Waiting For Corporate America’s ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Moment

November 7, 2019, 7:00 PM UTC

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Today’s guest opinion piece is co-authored by McKinsey’s senior partner and chief diversity and inclusion officer Lareina Yee, McKinsey’s senior partner Michael Park, and McKinsey’s engagement manager Adrian Kwok. Read more about raceAhead’s call for essay submissions here.

Asian representation in U.S. higher education is a hot topic right now, with U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs last month rejecting claims that Harvard had illegally limited the number of Asian-American students it admits. The role of race in admissions and the merits of diversity on campus have been fiercely debated for years.

In corporate America, however, it’s a different story.

When we ask executives at our Fortune 500 clients how they are addressing the Asian-American leadership gap at their companies, their common response is, “What gap?” And this is despite research showing that Asian Americans are underrepresented in executive ranks, and are the least likely group in the U.S. to be promoted to management

In 2017, Asians made up 13% of the U.S. professional workforce, but an unpublished review of the roughly 1,200 senior-most executives of 2019’s Fortune 100 companies, privately conducted within McKinsey, shows that only 7% of business leaders are Asian. The difference gets even more stark at the top—across this year’s entire Fortune 500, there are only 16 Asian CEOs (3%).

This mismatch presents a tremendous opportunity for leaders and organizations. In a war for talent, every talent pool matters.

The key to closing this leadership gap is addressing the factors that slow the advancement of Asian Americans in the executive pipeline. Why are there so few Asian CEOs? How can companies better cultivate top business leaders from a group that, in 2017, represented an eighth of the professional workforce, and is disproportionately represented at top colleges (for instance, by around 8 percentage points in 2015)?

To begin answering these questions, we examined a wide variety of survey data—including the “Women in the Workplace 2018” survey, which tracked differences in representation, upward mobility, and mindsets by gender and ethnicity for 279 companies employing more than 13 million people in the U.S.

The first thing we discovered: Asian professionals, both men and women, are the most likely of any ethnic group to report that they are looking to be promoted to the next level, the most likely to say they want to be a top executive, and the most likely to think they will get there one day. Asians are determined to be leaders in their organizations. What, then, is preventing that desire from translating into actual advancement?

One barrier is a lack of advocacy. According to information gathered as part of the “Women in the Workplace” survey, Asians are less likely to self-promote and more likely to trust their organization’s evaluation process of their job performance. When Asian professionals report that they have not asked for a promotion in the last two years, the data shows that they are more than twice as likely as non-Asians to say it’s because they “didn’t want to be seen as too demanding” and are nearly twice as likely to respond, “I trust I’ll be promoted when my manager thinks I’m ready.”

Asian professionals also face challenges finding relevant role models and advocates at the highest levels of their organizations. The Asia Society found in 2018 that Asian Americans were significantly more likely than non-Asians to report a shortage of role models, executives, and board directors at their companies with similar cultural backgrounds. Asian men and women made up roughly 12% of both entry-level employees and managers represented in the Women in the Workplace 2018 sample, but less than 6% at the senior vice president, C-suite, and board levels. With representation cut in half at the executive and board levels, it’s not surprising that Asians have a hard time today finding role models that reflect them.

While the U.S. business community waits for a Crazy Rich Asians moment in its upper echelons, there is still plenty to do at the grassroots level by recruiting, retaining, and promoting Asian-American talent. Start by tracking the representation of Asian Americans at different levels in your organization, identifying where there are drop-offs, and asking why that is happening. For example, how many Asian Americans are there in visible executive positions? Are formal programs in place to help up-and-coming leaders find mentors? Are evaluation processes objective and free from bias? Finally, is Asian American representation and advancement given the same importance as that of other minority groups?

Addressing these questions thoughtfully and truthfully would give leaders another pool of talented and motivated young leaders. What CEO wouldn’t want that?

Tamara El-Waylly and Ellen McGirt co-created the raceAhead op-ed program; Ellen curated and wrote the blurbs in this edition of raceAhead.

On Point

The Guardian plans a new project on voter suppression And not a moment too soon. The Fight to Vote series will investigate voter suppression efforts across the U.S., and plans in-depth reporting, data analysis, videos, and will focus on the role of social media in the dissemination of disinformation and propaganda. Former Vice editor Ankita Rao, an adjunct professor at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, is the new voting rights editor for Guardian U.S. The series is being funded by grants from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, Schumann Media Center, and Park Foundation.
The Guardian

There’s more than one way to take a knee The Players Coalition, a nonprofit of current and former NFL athletes established in 2017 to support social justice and racial equality, launched an online social media campaign yesterday to address police misconduct and violence. It builds on the conversation started by Colin Kaepernick. Co-founder Malcolm Jenkins of the Philadelphia Eagles says the campaign will center the voices of parents who have lost kids to police and gun violence. "We want this PSA to generate productive dialogue between people of all backgrounds, so we can start to bridge the communication gap and work together to end these injustices," Jenkins told CNBC. The first video tells the story of the Oct. 17, 2010, shooting death of 20-year-old student-athlete Danroy "DJ" Henry. #EveryonesChild. Bring tissues.

Elite colleges solicit applications from low-performing students to be able to claim “selectivity” It’s a very dodgy deal. Colleges buy student data from the College Board, the nonprofit that owns the SAT, and then use that data to send recruitment brochures to their homes. Students interpret the brochures as an invitation to apply, even if their scores might otherwise eliminate them. The solicitations boost applications and rejections, making the colleges seem popular and selective. "They are buying some students’ names who don’t have a great chance of getting in," says one enrollment counselor, dashing the hopes—and denting the bank accounts—of aspirational families who might have been better served elsewhere. But it also helps the College Board. "Those rejection rates have amplified the perception of exclusivity that colleges are eager to reinforce, pushing students to invest more time and money in preparing for and retaking exams College Board sells,” says the Wall Street Journal.
Wall Street Journal

Revenge is back and you’re not going to believe the twist Back in 2011, Revenge was an impossibly popular ABC drama starring a bunch of impossibly wealthy and attractive white people, several of whom were impossibly good at hand to hand combat. But that’s not important now. Breaking news: It turns out that ABC is planning a reboot starring a Latina immigrant who comes to Malibu to take revenge on… hang on a sec… "a Sackler-esque pharmaceutical dynasty, whose insatiable greed lead to the murder of her biochemist mother, the destruction of her family, and a global epidemic." Super topical!

On Background

A lost manuscript provides searing testimony on the 1921 Tulsa Massacre A 10-page manuscript, yellowed and folded, was recovered from a storage facility in 2015. It was written by Oklahoma attorney Buck Colbert Franklin (1879-1960), who was the father of historian John Hope Franklin (1915-2009). In it, he describes the attack in horrifying terms (and affirming the choices used to bring the episode to life by the producers of HBO’s Watchmen). "I could see planes circling in mid-air. They grew in number and hummed, darted and dipped low. I could hear something like hail falling upon the top of my office building. Down East Archer, I saw the old Mid-Way hotel on fire, burning from its top, and then another and another and another building began to burn from their top." It gets much worse. The manuscript is now in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. 
Smithsonian Magazine

Get to know Phillip Youmans At 19, Youmans is the youngest filmmaker ever to screen at the TriBeCa Film Festival, and he did not go unnoticed. He became the first Black director to win Best Narrative Feature for his gritty feature Burning Cane, and the film's star, Wendell Pierce, won for Best Actor. The film was also snapped up for a distribution deal by Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY and was released yesterday on Netflix. Youmans is now a freshman film student at NYU (I know, right?), and spoke at length with Beandra July about how he views his art, and what it was like to collaborate with other filmmakers during the edit process. "Benh Zeitlin [of Beasts of the Southern Wild], he really motivated me to be as fluid as my instinct led me to be," says Youmans. "So, in the edit, I decided that I wanted the film to be like a revolving door," but also "not necessarily being tied to a specific time and place of things chronologically."

A behavioral economist explains political strife Krista Tippett has a thoughtful interview with Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning founder of behavioral economics, and author of Thinking Fast and Slow. His central thesis, that human behavior toggles between two contradictory modes of thinking—fast and automatic, slow and conscious—offers some comfort during times of political turmoil. "[O]ne of the important realizations that come from thinking of the world in terms of System 1 and System 2 is that our beliefs do not come from where we think they came," he explains. "So the real cause of your belief in a political position, whether conservative or radical left, the real causes are rooted in your personal history." See also: Uncomfortable conversations.
On Being

Tamara El-Waylly helps write and produce raceAhead.


“We are not supporting roles ... We are stars on our own journeys."

—Constance Wu, in an interview with Time on the impact of Crazy Rich Asians.


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