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API women are only seen as workers, not leaders — and it has a huge impact on their pay

June 8, 2024
Diversity & Inclusion

We’re all familiar with the “glass ceiling,” a phrase coined in 1978 by Marilyn Loden to describe the invisible ceiling women face as they climb the corporate ladder. And we know it’s far worse when we speak about women of color.

For Asian professionals specifically, author Jane Hyun coined the term “bamboo ceiling” in her 2005 book, Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians, to describe the racial biases that prevent qualified Asian people from breaking into leadership roles. Despite 54% of Asian people holding at least a bachelor’s degree, which is higher than any other racial group, Asian people are disproportionately underrepresented in management positions. In fact, an analysis from USA TODAY found that when looking at S&P 100 companies, 1 in every 96 Asian men and 1 in every 124 Asian women hold a top job, compared to 1 in every 45 White men and 1 in every 60 White women.

As it stands today, the API community faces one of the widest racial pay disparities among racial groups, as the often cited $0.80 gap doesn’t tell the full story. Currently, Taiwanese women make $1.18 for every dollar paid to White men and yet Bangladeshi women make as low as $0.49, proving that this community is not a monolith. Chief spoke with Sung Yeon Choimorrow, Executive Director at the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, on how racial bias not only contributes to this pay disparity but the insidious promotion gap that continues to keep API women as workers, not leaders.

Why Stereotypes for API Women Get Worse as They Climb

According to McKinsey & Company, Asian Americans account for 9% of Senior Vice Presidents, but only 5% of promotions from SVP to the C-Suite, with Asian American women specifically accounting for just 1% of these promotions. In a study published by the Association of Asian American Investment Managers, 62% of API women said they were most hindered in their careers at the latter stages as they moved beyond junior-level roles. When asked why, many respondents said that stereotypes of API women being viewed as good executors, but not leaders, or being thought of as subservient or meek, play a big role.

“I think there are two major stereotypes that are at play,” says Choimorrow.

“There is the ‘dragon lady’ stereotype where Asian women are portrayed as bossy, hard to get along with, difficult, always focused on the bottom line, and being task-oriented. And then there’s the other stereotype of Asian women being submissive and not really a leader in terms of taking risks or being go-getters and they’re sort of viewed more generally as followers. Neither end of the spectrum is viewed positively and it plays a huge role in our experience of advancing to more leadership positions.”

For Choimorrow, she says other Asian women have told her that they’ve been asked in performance reviews to “be more assertive” or “demonstrate more ability to think for themselves.” Meanwhile, for someone like herself who usually speaks up, she’s been told “you’re too loud, you’re too opinionated, you need to scale it back because people find you intimidating.”

“I often think if a White man sat in a meeting and didn’t say anything, would he get the same feedback that he’s not being assertive enough?” says Choimorrow. “And would a White man get the same feedback that if he were talking too much in meetings that he’s being too aggressive and that people find him intimidating? I think some of it is linked to stereotypes about who we are, and therefore assumptions that we can’t be good leaders. But I also think, especially in the corporate sector, that we need to redefine what ‘good leadership’ is.”

How to Identify and Account for Bias

When it comes to the API woman’s corporate experience, Choimorrow says that bias, whether unconscious or conscious, is an ever-present factor.

“There is implicit bias not just by the company, but also from the people that report to us that are part of our teams that hinder and challenge the way we’re seen as leaders,” she says. For example, if an API woman in management provides feedback and accountability to her staff, Choimorrow says, she’s likely to be viewed as difficult. But if a White man does the same thing, his actions are more likely to be viewed as just “part of business.”

“So we experience a challenge from both the top and bottom end,” she says.

To address this issue, leaders need to stop believing the incredibly racist and harmful model minority myth that Asian people are doing just fine at work when the stats tell a different story. Instead, companies need to ensure that all DEI initiatives include a focused strategy on inclusionary efforts for API employees, specifically when considering sponsorship and conducting performance reviews for promotion.

“There are plenty of qualified Asian women who can step into the C-Suite and executive roles,” says Choimorrow. “But, I think that a lot of companies see promoting somebody who doesn’t look like anyone who’s been in that position before as a risk, and they need to start taking those risks because representation does matter.”

Pattern-matching, whether conscious or not, is a driving factor in how people make decisions. The only way to correct for this implicit bias is to do audits on promotional time periods for each racial and ethnic group in the company and focus on tangible work output not perceptions of personality to determine leadership viability.

But it’s not enough to promote more API women into leadership roles.

We have to provide the support that Asian women need to succeed in those places because if you think that an Asian woman is going to succeed a White man who’s held this position for 20 years and not need anything different then you’re setting her up to fail.
– Sung Yeon Choimorrow, Executive Director at the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum
“We need to normalize people seeing Asian women in C-Suite positions of authority, but that can’t be it,” says Choimorrow. “We have to provide the support that Asian women need to succeed in those places because if you think that an Asian woman is going to succeed a White man who’s held this position for 20 years and not need anything different then you’re setting her up to fail.”

This glass cliff is a common phenomenon, heavily on repeat in the last couple years with an influx of women of color appointees in boards or C-Suite roles for turnaround positions in response to social pressure, only to not be given the right infrastructure, support, or power to truly succeed.

“I’ve unfortunately seen cases where Asian women and other women of color are hired into these big roles and they have a really tough time because they’re not provided any other support,” says Choimorrow. “They’re expected to meet their goals and make everything work the way the previous person did and there’s this assumption that they’re not facing any additional barriers in accomplishing that. So companies need to recognize that DEI is not just about how many faces of color you have, but it’s also about asking whether your system and your infrastructure are set up in a way that allows diverse folks to succeed in leadership.”

By Courtney Connley


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