Forget Banga, Pichai and Nooyi. For Asian American employees, ‘bamboo ceiling’ is very real.

PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi.

NEW YORK – The names roll out easily – at least for those who grew up in the subcontinent. Indra Nooyi. Ajay Banga. Sundar Pichai – to name a few. The awe, wonder, puzzlement comes in later. Forget their stellar education back in India. The fact they are super smart.

How the heck did these gents and lady, who grew up in India, still maintain recognizably Indian accent, become top honchos in some of the largest companies in the US, boss over all the White folks in a company? What about that famed White Boys’ Club, who adroitly stonewall colored people from access to boardrooms and country clubs?

The answer to that query, which seems to defy and define at once the concept of the adage that any foreigner can become anyone in America (except President, of course), could be that the likes of Nooyi, Banga and Pichai are mere anomalies. Exceptions to the rule. Most foreigners don’t reach the giddy heights of success these few exemplars have.

A new survey released this week by Asia Society in New York, the ‘2018 Asian Corporate Survey’, concludes that Asian and Asian Pacific American (APA) employees in the United States are less likely to attain senior leadership positions.

The survey suggests this is partly because APA participants self-reported being less assertive and less likely to speak up and share their perspectives compared to their non-APA counterparts.

Among the five most frequently cited barriers to workplace advancement by APA survey participants are “cultural background” and “communication skills”.

“There is a cultural mismatch that many US employers may be unaware of, with many APA employees stating they believe they are less likely than their non-APA counterparts to be considered for senior roles at their companies due to cultural differences,” said David Whitelaw Reid, Executive Director, Corporate Programs and Talent Initiatives at Asia Society. “This is a great opportunity to make sure that both direct and indirect communication channels are available between employees and managers to accommodate and address such differences,” he added.

To explore the nature, severity, and possible ways to address this gap, for the first time the survey by Asia Society included 400 non-APA employees in addition to 2,800 APA employees across the United States working in various industries.

The survey also found that APA employees were more likely to report a shortage of role models, executives and board directors representing their cultural backgrounds. Over a third of respondents reported no APA presence in the leadership.

“We are seeing a vicious cycle in the workplace. APA employees often do not get considered for senior positions. In turn, this means aspiring Asian employees do not have role models to look up to,” noted Reid.

In comparison to their non-Asian counterparts, Asian employees had a much lower favorability on a set of measures: Asian respondents felt that their companies did not comprehensively implement initiatives as stated in their company’s mission statement, programs, policies and procedures; Asian respondents also indicated lower favorability on how their managers support the professional growth of employees of Asian background.

Due to this dissatisfaction, Asian respondents were less likely to care about their company’s overall success and less likely to stay if offered a comparable position somewhere else, the survey said.

Asia Society’s survey comes on the heels of a report in Fortune magazine earlier this month, entitled ‘The Asian Glass Ceiling: Studying the Model Minority Myth’. In her commentary, Ellen McGirt asserts that Asian Americans are missing in the pipeline for leadership talent in corporate America.

The Fortune piece picks up on another study released last month by the Harvard Business Review which drilled home the point that Asian Americans are the least likely group in the US to be promoted to management.

“Asian Americans are the forgotten minority in the glass ceiling conversation,” says Buck Gee and Denise Peck, two former Silicon Valley executives, in the Harvard report.

The duo, after disseminating EEOC data, compiled “The Illusion of Asian Success” report for Ascend, a non-profit leadership organization for Pan-Asian professionals. They found that across all sectors, Asian American professionals in the US were more likely to be hired as individual contributors, but less likely to be promoted into management roles than any other race.

As a demographic cohort, Asian Americans are 5% of the population, yet 12% of the workforce, and outpace other groups in terms of education and income, the Review noted.

The Fortune piece also notes a startling conclusion made by journalist Jeff Guo, who surmised perhaps an ugly truth, which the generation who came from Asia in the wake of the immigration floodgates being opened in the 60s might agree with – “elevating Asian Americans as ‘deserving’ and ‘hardworking’ was a tactic to denigrate African Americans,” Guo said, which also minimized the potential impact of the civil rights movement.

The Fortune piece notes: “Here’s just one example that may sound familiar. In the early twentieth century, “Asian American men were represented in mainstream media as conniving, threatening sexual predators who posed a particular danger to white women,” says Adia Harvey Wingfield, a writer, researcher and professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. Now that Asian American men have learned “to behave appropriately,” a new bias has emerged. “Research suggests that whites see Asian American men as being unfit for management, because they are stereotyped as passive and weak.”

Note that even here, it’s only talk of Asian American men. Women are excluded from the observation.

Perhaps, for the only reason that even the mere idea of a woman like Nooyi, born and raised in India, rising up to be CEO of PepsiCo, is mind boggling.

One can only assume going by these surveys and reports that in time, it might be possible for an Asian American woman, like Nikky Haley or Kamala Harris to become President of the US, but no Nooyi might ever emerge again.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)   



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