Asian-American Women and the Bamboo Ceiling

iStock_000003482002XSmallBy Kayla Turo

In celebration of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, we took a look at how we can increase the number of Asian-American women in top jobs in the Fortune 500 and financial services firms.

You probably already know Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, and Andrea Jung (former CEO of Avon), President, CEO and a director of Grameen America.

Perhaps you may even know some of the prominent Asian women working in Asian markets who rank highly in global business, but where is the next generation of Asian-American female leaders and what does their path to the top look like?

Status Update: where are we in middle, senior and board seats?
According to Catalyst, Asian women represented 4,037,000 people in the US labor force in 2012. This is an increase of over 1 million women in just two years. Moreover, of these over-4 million Asian women in 2012’s US labor force, approximately 46 percent held management and other professional positions (making up 3.4 percent of all management and business professionals).

However, of all Executive director positions available within Fortune 500 companies, Asian-American women only comprised of 3.3% as of 2013. Board representation are harder numbers to distill since reporting is sparse and grouped in a binary way- women white and women of color, which Catalyst reports as 3.2% of Board seats in the Fortune 500.

What are the obstacles?
According to Jane Hyun, Fortune 500 coach and author of Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling, Asian-American women can experience a “double-bind” that results from being both Asian and a woman.

Hyun believes, however, that Asian-American female professionals can effectively leverage their identities to create a win-win situation for them and the organizations they work for.

Hyun commented, “Asian women have cultural capabilities that organizations cannot afford to ignore, such as language, cultural know-how, and relationship building skills that must be leveraged effectively.”

Interestingly, according to the key findings from the Center for Talent Innovation’s 2011 study, “Asians in America: Unleashing the Potential of the ‘Model Minority’,” Asians are more ambitious than other groups and they struggled more than any other cultural group with the idea of “being themselves” at work.

Western Society vs. Eastern Values: Worlds Collide
“If you grow up in a traditional Asian home, you may get messages about how a ‘good daughter’ needs to behave that may be at odds with the corporate workplace,” explained Hyun. She continued, “Asian values include deference to authority, humility, hard work, harmony, and sacrificing for the future.”

She recognizes that many successful women with this cultural background learn to balance and honor the humble, passive background of their culture, while passionately pursuing their careers.

In contrast, not only do some Asian women struggle with their feelings of juggling Western norms and cultural values, others may attempt to separate themselves from society’s perception of traditional Asian culture.

“In the past, Asian-American women often struggled against the stereotype of being seen as subservient and meek. Today I don’t see this as being a factor at all for Asian-American women,” said Catharina Min, Managing Partner, Reed Smith.

She continued, “We have been very successful in proving ourselves as leaders who can be just as aggressive and proactive as any group.”

A Chip in the Bamboo Ceiling
How can Asian-American women get ahead in their careers?

“The first step to advancing your career is understanding and knowing oneself,” according to Hyun.

Both Hyun and Min agree that mentoring and sponsorship are both very important career advancement tools. Asian-American women in lower managerial or entry level positions may be inhibited not only by the vast number of male professionals above them, but also by the number of Caucasian women and lack of an empathetic mentor.

“In these situations, Asian-American women may not feel supported and, as an added consequence, not be as comfortable with self-promotion,” noted Min.

This is why it is important for organizations to facilitate mentoring and sponsorship for young female high-potentials. Similarly, it is crucial that young Asian-American talent plan their careers to their advantage in this area. “Smaller companies or start-ups are less likely to have a large training initiative in place,” advised Hyun. “If your employer doesn’t have these programs in place, you may need to look outside of the company to get the mentoring you need.”

Again, both women agree that in order to increase diversity on corporate boards, the corporations themselves must be committed to diversifying.

“It is equally important that the organizations Asian-American women work for recognize their goals, share these ideals, and have an overall expressed commitment to diversity in the workplace,” stressed Min.

“I remain optimistic about the opportunities ahead,” Hyun remarked, “and together, we can and will make a difference.”