Managing Director & Senior Partner; President & CEO, BCG Federal Corporation
There is a strong pipeline of Asian American talent within companies, but too few make it to the executive ranks. According to a BCG Henderson Institute survey, Asian Americans represent only 3% of executives, far below the group’s US population share of ~6%, even though they are well represented as middle and senior managers.
The reasons for this may lie in our recent findings from BCG’s Asian Americans in the Workplace survey: Asian Americans reported receiving twice as much negative feedback from their employers and experiencing higher levels of dissatisfaction with the quality of mentorship compared to other groups. And although they are more likely than any other group to aspire to management positions, Asian Americans are also the most skeptical about having a fair opportunity to reach upper management. Our research substantiates the existence of the “bamboo ceiling”—a set of barriers that Asian Americans face in career advancement.
Past BCG research has shown that diverse leadership teams boost innovation and that improving inclusion in the workplace is one of the actionable levers companies have to attract and retain talent. To succeed in their recruitment and retention efforts, companies must address the special challenges faced by Asian American employees—who are part of the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the US—in their career advancement.
Corporations can start by taking four steps to improve their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts to provide more opportunities for Asian American talent across the board.
The level of Asian American representation in companies is consistent across nonmanagers, junior managers, and senior managers at around 6%, but it drops to a mere 3% at the executive level.
A higher percentage of Asian Americans aspire to reach management roles than any other racial or ethnic demographic. Some 32% of Asian American survey respondents strongly agreed that they would like to reach a management role in their organization, but only 19% of respondents believed that they have a fair opportunity to reach upper management. (See Exhibit 1.)
It is well documented that strong mentorship is a key factor that impacts upward career advancement, particularly at the executive level. In more than 15 interviews conducted with Asian American executives as part of BCG’s “Often Tested; Always Proven” interview series, mentorship was regularly mentioned as a critical factor to support advancement. Ann Mukherjee, chairwoman and CEO of Pernod Ricard North America, highlighted her mentee relationship with her former boss Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo. As Mukherjee put it, “What [Indra] helped me see was what defines me is not my past. What defines me is what I’m capable for the future. . . . If I had not gone through that journey, I don’t think I’d be where I am today, and Indra has a large part to do with that.” However, Asian American survey respondents rated their quality of mentorship worse than white and Black respondents. (See Exhibit 2.)
Perhaps interlinked with the gap in mentorship, Asian American respondents reported significantly higher frequency of receiving negative feedback, at almost twice the frequency of other racial groups. Elevated negative feedback for Asian Americans spanned both “hard skills,” such as comments about the need to be more analytical, and soft skills, such as comments about the need to speak up more.
We suggest four actions companies can deploy to address career advancement of their Asian American employees.
Reimagine corporate affiliation groups for Asian Americans. Some 46% of Asian Americans participate in diversity affiliation, a higher percentage than their Black or Hispanic counterparts. Notably, 68% of Asian American respondents said that within their companies, diversity affiliation groups are viewed as being social in nature rather than supporting career advancement. We recommend augmenting broad-based mentorship programs across the leadership team as an overlay of this and other diversity networks to provide tactical strategies for advancement and upward networking.
Track and publish data on Asian American career advancement. Tracking and publishing data provides both internal and external accountability. It is difficult to address these challenges in a surgical way if there is no to data to illustrate where the issues are or if progress is truly being made. There has been great success through organizations like MLT for tracking Black and Hispanic advancement—similar approaches can likely be applied at scale for Asian Americans.
Ensure consistent calibration of feedback. Calibration refers to comparing and aligning employee ratings through a group process. Doing so reduces the likelihood that overly negative or biased feedback from a single supervisor determines an employee’s evaluation and career opportunities. Evaluating employees’ concrete contributions versus discussing more subjective factors, such as personality traits, can help employers arrive at more fair assessments and reduce subconscious bias. For calibration to achieve its aims, it is key that calibration committees are themselves diverse.
Recognize how intersecting factors shape career trajectories. Employers have only recently begun to pay attention to intersectionality—the interconnectedness of the way people’s identities shape their lives. There is no Asian American monolith—Asian Americans have different experiences based on gender identity, sexual orientation, country of origin or ancestry, family history in the US, and more. Intersectionality is critical to understanding disparities in the workplace, as our findings on the additional barriers faced by Asian American women and first-generation immigrants show. Companies should look to add additional support infrastructure, especially as it relates to caregivers—a role disproportionally taken on by women—which can act as a barrier to professional advancement.
As companies work to strengthen their diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, part of that effort needs to be the inclusion of Asian Americans—at all levels.
The authors thank Edward Tao, Wudi Wu, Natasha Thondavadi, Jacqueline Han, Sarah Zhou, Binh Nguyen, Jamie Solimano, Ellie Stoffel, Sheila Ho, Jean Lee, and Gabrielle Novacek for their contributions and feedback. Special thanks for support from The Asian American Foundation, Committee of 100, South Asian Trailblazers, and IncQuery.
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