Blog Post

Asian Pacific Americans: Excluded from Inclusion?

August 22, 2017

Asian Pacific Americans (APAs) can often feel overlooked by Diversity & Inclusion initiatives. While well represented at junior and middle management levels, they face the same obstacles to achieving access to the highest executive levels as other underrepresented minorities, and are often pigeonholed into specific roles and departments.

The reasons for this can ultimately be traced to the model minority myth, which a recent article defined as “Asians do well because they’re part of a group of naturally high achievers who are highly educated and highly successful, a model to which other racial minorities should aspire.”

A number of recent articles have explored various facets of this myth and its impact on diverse groups. One impact is that the prevailing consensus on what constitutes leadership behaviors are often the exact opposite of stereotypes attributed to APAs including, for example, direct versus indirect communication and expectations on speaking up and being noticed.

On the other hand APA individuals who exhibit the preferred behaviors – breaking out of the stereotypes – are often seen as overly aggressive. As Mary Min says about APA women in a recent article in The Atlantic: “We either have to choose to be that meek, compliant Asian person or we have to be dragon lady.” Neither one of these perceptions is likely to result in promotion. This is a dichotomy familiar to other diverse groups.

The effects are clear:

  • A 2015 study by ASCEND (a non-profit for Asian-American professionals) found that at 5 top technology companies Asians made up 27.2% of professionals, 18.8% of managers and only 13.9 % of executives
  • The Alliance for Board Diversity found that the percentage of APA board members in the Fortune 500 was 3.2% in 2016, while the participation rate of APAs in the “Professional” category was 11.46% in 2016
  • The top 3 challenges reported by Asian American professionals in Asia Society’s most recent APA survey are: a lack of role models, professional growth and career development
  • A 2011 Study by the Center for Work Life Policy (now known as the Center for Talent Innovation) found that 63% of Asian American men feel stalled in their careers

Unfortunately, D&I programs designed to help diverse groups obtain the experiences and development necessary for advancement, often explicitly or implicitly exclude APAs- despite a focus on “inclusion” by many of these same organizations.

While the solutions to the larger issues of leadership perceptions, stereotypes and expectations require more in-depth study and analysis, there are a few approaches that can help companies include APAs in their D&I efforts that can be considered low-hanging fruit:

Challenge assumptions about APA progress by getting the data
APA representation at lower levels often leads to the perception that these professionals do not need the help to advance or develop their careers. To combat this perception, ensure that workforce data analyses examine the promotion and development rates of APAs, similar to analyses for African Americans and Hispanics. In particular, examine concentrations within particular functions or departments. If 90% of APA employees are in technology and finance, their perspective is missing in other equally important areas of the organization. Also consider funding outside research on APAs in the workplace to help understand their many nuances – especially those that go beyond national differences and language in order explore issues such as acculturation to “Western” norms, identity and career aspirations.

Clearly communicate how D&I initiatives benefit everyone, including APAs
The increasing focus on “inclusion” has the potential to be transformative for corporations. And the near universal focus of D&I efforts on women globally and African Americans and Hispanics in the U.S. puts the focus on key areas of need. Unfortunately this can lead to the perception that if you are not a member of one of these groups, D&I efforts will not benefit you. Examining, in detail, how these efforts will contribute to all employees and communicating this information purposefully can help to address this. These communications will also serve to create greater support for D&I initiatives amongst the employee population as a whole.

Activate APA Employee Resource Groups and raise the profile of APA Leaders
Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) remain a key element in creating inclusive cultures and in increasing understanding of the opportunities and challenges of meeting the needs of diverse markets. Activating the APA ERG will provide the insights and perspectives needed to understand the fastest growing U.S. minority group.

Make a distinction between efforts for Asian Pacific Americans and Asians
The rise of Asian markets has made the need for Asia specific growth and development strategies paramount for companies. In the U.S. however, the APA market is often overlooked or lumped into a broader “multicultural” bucket, despite having a buying power of $825 billion in 2015 (compared to $200 billion for Hispanics) according to a study by the Selig Center for Economic Growth.

Similarly, from a talent perspective, the need to develop local leaders in the Asia region is distinct from developing and advancing APAs in the U.S. and requires quite different approaches. For example: A development program aimed at helping Asians speak up and become more participatory in meetings, is unlikely to be relevant to many APAs, especially those born in the United States or who came as young children.

If efforts around inclusion are to be worthy of the name, their value and benefit should extend, by definition, to everyone. Efforts to include Asian Pacific Americans will help to fulfill that promise.

Additional Reading:

Why Aren’t There More Asian Americans in Leadership Positions?

Behind the ‘Model Minority’ Myth: Why the ‘Studious Asian’ Stereotype Hurts

‘Model Minority’ Myth Again Used As A Racial Wedge Between Asians And Blacks

Asian Americans Feel Held Back at Work by Stereotypes

The Overlooked Consumer Group With Billions to Spend

Asian-American Law School Enrollment Has Dropped More Than 40 Percent: Study

Jonathan Saw is Owner and Principal of Jonathan Saw and Associates, a strategic communications consultancy, with a specific expertise in Diversity & Inclusion communications and strategy. He has worked with clients including Johnson & Johnson, Bank of America, Credit Suisse, Asia Society and KPMG. The company’s core expertise lies in helping clients translate complex ideas and concepts, including statistics and data, into stakeholder relevant messaging integrated with actionable programs and initiatives. Jonathan received his A.B. in social science from the University of California, Berkeley and his Master of International Affairs from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. Follow him on LinkedIn at or Twitter (@JSawLLC)