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Walker Sands Reflects on the AANHPI Workplace Experience With Roundtable Discussion

Asian American Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders represent over 45 nationalities and many more ethnic groups, and account for 60% of the global population. AANHPIs are also the racial group most likely to be hired for high-tech jobs — at Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, AANHPIs comprise at least a third of the company’s workforce.

Yet, AANHPIs are the least likely group to be promoted into management and leadership positions. While half of Americans believe AANHPIs are fairly or overly represented in leadership positions, in reality AANHPIs only hold 2.6% of upper-level positions.

To better understand these statistics and how we can effect change, this AANHPI Heritage Month we invited Baiyin Murphy, general partner at Indicator Ventures, Saya Iwasaki, head of people ops and experience at OpenSea and Steffi Lau, head of public relations at Stand With Asians to join us for a roundtable discussion. During the event, the panelists talked about the AANHPI experience in the workplace, implicit biases holding our AANHPI colleagues back and how to take action as allies. Below is a recap of the conversation.

Screenshot of four women on a Zoom call

Understanding the Model Minority Myth

Last year, Christopher Tang, a professor at UCLA, published an op-ed in the LA Times noting that research shows AANHPIs are often overlooked in corporate America because of the “model minority myth” — a phenomenon that portrays Asian Americans as industrious and hard-working, but lacking soft skills and leadership potential. Because of this, Asian Americans are often left out of workplace discrimination discussions and overlooked for promotions.

Steffi added that Asian Americans do relatively well at landing positions at the bottom rungs of the corporate ladder, especially in the tech industry, but may hit the management glass ceiling due to unconscious biases or stereotypes that Asian Americans lack leadership qualities like assertiveness.

Dismantling the Glass Ceiling

Saya shared that to break down the barriers AANHPIs face at the leadership level, employers must consider how they are designing the employee experience to provide equitable outcomes. In addition to assessing their company culture, leaders should examine the statistics behind who is in leadership roles to craft a better picture of promotion rates and how AANHPIs are moving through the system. From there, companies can implement different solutions — like 1:1 coaching for those with unconscious biases or standardizing promotion practices if there’s a larger systemic issue. 

“It’s an art, not a science,” Saya acknowledged. “It’s about understanding how to create an environment where people can directly work with each other, see each other and understand where others are coming from. Oftentimes it’s in those gaps that you begin to see inequity.”

Baiyin also emphasized the importance of making inclusivity a central part of hiring plans, retention and culture for early stage businesses. Not only is hiring incredibly challenging during the Great Resignation, but early stage businesses already struggle to compete with large companies when it comes to compensation. To succeed in attracting talent and recruiting mission-aligned employees, companies should lean into creating a diverse culture and employee mix. With remote and distributed workforces, there is an opportunity to look beyond the obvious candidate pools.

Addressing AANHPI Stereotypes in the Workplace

Another issue AANHPIs continue to struggle with involves stereotypes that cast us as lacking leadership qualities like assertiveness, likeability and friendliness, or assumptions that we’re good at math and bad at language. These stereotypes and assumptions pigeonhole us into specific roles and career paths. 

These stereotypes are also expressed in the workplace through microaggressions and unconscious biases, Steffi shared. 

“​​I’ve certainly experienced microaggressions in the workplace, but my experience has primarily been with unconscious biases. The hard part about that is you can’t confirm it’s happening, but you know something feels off.” 

Saya warned that these biases are particularly damaging to those who are in the early stages of their careers. 

“When you’re younger, it can be hugely damaging to your self-esteem because you are being assessed by a subjective standard. Anyone who doesn’t fit that standard can easily begin to start to think that they’re the one in the wrong, but you can’t change your heritage or your culture.”

While non-AANHPI colleagues might not be inherently racist, some may feel uncomfortable bringing up Asian American issues in the workplace. In these instances, Baiyin works to take a more active role in educating those around her about AANHPI culture and issues like Asian American violence. 

“I view my role as bringing up those things so they can become topics of conversation, and I’m controlling the narrative of how I would like to be viewed as an Asian American woman.”

How to Advocate for Your AANHPI Colleagues

So, what can colleagues and allies in the workplace do to advocate for AANHPIs and help us break through the ceiling to continue rising? Saya’s answer is simple — connect with your colleagues as people. 

“Having conversations is incredibly important because humans connect when you have deep empathy and you really understand where people are coming from. This helps build understanding and an open dialogue of championing one another.”

On an individual level, continue to examine your biases and speak up if you witness a microaggression. If you’re in a leadership position, think about how you show up as a coach or mentor. Baiyin shared that giving a colleague the lay of the land can go a long way toward helping AANHPI peers rise in their careers. 

“I joined a new firm and was the youngest on the team, the only woman and the only Asian American. A colleague would often make wild generalizations and labels. I brought this up to another colleague and he gave me the lay of the land on how to navigate the situation and the organization as a whole. This was hugely helpful to me as a woman, as the only minority and as a newcomer.”

At the end of the day, it’s important to show up to support the AANHPI colleagues in your life. Steffi voiced that taking actions like attending an ERG event or supporting an AANHPI organization can go a long way.

“When I share ERG events and people come, that’s meaningful. If your company does fundraisers with matching offers, see what you can do to donate to the AANHPI community. Only 0.2% of foundation dollars go to AANHPI nonprofits, so it’s a good way to fill the gap.”

Thank you to Baiyin, Saya, and Steffi for the informative and eye-opening discussion on how we can become better champions for AANHPIs in the workplace. Looking for more ways to support the AANHPI community? Check out our AANHPI Heritage Month one-pager for more information on AANHPI social justice organizations, AANHPI businesses and educational resources.

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