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Corporate Talent & Inclusion

How professional services firms must redefine potential to reach DEI goals

Matthew Spencer  Co-Founder & CEO / Suited

Matthew Spencer  Co-Founder & CEO / Suited

A recent Thomson Reuters panel discussion focused on how professional services firms can best pursue their DEI goals

As part of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Thomson Reuters recently co-hosted a panel discussion that focused on promoting a mindset among senior leaders to encourage diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within their professional services firms.

Among the key questions this panel addressed was why this highly-educated, rapidly-growing demographic group is exceedingly represented in professional roles, yet continues to remain significantly underrepresented in senior leadership positions. For example, while Asian Americans make up 12% of the professional workforce, they only represent about 4.4% of the board leadership in Fortune 1000 companies, according to Ascend, the largest Pan-Asian organization for professionals in North America.

Throughout the broad ranging discussion, panelists coalesced around a common theme — implicit bias plays a major role in the exclusion of Asian Americans in the top levels of the workplace, both in the form of stereotypes against Asians as a group, as well as bias regarding the perceived attributes required to be an effective leader.

Unpacking the model minority myth

Panelist Juliet Huang, a partner at the law firm of Chapman and Cutler and the firm’s Diversity Co-Partner, raised the topic of the “model minority myth,” stating that Asian American’s are “perceived as smart, hardworking, and easy to manage employees, but the problem is this translates to Asian Americans being seen as good workers, but not good leaders.”

Another panelist, Anna Mok, President & Co-Founder of Ascend, agreed, adding that Asian Americans are often put into certain roles that fit a stereotype and often viewed as the “good children who don’t speak up, don’t complain, and do what they are told.” In a recent white paper, Model Minority Myth & The Double-Edged Sword, Ascend offers further insight on the harm perpetrated by the model minority myth, stating that while it is seemingly “flattering on the surface, it also includes the less positive attributes of being weak, docile, complacent, and overly deferential.” The myth oversimplifies Asian culture, the paper states, and assumes that Asian Americans are successful, which “masks the multiple problems and bias that Asians Americans face in the workplace.”

Stereotypes such as these, and the unconscious biases that result, are not only inappropriate and limiting, but can also meaningfully impact career opportunities for professional advancement, especially when they combine with the more explicit biases associated with the characteristics typically perceived as mandatory for being a strong leader.

Redefining the perceptions around strong leadership

Panelist A.B. Cruz III, President of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, discussed the outdated “predicates and models” of what defines leadership in American companies — a thought echoed by Chapman and Cutler’s Huang, who noted the prerequisite in corporate America that good leaders be “charismatic, creative, extroverted, and bold” while underscoring corporate America’s perception that those characteristics are lacking in Asian American talent.

When ingrained stereotypes of Asians do not match up with these perceptions of leadership, the consequence is perpetual underrepresentation of an entire group in the senior levels of professional services firms and companies at large, panelists observed.

Finally, panelist Kenneth Williams, a shareholder in the law firm of Segal McCambridge and chair of the firm’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee, summed up the problem well. “If one group is viewed as hardworking and highly-educated, but not viewed as qualified for leadership, the problem isn’t with the ethnic group, the problem is the inherent definition of what constitutes a good leader and who would be best able to fit in the C-suite,” Williams said.

Addressing biases of leadership

To address these issues, organizations need to begin to pursue corrective action by employing new strategies, including:

Identifying the source of unconscious bias — Solving this gross inequity requires addressing bias on two fronts. First, management needs to recognize and course-correct the unconscious biases that cause organization leaders to make harmful assumptions that drive workplace inequities.

Defining drivers of success — Second, professional services firms need to dig deeper to understand the true drivers of success and leadership potential within organizations. They also need to make a conscious effort to evaluate talent at all levels solely based on those characteristics. If the industry could accurately redefine what it means to “fit in” to an organization, objectively succeed, or effectively lead, it would go a long way to standardize what leadership means. Indeed, companies can and should examine what objective factors make someone successful, instead of relying on surface-level traits to predict potential or performance (i.e., does this person seem extraverted enough to rally a team?).

Employing tools to assist in change — Characteristics like values, how one responds to stress, or deep-level personality traits such as conscientiousness, integrity, or dependability all have a statistically greater impact on whether or not someone will succeed, both personally and professionally. With the advent of predictive recruiting, understanding these factors about employees or applicants is entirely possible.

While advances in technology are providing valuable tools that can help accomplish both of these bias mitigators, neither will happen without first admitting, diagnosing, and finally owning the fact that there is a problem to be solved.