Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month

Learning, Listening and Support Can Promote Belonging and Advancement

Learning, Listening and Support Can Promote Belonging and AdvancementLike most underrepresented groups in white-dominant cultures, Asian-American Pacific Islanders (AAPI) face greater challenges at work due to cultural stereotypes, unconscious bias, and discrimination and are less likely to be promoted into senior leadership.

AAPI Heritage Month opens the door to celebrate the contributions and unique culture of these team members, and to go beyond celebrations to tackle tough conversations, seek candid feedback from AAPI team members and educate others about biases they face.

The difficulty of labels

Especially when discussing issues of race, ethnicity and culture, or any area of diversity, words matter because they connect to how people see themselves, how others see them, and one’s personal sense of identity. The terms Asian American, Asian British, Asian Australian or similar descriptors are large umbrellas that attempt to cover millions of people who trace their roots to well over 40 countries. The term Asian American arose out of U.S. student activism in the 1960s and, while promoted with good intent, tends to mask a huge diversity of national origin.

Today, more than 24 million residents of the U.S. identify as Asian alone or Asian in combination with another nationality, comprising about 6% of the population. Asian born residents are about 6% of the population in Australia and 9% of the U.K. population.

Unique individuals under a big umbrella

A recent Pew Research Center study employed dozens of focus groups to learn directly from residents about the experience of being Asian in America. The focus groups were organized into 18 specific Asian ethnic origin groups, held in 18 languages and moderated by members of the same ethnic group as the participants.

Consistent themes included feeling that the broad “Asian” label represented only one part of how the participants thought of themselves and did not accurately reflect personal backgrounds and experiences. Many participants expressed pride in their cultural and ethnic backgrounds and a sense of feeling at home in America. But another common finding was that participants often experienced bias during moments of greater geo-political conflict such as after the 9/11 attacks and at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Getting to inclusion and real belonging

Another key theme in the Pew focus groups was bias related to the myth of the “model minority.” This stereotype describes all Asians as highly intelligent, hardworking and technically savvy. While these are, on the face of it, positive attributes, they are harmful when applied to huge swaths of people with the assumption that they are all the same. Many Asian immigrants, for example, come from impoverished backgrounds and may not have had the benefit of a strong education. Stereotypes also reinforce the idea that someone is an outsider.

In the workplace, similar biases can show up in tropes that Asian team members will work tirelessly without complaint, may work for lower wages, or are excellent employees but not natural leaders. “The share of Asian Americans decreases with greater seniority, and so does their share of promotions,” according to McKinsey & Company’s 2022 report Asian American workers: Diverse outcomes and hidden challenges. The drop off is largest among Asian American women. Even Asian Americans in high-wage fields make only 93 cents for every dollar earned by their white colleagues, according to the 2019 U.S. Census Bureau.

McKinsey’s research also shows that Asian Americans perceive lower levels of fairness, feel less able to be themselves at work, and are less likely to report that their sponsors are effective at creating opportunities for them.

How to drive change

Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month may be just the catalyst needed to spur more action to create workplaces that are more welcoming and to help forge feelings of belonging for AAPI members. For business owners, corporate leaders and individual contributors, such efforts might include:

  • Recognize that people of Asian descent face biases that are masked by the “model minority” myth whether they live in the U.S., U.K., Australia or elsewhere.
  • Seek out more detailed data on the unique experiences and challenges of specific Asian populations to better understand those represented in your workplace.
  • Support AAPI colleagues at critical moments in their careers to eliminate implicit bias in recruitment, hiring, evaluation and especially promotion.
  • Be an ally and say something when you hear disparaging remarks about AAPI colleagues or “positive” descriptors that lump all Asian people into a single category.
  • Check in with AAPI colleagues and friends when current events bring anti-Asian sentiment to the fore.

Helping all team members feel that they belong in the workplace always starts with proactive listening to learn more about their lived experiences, barriers and biases they face at work, and their ideas about the support they need most to advance.