Multicultural leaders smile around a board room table.

AANHPIs are Overlooked for Corporate Leadership

May 22, 2024

According to the Census Bureau, Asian Americans are the fastest-growing demographic in the United States, with an estimated 24.7 million Asian Americans (AA) and 1.8 million Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders (NHPI), accounting for 7.2% of the nation’s population, all with distinct cultural and historical backgrounds.  

Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) representation and visibility increased in recent years, with public figures such as Vice President Kamala Harris, Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth, Dwane “The Rock” Johnson, Auli’i Cravalho and Constance Wu, to name a few. Yet, it’s far more challenging to name AANHPI leaders in corporate America, especially at the C-Suite and board level.  

With the sharp increase in anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic and greater awareness around the fact that NHPIs are often on the periphery of these important discussions, companies are striving to incorporate the AANHPI community’s voices into diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives. However, only 0.5% of for-profit CEOs and board chairs are AANHPI, so more work is needed to increase leadership representation at the highest levels.  

Challenges in AANHPI Leadership Paths.

Commonly referred to as the “Bamboo Ceiling,” AANHPI employees face several specific barriers in the professional setting that hinder their path to leadership and management:  

  • Stereotypes and Bias: Along with the model minority and monolith myths, corporate culture frequently and incorrectly categorizes AAs as one of two extremes: aggressive and power-hungry or unassertive and quiet, both implying harmful gender-differentiated undertones. These perceptions assume AANHPIs lack the necessary leadership qualities for success.   
  • Historic Invisibility: Concerns about AANHPIs being overlooked for corporate leadership positions have only recently risen to mainstream conversations. Although not considered an underrepresented minority, AANHPIs at the early to mid-career levels need support in the form of culturally competent mentorship, training and resources. Even more concerning? Little to no data exists regarding NHPI outcomes, separate from AA data, which makes it far more difficult to diagnose and address the issue. 
  • Lack of Understanding Existing Data: Though there is a perception that all AANHPIs are successful by American standards, the actual socio-economic and educational disparity among AANHPI communities is significant and contributes to leadership disparities. AAs have the largest racial wealth gap, as one in 10 individuals live in poverty while those in the top 10% earn 11 times more than those at the bottom.  

Take Action: Empower AANHPI leaders.

Steps organizations can take include (but are not limited to):  

  • Remove the Bias: Educate leaders, managers and employees about AANHPI experiences and dispel the myths related to leadership capabilities. Encourage true sponsorship and allyship among company leaders and senior employees. Review your corporate definition of leadership and expand to accommodate different leadership styles—strengthening your company and opening opportunities for all underrepresented groups. Invest in leadership training programs specifically tailored for AANHPI employees. 
  • Promote Visibility: Empower AANHPI leaders and employees through internal communications, newsletters and events and compensate them for their time and insights. Support employee resource groups (ERGs) that create safe spaces for employees of underrepresented groups to connect and discuss shared challenges and successes. Review AANHPI representation at all levels of your organization, including contracts with AANHPI-owned businesses. 
  • Foster Data Transparency: Disclose specific AANHPI representation data at all levels, including senior staff, that breaks down into subgroups to better understand the unique challenges. Without accurate data, it’s impossible to diagnose gaps to improve. 

As we honor and close out AANHPI Heritage Month, we encourage corporate leaders to continue this dialogue. Look for opportunities to update the company policies, empower existing and future AANHPI employees and make paths for career growth. This way we can create a corporate landscape that reflects the rich diversity of our workforce and nation. 

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