May marks AAPI (Asian American/Pacific Islander) Heritage Month in the United States, opening up a clear opportunity to have much-needed discussions about the AAPI experience in the workforce. What challenges do members of this group face – and what is your organization doing to address them?
The “Model Minority” Myth
Asian Americans often face the “model minority” stereotype, with broad-stroke assumptions that they are somehow a “special” group that always excels. As with any generalization, though, this long-standing image is a myth that obscures the reality of AAPI professional life.
According to research, Asian Americans have the highest income inequality of any racial group in the United States, in large part due to overrepresentation in both low-paying jobs (manicurists, cooks, etc.) and high-paying jobs (software development, computer programming). Asian Americans also still lag behind their White counterparts in terms of pay, making approximately $0.93 for every $1 earned by a White colleague, even in high-paying fields. The stereotype of “Asian excellence” may often obscure these inequities, all while Asian Americans of all backgrounds (South Asian, East Asian, Southeast Asian, etc.) perceive significantly less inclusion in the workplace than their White colleagues do.
Leadership also frequently eludes AAPI individuals, as the dual stereotypes – of being a perpetual “foreigner” and being a “worker bee” – collide in the workplace. McKinsey found that the share of Asian American representation continually decreases at higher and higher levels of leadership: Asian Americans account for 9 percent of senior vice presidents, but they get just 5 percent of promotions from senior vice president to the C-suite, and Asian American women make up less than 1 percent of these promotions. Instead, they’re overlooked and frequently seen as the people who “get things done,” not the ones who are meant to lead.
AAPI Is Not a Monolith
It’s right there in the name: Asian American/Pacific Islander covers a vast swath of identities, cultures, traditions, and backgrounds. In popular culture and in the workplace, there is often a tendency to flatten this vibrant, diverse group into a single set of stereotypes, but that fails to acknowledge the vast differences in experiences and backgrounds that fall under the umbrella.
For many AAPI individuals, the experience of being the “only one” in the room is a familiar one, as is the “where are you really from?” question. There’s also the question of being perceived as not “lumped in” with other minorities, such as Latinx or Black individuals, but also not White, leaving many AAPI people feeling like they’re too much, not enough, or just plain invisible from every side.
“What AAPI heritage month means to me is celebrating the harmony created from the songs of my cultures. It seems that I am American when I am in the Philippines, but I am Filipina when I am in America. I don’t think there should be a dissonance between the two,” Ari Latras, a client success manager at Gannett, told USA Today. “Recognizing that our identity is multidimensional and uplifting that multidimensional-ness is what makes society so rich.”
How Organizations Can Act
Recognizing misconceptions like these is key to developing a workplace culture that fully supports AAPI employees on their career paths, whatever those paths may look like. Consider actions such as:
- Supporting mentorship and career advancement programs for AAPI employees
- Seeking out more specific data about individual groups within the AAPI umbrella
- Ensuring AAPI inclusion in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging conversations and initiatives
- Evaluating data to work on removing implicit bias that affects AAPI promotion and career development opportunities
- Educating employees on microaggressions and bias, and having a system in place to address these instances as they arise in order to improve a sense of inclusion
AAPI Heritage Month may be just one month, but companies can and must work to improve workplace culture for their AAPI employees all year round.
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