Busting Bias: Address the Invisibility of Asian Women

Our community has dealt with overt and covert biases for generations. It shouldn’t have to take tragedies for the corporate world to see us.

By Jane Hyun

The model minority myth paints Asian Americans as an achieving, hard-working, and docile demographic that’s overcome barriers to garner success in life. In the workplace, these perceptions make it appear that Asian Americans do not face

discrimination and that they’ve “made it.” These misconceptions exacerbate feelings of invisibility in a corporate culture that expects employees to voice their concerns. The recent incidents of discrimination and violence experienced by Asian Americans, though extreme, are not new. Our community has dealt with overt and covert biases for generations. It shouldn’t have to take tragedies for the corporate world to see us.

For almost 20 years, I’ve worked to close the culture gap inside organizations. The most common refrain I hear from executives about the career trajectory of Asian employees is, “I don’t worry about them too much. Asians in our company are doing pretty well.” Asian Americans may be the most educated in the US (53 percent have college degrees), but they also have the widest income disparity of any racial group. Additionally, they represent only 3.7 percent of Fortune 100 corporate board seats. In the legal profession, they are the least likely demographic to make it to partner.

It’s clear they’re not exempt from workplace bias either, which may especially affect Asian women. A recent Coqual Belonging study revealed that Asian women had the lowest belonging score when compared with other ethnic/racial groups. Belonging was defined as feeling recognized and respected, experiencing psychological safety, feeling supported, and feeling proud of your work. Asian American women are invisible and often misunderstood. Moreover, under the larger umbrella of “women’s initiatives,” the unique challenges they face when being considered for promotion and leadership can be overlooked. For example, they are often stereotyped as passive, quiet, and lacking “executive presence.” But when they do assert their opinions, it is not always appreciated. This dynamic was recently explored in Dr. Nancy Wang Yuen’s Los Angeles Times piece about the Netflix show The Chair, starring Sandra Oh as the first Korean American—and the first woman of color—to chair the English Department at a university.

Here are three ways for managers to “hear” and address the concerns of their female Asian employees.

  • Recognize that cultural dissonance exists in the workplace. Asian Americans in our leadership programs frequently report that their cultural values are at odds with the dominant corporate culture. Culture is difficult to spot, and many managers are not aware when a dominant culture lens is used to assess performance and future potential.
  • Define how your DEI initiatives will integrate needs of Asian American women. Examine your hiring and retention practices. Once Asian women are in the door, are they making it all the way through the system? What measures might help?
  • Find alternative ways to hear the voices of less vocal people. One company recently held listening sessions for Asian and Asian American employees, in a safe space, to hear their experiences with racism and its impact on their well-being. Leaders, surprised at the depth of pain experienced, were motivated to take action.

It’s one thing to hold a town hall where senior leaders say, “We condemn anti-Asian violence and stand with you.” It’s another for managers to ask team members how they’re doing. Get to know them for who they really are. Understand their lived experience and realize the value of this critical talent pool. DW


Jane Hyun is a leadership strategist and trusted coach to Fortune 500 Companies. She is the author of Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians and coauthor of Flex/The New Playbook for Managing Across Differences. Find her at hyunassociates.com and on Twitter @JaneHyun.

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