harder for AAPI employees, who speak English as a second language, to voice their perspective in virtual meetings.
      • Mental health– Anna Mok, President of Ascend and a partner at Deloitte & Touche LLP, explains it this way: “Culturally, many in the AAPI community live in multigenerational households and are responsible for primary care-giving of the elderly and young. The acts of AAPI hate and anti-Asian hate sentiments lodged particularly against the vulnerable and women, coupled with many now needing to resume commuting to places of work, create both direct and indirect impacts on mental health that show up in the workplace and in the home.”

Employees cannot do their best work when their mental energy and agility is split with concerns over their individual safety. In fact, Leung said that some employers, particularly those in large cities where there have been multiple incidents of violence, are being flexible about remote working until the fears of individual safety abate.

4 actions employers can take now

To prevent erosion of the leadership pipeline of AAPI talent, Mok, Lee, and Leung recommended the following actions for legal and accounting employers:

      1. Address the safety concerns and mental health needs of AAPI individuals — The best companies are convening ways for employees, both who identify as AAPI and those that don’t, to carpool. They are helping people to coordinate schedules to commute together.
      2. Understand the diversity of the AAPI workforce and discuss the impact of barriers — The AAPI community is comprised of 50 ethnicities, and “companies need to increase knowledge of how the Model Minority Myth and all of the different ceilings, including glass, bamboo, etc., impact the executive leadership pipeline of AAPI talent,” says Mok.
      3. Invest in manager development and education of the challenges AAPI colleagues face — The best organizations are investing in education that is focused on the history of violence against and exclusion of AAPI immigrants in the US and building awareness of how pre-existing systemic barriers to AAPI employee advancement and inclusion have evolved in this post-pandemic era, according to Leung.
      4. Analyze the systemic standard of “power skills” your firm is promoting — Lee frames this recommended action in this way: “The standard of leadership within Corporate America is predominantly that of straight white men”, and it is an unequitable standard. AAPI talent being evaluated against an unrealistic and foreign leadership standard, which has been historically attributed to a “white male standard,” has acted as a systemic barrier for advancement, Lee explains, adding that many Asian Americans don’t look like the ideal image of a leader, and many of the traditional standard of “ideal white male leadership behaviors” run counter to Asian cultural virtues.

Clearly, many ways of the past are not working in fostering inclusion of and retaining AAPI professionals. When data indicated a lack of representation of AAPI professionals at executive ranks in the recent past, the recommendations to help address it were to give AAPI professionals mentoring, professional development opportunities, and sponsorship. While some of these actions produced results, there was a lot of effort being put in, with little to show for it.

“Fixing the organization” rather than “fixing AAPI employees” is what is necessary to improve AAPI representation, and the aforementioned recommendations from Mok, Leung, and Lee are excellent ways to execute on this goal.

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