It’s a contradiction that runs counter to data. Asian Americans have the highest educational attainment while having the lowest rate of representation in corporate leadership. According to a 2023 survey by the nonprofit AAPI Data, Asian American workers are the least likely group to feel represented in leadership positions at work.
Only 26% of Asian Americans surveyed say there are others like them in leadership positions at their workplace and that they feel strongly supported pursuing leadership roles, compared to 43% overall. Additionally, 30% of Asian American workers say others have made assumptions about the type of work they do.
Compare that to AAPI Data on educational attainment: 24% of Asian Americans have a postgraduate degree and 31% have a bachelor’s degree, the highest of any race. In the study, White Americans came in second at 13% for postgraduate and 21% for bachelor’s degrees, Black Americans at 8% for postgraduate and 14% for bachelor’s degrees, and Hispanics at 6% for postgraduate and 12% for bachelor’s degrees.
A 2019 analysis by Harvard Business Reviewshows that Asian American white-collar professionals are the group least likely to be promoted to management, and White professionals are twice as likely than their Asian counterparts to be promoted.
“It’s an art to work through corporate America,” said Manu Singh, an Indian American media executive in New York City.
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Having a network is incredibly important, said Singh, 48, who immigrated 30 years ago. She had to find her own mentors. There were no friends or relatives in the business that could help her navigate the maze and advocate for her.
Many Asian Americans come from a culture of working hard and keeping a low profile, Singh said. But in corporate America, you have to toot your own horn and have mentors vouch for you, she noted.
One way to find support at work is through employee resource groups. According to AAPI Data, some 16% of Asian American and 18% of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander workers surveyed join these groups based on their racial background at twice the rate of workers overall at 8%.
Connecting with others is the leading reason Asian American workers join such groups, followed by professional growth opportunities, raising awareness and inclusivity within their organization.
Lack of Asian American leadership is not just evident in private industry. According to the Harvard Business Review, Asian Americans made up 9.8% of the federal workforce in 2016 but only 4.4% at the highest level.
To correct imbalances, Singh suggests executives reach out to people from different backgrounds. “We don’t have any roots in this country,” Singh said of immigrant workers.
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