Thursday, July 21, 2011

Study traces barriers to Asian-Americans in management

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Dalal. Chen. Tai. Ramanujan. Dang. Park. Singh.
Check any honor roll, any list of science fair winners, any Phi Beta Kappa roster and you'll see Asian names far out of proportion to the size of the Asian-American population.
But look for Asian names among top U.S. corporate executives, and they're markedly under-represented.
What happens to all those bright, well-educated, hard-driven graduates?
Asian-Americans are 18 percent of the Harvard University enrollment, 24 percent at Stanford University, and a whopping 46 percent at the University of California-Berkeley. Academic pedigrees like that typically vault graduates into the upper echelon of the U.S. workforce.
But a national study released Thursday by the Center for Work-Life Policy says that Asian-Americans - 5 percent of the U.S. population and the nation's fastest-growing minority by percentage - hold less than 2 percent of top corporate jobs.
The study analyzed chief executive officer, chief financial officer, chief operating officer and other top executive positions in Fortune 500 companies.
Researchers, supported by Deloitte, Goldman Sachs, Pfizer and Time Warner, conducted 2,952 surveys of working-aged men and women and gathered qualitative and quantitative data to conclude that many Asian-Americans, whether immigrant or native born, find it hard to "fit in" the upper management ranks.
According to the report, it's not necessarily that they're victims of discrimination. It's that Asian-Americans don't toot their own horns, don't flourish in American-style networking and office politics, and may struggle with communication.
"The Asian culture is that you work hard on your own, and the belief is that you'll be recognized based on your work," said Joel Ma, who was born in Hong Kong and now works in global procurement at Hallmark Cards. "But western culture is more about whether you're assertive enough."
Those who are unassertive or lack the right networks are likely to hit what has become known as the bamboo ceiling.
"You need to market yourself, and that's harder for some," agreed Anita Ranhotra, who's affiliated with the Kansas City, Mo., chapter of the National Association of Asian-American Professionals, an organization that underscores the importance of networking and communication.
The new report, "Asians in America: Unleashing the Potential of the 'Model Minority,' " finds that Caucasian-Americans generally don't perceive workplace bias against Asian-Americans.
They see the minority's strong academic and hiring records and think everything is fine. Or they see successful business leaders such as Min Kao, co-founder of Olathe, Kan.-based Garmin, who leads a $3 billion business.
But 25 percent of Asians said they had felt workplace discrimination because of their ethnicity, according to researchers at the nonprofit think tank, which studies diversity and talent management.
And Asian men, more than any other demographic, said they felt stalled in their careers and were more likely to quit their current jobs to search for advancement elsewhere.
Those frustrations surprise Charles Sun, director of aviation and facilities construction at Burns & McDonnell in Kansas City. Sun was born in Taiwan but has lived in the United States since he was 8.
"The bamboo ceiling? I hadn't heard of it before," Sun said. "I'm not one to let ethnicity get in my way, and I've been fortunate to have good supervisors."
But, Sun acknowledged, it makes a difference as to what company someone works in, what kind of job one does - it's common for Asian-Americans to excel in technical and scientific fields - and one's own personality.
"I can see the hurdle if you're not outgoing," Sun said. "And I agree that Asians tend to be 'head-down, do your work.' Getting recognition isn't a part of it."
That "laser focus on performance can divert Asians from investing in the relationships and networks that are necessary to get ahead," the center's report said. "Asian-Americans report feeling out of step with the subtleties of navigating the American workplace, frequently claiming that networking to get ahead doesn't come naturally to them."
Thus speech training, networking and mentoring advice are all part of the mission of the Kansas City chapter of the Asian American Chamber of Commerce, Sun noted.
Also, some Asian-American professionals surveyed said they were seen as "too much of a team player" to be a leader.
Others said they'd been told they lacked the "soft skills" - adeptness at interpersonal communication - to be managers.
But that doesn't mean Asian-Americans aren't ambitious. More than any other demographic group studied, Asians were found to place higher value on compensation levels and job titles.
Contrary to popular wisdom, Asian-Americans are "openly asking for the professional rewards they feel that they deserve," the report concluded. But, "despite their overwhelming desire to climb higher on the corporate ladder, Asians hit barriers that prevent them from doing so."
Outright discrimination is unlikely, according to researchers Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Ripa Rashid. The problem more often is that Asian-Americans have fewer mentors in their professional lives because there are few available.
Yet having that kind of relationship at work is important for career advancement.
Companies that sponsored the report, along with other companies such as Hallmark, KPMG, Cisco and Merck, have created support systems for Asian-American workers. Many programs include diversity awareness and are open to non-minorities, too.
The report, posted at, zeroed in on another proclivity that may impede advancement in American organizations: The majority of Asian-Americans surveyed had "a distinct preference for keeping work and play separate." And that can prevent them from building connections in social workplaces.
Asian-Americans also tend to report more multi-generational family care responsibilities involving time and money.
Nearly one-third of the Asian-American professionals surveyed said they provide monetary support to their parents, compared with only 6 percent of Caucasians.
"Furthermore, 9 percent of Asians have a senior or elder living with them, more than double the percentage for Caucasians," the report said, noting that such family ties are a characteristic shared by Hispanics and African-Americans.
Ma, his American-born wife, and daughter are moving to Hong Kong next week for his second Asian tour of duty with Hallmark. That work assignment pinpoints an economic reality noted in the center's report:
The global economy, led by China and India, underscores the importance of having Asians as part of a company's leadership team.
Sun, the construction engineer, noted something else.
"We're educating lots of Asians students. There were many in the engineering school with me" at the University of Kansas, he said. "But a lot of them are educated here and then go back to their home countries. That may explain some of the fall-off of academic talent from the workplace."


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