One of the effects of the pandemic has been persistent attacks on the Asian community. People place the fault on China and on Asians in general. This divisive narrative is driving spikes in hate crimes around the country.
While I wish we didn’t need to have this conversation, I see it as an opportunity to bring attention to an issue that the business community isn’t doing enough to impact.
On a personal level, it’s led me to face fears that I know are all too familiar to other people of color. Over the last several weeks, I’ve rehearsed how I’d handle an encounter with someone unhinged by my race, especially if my kids were present. I’ve begged my elderly parents not to go out unchaperoned. I find myself carefully researching crime statistics to prepare for visits to unfamiliar corners of my state.
This also got me thinking more about the reality Asians face in the workplace. As an Asian woman in a leadership position, I was surprised to learn that my career progression is rare. Asian Americans are the least likely group to be promoted to leadership roles. Additionally, even in fields where Asian Americans are disproportionately represented, they comprise a smaller percentage of upper management and board positions and have less income equity.
There are things we can do to counter this negative undercurrent. For starters, business leaders should focus more on Asian representation in DE&I initiatives. While many have extensive plans in place, in many cases, Asians are the least considered minority in companies’ strategies.
That’s partly because Asians have been dubbed the “model minority,” a designation not grounded in reality. This stereotype is due to the relatively better educational attainment and employment rates of Asian Americans compared to other groups. But like others, we’re not where we should be. Not only has that stereotype downplayed the violent reality that’s happening right now, but it also diminishes the challenges Asian Americans face in the workplace.
The problem also has origins in cultural tendencies. Blend in. Be respectful. Be humble. There are merits to this approach, but if not in balance, these values can work against success. As I’ve climbed the corporate ladder, I’ve learned a few lessons that can help anyone in business, especially young Asian professionals with similar roots.
BE YOUR AUTHENTIC SELF
When I grew up in Southern California during the 1970s, the tone for most Asian immigrants, including my parents, was to blend in and assimilate. This has drastically changed over the years. Today many Asians teach and preserve their culture. However, my generation and several that followed continue to struggle with balancing being Asian and being American.
As our personal and work lives blended this past year, it served as a reminder that I hope stays with us in the future: Your perspective is built from your identity and unique experience. You’re a stronger professional and leader when you intertwine all aspects of your life.
I’m learning to embrace my authentic self and recognize that my cultural values and roles as a woman and mother have made me a better C-level leader. It’s helped inform my decisions, inspired creativity, allowed me to tackle problems uniquely, and given me the foundation to engage with customers and my team with greater empathy–something more important than ever as racial tensions boil over, caregivers attempt balance, and mental health suffers.
BE YOUR OWN ADVOCATE FIRST
Advocating for yourself does not come naturally for many, but women in general struggle with this. Being Asian can exacerbate it. Culturally, Asian women are taught to be respectful and deferential and not to speak up. That can make it harder for them to ask for things like raises or promotions.
For me, I learned very early that it wasn’t in my interest to be shy or apologetic. Early in my career, I wanted a promotion but struggled to bring it up to my manager and questioned if it was appropriate to “push” because my cultural bias said if I deserved it, I wouldn’t have to ask. After keeping silent a few times, I quickly learned that if you don’t make a case for yourself, nobody else will. If you see a route to accelerate your progression toward your goals, get out of your own way and be your own advocate.
OWN YOUR EXPERIENCE
Ten years ago, there wasn’t public outcry to diversify at the corporate level, and much of the C-suite looked similar. I often noticed I was the only woman, the only Asian, or worse, the only Asian woman in the room. Once, a high-ranking Japanese man from a partner company assumed I was a secretary when I was the senior leader of the team he was meeting with and motioned to me, pointing to his coffee cup. I chose to be gracious and refill his cup but always wondered if that was a mistake.
This moment and others like it helped me realize that I wasn’t in control of my own experience. This is a broad concept that encompasses several things like setting goals for your career, identifying boundaries, and being intentional about how you communicate with and treat others. Once I defined what I wanted my experience to be, I became more comfortable as a leader.
Recently, the Senate passed an anti-hate-crime bill in response to the wave of violence against Asians. But this is only one baby step toward equality. Like other underrepresented groups, we have a long road ahead. By embracing who we are and advocating for our seat at the table, we open doors for ourselves and for others who are struggling. Don’t be shy. Take the risk and speak up. Those who discriminate against “otherism” don’t understand the value that each person’s unique experiences bring, and we can’t let them hold us back from achieving greatness.
Joyce Kim is the Chief Marketing Officer at Genesys