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The Glass Ceiling: Why Aren't There More AAPI Executives?

A woman is giving a presentation to a group of people at a conference table.

​Linda Cai has always been ambitious in her career aspirations.

This determination propelled her to become an accomplished author, public speaker and executive. She is the vice president of talent and development for LinkedIn and serves as a senior board member for Ascend, the largest pan-Asian business-professional membership organization in North America.

Cai, an Asian-American woman, has climbed the corporate ladder despite discouragement from some past employers.

"There were certainly times in my career when I was told not to be too ambitious or was openly discouraged in conversations regarding internal mobility," Cai said. "The message I was given was basically, 'You have it quite good; be content, quiet and keep working.' "

While Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) workers are well-represented in corporate America, they are largely absent in leadership roles.

Just 38 of 682 executives, or less than 6 percent, identified as Asian or Indian in a 2020 analysis of C-suites by recruiting firm Crist Kolder Associates. They are also the racial group least likely to be promoted to management positions, according to a Harvard Business Review analysis of U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data.

"Knowing that there is an arbitrary limit to career potential is deeply hurtful and demotivating to many AAPI employees and leaders," Cai explained. "And it is the No. 1 reason they choose to opt out [of promotional opportunities] altogether."

The "glass ceiling" theory, a belief that an invisible barrier prevents a group from rising to a certain level of success, is often associated with women and Black workers. But research suggests that racial stereotyping has also limited the careers of many male and female AAPI workers.

The 'Model Minority' Theory

Katrina Dizon Mariategue, deputy director at the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center in Washington, D.C., believes that harmful stereotypes, such as the model minority theory, are a significant factor in the lack of Asian-American representation in executive positions.

The model minority theory is a belief that members of a demographic are perceived as achieving a higher degree of socioeconomic success than the average worker. Characteristics of the stereotype include Asian-American individuals being:

  • Smart.
  • Wealthy.
  • Hardworking.
  • Self-reliant.
  • Docile and submissive.

However, the perception that Asian-American workers have attained "the American Dream" as the model minority has stunted the demographic's growth and contributed to the widening leadership gap across industries.

"The 'model minority' myth continues to be pervasive in our culture," Mariategue said. "Sweeping generalizations of any community harms their ability to thrive and grow to their full potential."

These stereotypes attach to AAPI workers and create biases by making people believe these individuals are superior in academics yet not ideal leaders because they are seen as meek, agreeable and quiet, Mariategue said.

"We are conditioned to believe we have limitations when, in fact, Asian-American communities have demonstrated a formidable resilience as part of our families' immigrant and refugee experiences," she explained.

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Overcoming Workplace Bias

Don't Just Hire a 'Token' Employee

To truly support the career progression of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, employers must acknowledge that this group is not equally positioned to succeed without assistance, Cai said.

"Certain communities are still struggling with generations of poverty, lack of education and a wide-reaching network," she explained. "[Companies should] provide mentoring, coaching, sponsorship and networking opportunities to those in need."

Cai also suggested that many employers are satisfied with hiring or promoting a single Asian-American employee for a corporate position. But she said these individuals are not well-positioned to make systemic shifts because their opinions often are not considered.

"The benefits of diversity in leadership are endless," Cai explained. "Having a leadership team with different lifestyles, upbringings, experiences, perspectives and backgrounds creates a flourishing environment where different points of view and outlooks are brought to the table."

Diversity, equity and inclusion in hiring is a critical component to supporting the careers of all underrepresented communities, Mariategue said. Companies should actively seek a workforce and executive team that represent a diverse set of experiences.

"Managers should be trained and encouraged to incorporate regular check-ins with staff from underrepresented backgrounds to incorporate professional development goals and ways the organization can support," Mariategue said. "If leadership is actively talking about investing in their staff, they create a work environment where staff feel empowered to grow."


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