Waiting For Corporate America’s ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Moment
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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In 2017, Asians made up 13% of the U.S. professional workforce, but an unpublished review of the roughly 1,200 senior-most executives of 2019’s Fortune 100 companies, privately conducted within McKinsey, shows that only 7% of business leaders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.
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Wall Street Journal
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Tamara El-Waylly helps write and produce raceAhead.
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