What’s the Problem? A Look into the Lack of Diversity in Corporate America.

As a social science researcher, I’m curious about people, innate behaviors, and the perceptions of others. The research question I wanted to explore in my dissertation partly emerged from experiences in corporate America and growing up as an Asian kid in U.S. society.

Family Expectations

Like many Asian parents, my Mom and Dad firmly believed that education was a pathway toward success. To them, victory meant being able to attain a “respectable” profession like a doctor or lawyer. It took me a long time to figure out which profession I wanted to pursue because I wasn’t aware of the countless professions available to me. Growing up, I didn’t have role models who looked like me. This was the 80s, and the only Asian face I knew outside of my family was Mr. Miyagi from the Karate Kid.

The expectations my parents had of me were no different than other Asian families. In fact, it is estimated that the educational attainment within Asian immigrant populations is higher than both foreign-born or U.S.-born adults.

Statistics about Asians in the Workplace.

It is estimated that approximately 50% of Asian adults over the age of 25 have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 29% of all other immigrants and 30% of native-born adults. In addition, 49% of Asian immigrants work in management, business, science, and arts professions, while other immigrants in those categories make up 30%. These statistics imply that compared to other immigrants, Asians generally attain higher levels of professional success in the United States.

My Corporate Experience

When I began working in the corporate world, I thought I would quickly climb the ladder like Melanie Griffith in Working Girl. But during my slow and laborious corporate climb, I noticed that the women who looked like me were often in administrative roles. As an Asian woman who looked a lot younger than my actual age, it was common for others to mistake me for an intern or an assistant. Others perceived me as inexperienced and I felt that I needed to work twice as hard to prove myself.

This leads me to one of the commonly discussed issues regarding diversity at the workplace. The issue is not about the employability of Asians; the problem in U.S. corporations is about the lack of Asian representation in leadership roles. In the past decade, significant attention has been given to this area, and it is at the forefront of diversity and inclusion efforts in corporations.

Asian Women in Leadership

Why are there fewer Asians in leadership roles? What barriers toward leadership exist? There may be a number of reasons for this.

This disparity in Asian women representation has been attributed to existing stereotypes about Asians and their ability to lead effectively. In a book entitled, Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling, author Jane Hyun states that Asian professionals are not viewed by management as assertive or powerful in the workplace due to how they interact with others. The author asserts that an Asian professional’s behaviors are rooted in cultural values of humility, deference, and respect. These exhibited behaviors impact how others perceive Asians at the workplace, resulting in a barrier called the “Bamboo Ceiling.” This is used to describe the distinct hurdle that Asians must overcome to achieve higher titles.

According to a study conducted in 2011 by the Center for Work Life Policy, 25% of Asians experienced discrimination at the workplace, which is higher than other ethnic minorities: 8% of African-Americans and 9% of Hispanics. Asians, particularly Asian women were less likely than people of other ethnicities to share new ideas or challenge a group consensus in a team meeting.

In 2005, the Center for Work-Life Policy published a Harvard Business Review article summarizing their study on how to cultivate the best performance from minority executives. The article provided anecdotes from minority executives feeling stifled at the workplace, and as a result, withholding their full potential. Also, the minority executives’ personal lives were intentionally “invisible” to their colleagues and managers because they would rather blend in than be negatively stereotyped for their personal endeavors.

The issues of underrepresentation for Asian women in the highest echelons of corporate America are significant:

  • In a recent 2018 study by the Alliance for Board Diversity and Deloitte Consulting, among Fortune 100 companies, Asians represented approximately 3.9% of board-level seats, and Asian women held 1.3% of board-level seats.
  • Ascend, an Asian-American professional organization discovered that in Silicon Valley-based technology companies, Asian women hold the least number of executive titles, relative to the available workforce. Of the 9,254 Asian women in their sample, only 36 women held executive titles.

The Research Inquiry

A tremendous amount of work has been done in companies and in academic research to identify and eliminate barriers that hold women back in corporate settings. While stereotypes and discrimination may exist for some women, instead of focusing on barriers that held women back, through my research study, I sought to uncover the other side of the story.

The purpose of my study was to shift the emphasis from diversity numbers to learning from Asian women who have successfully attained leadership roles. This inquiry examined the unique lived experiences of Asian women in corporate leadership who immigrated to the United States during their adolescence; defined as ages 12-21 years old.

The research questions I sought to answer were: What are the experiences of Asian women in leadership who grew up as immigrants in U.S. society? And how did the Asian women’s immigrant experiences shape their identities as leaders in corporate America?

Through this qualitative research study, the participants discussed applying values in life and leadership, receiving guidance and help along their journey, and using language as a tool to advance in their lives and careers. 

What’s Next?

Over the next several weeks, I will share each finding in detail so that all of us can think beyond increasing workplace diversity numbers but expand our thinking and consider what it means to be an Asian woman in corporate America.

I hope that by sharing the findings, I will help you to inspire new thoughts or actions that will enrich your journey.

Thank you for reading!


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