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Why aren’t there more Asian women leaders?

Have you ever been expected to act grateful for having a job – even if the toxic workplace treats you like a stereotype?

I have!

When I worked in corporate America, my colleagues and managers were surprised and displeased when I used my voice and advocated for myself. I could tell by their body language and tone that they didn’t like it when I challenged the stereotype of the “submissive Asian woman.” I still encounter surprise regularly from new clients, even now that I work for myself.

This is a common experience for Asian women in the American workplace. We’re penalized for challenging the dominant majority’s (read: usually white people’s) expectations; held to stringent criteria to be considered “likable”; and often dismissed when we raise issues of workplace inequality.

So it’s no shock to me that educated and experienced Asian women are still overlooked for leadership roles in top American companies.

Some data from USA Today:

  • Asian women are only half as likely as white women to hold an executive position.

  • Asian women make the least progress in their careers in relation to their education and experience when compared with women of other races.

  • Only three of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in America are Asian women, this changed just last week when Gap’s CEO Sonia Syngal was ousted–much faster than her male predecessor.

Why is this the case? And why has it taken the significant rise in anti-Asian violence of the last two years to start a dialogue about the very real discrimination Asian women have always faced in and out of the workplace?

Well in short: systemic racism.

But systemic racism affects people differently depending on their intersection identities. And the way systemic racism plays out at the intersection of Asian and female attempts to erase its existence entirely:

  • The “model minority myth” claims that Asian people have “made it.” This myth allows people who are not of Asian descent to deny racism even exists for Asian people– and honestly, many Asians I’ve met subscribe to and conform to this harmful trope. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t for quite a while.

  • Many believe this “model minority” status gives us immunity from experiencing the type of discrimination that holds us back from career advancement.

  • Then there’s the bizarre stereotype I referenced earlier, that Asian women are submissive, i.e. “not strong enough to lead.”

Argh. 😡

Fortunately, the conversation is changing (and it’s about time!). I was honored to be featured in USA Today’s Asian women are shut out of leadership at America's top companies. Our data shows why, alongside impressive Asian women leaders like Anne Chow and Margaret Chin. (That's my son holding a copy of USA Today with the story on Asian women leaders on the front page, and a photo of yours truly right there! :))

I hate that it took extreme violence to start acknowledging the anti-Asian bias that has always existed. But I’m relieved that we’re finally acknowledging the racist tropes that hurt all Asian people, and the racist + sexist ones that block Asian women from the leadership positions we fully deserve and desire.

Now, I want to hear from you: if you identify as Asian, how have racist stereotypes impacted your career? And for those with other identities, what have you learned about how systemic racism impacts Asian people?


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