Breaking the Other Glass Ceiling: Asian Americans in Leadership Roles
Linda Lan, PMP
Linda Lan, PMP
Director, PMO, NORAM Strategic Sales
Chair of Sodexo Pan-Asian Network Group (PANG)

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and museums, educational institutions and other organizations around the country are paying tribute to the impact Asian Americans have had on American culture.

Whether they were born in the U.S. or immigrated here, Asian Americans are more likely to be well educated than the average American. Nearly half of Asian American adults – 49 percent — have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 28 percent of all Americans. Asian Americans also have lower unemployment rates, and higher average weekly pay than other races, according to the Harvard Business Review.

Despite all of this, Asian Americans are still underrepresented in leadership roles in business.  “Often employees, rarely CEOs,” was how NPR described the problem Asian Americans face in the workforce in 2015. That year, a report found that Asians and Asian Americans made up 27 percent of the workforce at Silicon Valley’s top technology firms, but they made up only 14 percent of management and executive roles. It’s a phenomenon that has been called an Asian glass ceiling.

There are many theories about why it’s so hard for Asian Americans to break that glass ceiling. The Harvard Business Review posits stereotypes that Asian people are highly competent make them threatening to other in the workplace, while stereotypes that they lack social skills make them seem unfit for leadership. The persistence of stereotypes such as these, show how far we still have to go to create an inclusive society.

The lack of Asian and Asian American people in leadership roles is hurting businesses. It is truer now than ever before: Diversity and inclusion are imperative for business success. Organizations have to recruit the top talent in order to retain an edge over competitors, and top talent isn’t bounded by race, gender or sexuality. If your company isn’t a welcoming place for your top recruit, you’ll likely lose him or her to your competitor.  Likewise, the best business ideas come from gathering insights from people with a diverse range of experiences; if the right person doesn’t have a seat at the table, you could miss out on a game-changing idea.

To boost the numbers of Asian and Asian-American people in leadership roles, companies must create inclusive environments. That means employees must know they’re being judged on their work, not their race, and feel free to bring their whole selves to work. To move toward this goal, Sodexo has created an employee business resource group called the Pan Asian Network Group (PANG). PANG is open to any Sodexo employees who want to discuss professional growth for Asian people or share knowledge about all Asian cultures. In practice, it gives employees an opportunity to discuss how to combat stereotypes, grow professionally and move into leadership roles. It also gives Asian and Asian American employees a chance to teach their coworkers about their culture.

In total, Sodexo has eight of these resource groups for employees, and the discussion and learning they foster has helped make our corporate culture more inclusive.


How is your organization promoting diversity and inclusion, especially for Asian and Asian-American employees? Have you experienced a glass ceiling for Asian Americans? Please share your ideas in the comments section.

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