Shattering the Bamboo Ceiling: Addressing Asian American Under–Representation in the C-Suite
DEIDiversityLeadershipBoard and CEO AdvisoryDiversity, Equity, and Inclusion AdvisoryExecutive Search
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September 23, 2020
22 min read
DEIDiversityLeadershipBoard and CEO AdvisoryDiversity, Equity, and Inclusion AdvisoryExecutive Search
Asian Americans are underrepresented in leadership positions based on their percentage of the population and those with a college degree.

Companies have long aimed to diversify their leadership teams, but with little enduring success. Leaders often point to a lack of qualified candidates in the pipeline and high rates of turnover among diverse talent to explain why their C-suites appear so homogenous. However, the problem also is rooted in how companies define who is qualified to lead.

The dearth of Asians and Asian Americans in leadership roles at US-based companies is a prime illustration of this problem. While Asian Americans1 are the most educated of all demographic groups in the US, and are highly represented in professional roles, they are less likely than other racial minority groups to hold an executive title.

Companies that fail to diversify top leadership miss out on the performance benefits that come with different perspectives. They are also more likely to continue losing diverse talent throughout the pipeline. As social concerns and protests catalyze a new focus on diversity, it is important to understand and address cultural and systemic issues that present obstacles to companies meeting their goals.

In this paper, we examine new research on Asia-based and US-based leadership styles to better understand the range of expected C-suite behaviors across different cultures. Using proprietary psychometric data for nearly 1,200 executives, we take a quantitative approach to pinpoint where differences lie and what they signify about an executive’s ability to be successful. In brief, comparing leadership styles of Asia based executives and US based executives as a proxy for the range of leadership behaviors exhibited by Asian American executives, we find significant variances, representing very different cultural ideas about what good leadership looks like.

Based on this research and deep experience, we offer a set of steps to help US based companies navigate current obstacles to diversity while hiring the leaders who are most likely to succeed.

  1. Nurture the talent pipeline through reinvigorated efforts to develop and retain Asian American talent.
  2. Reconsider internal definitions of who is qualified to lead, acknowledging the potential for unconscious bias to enter the equation.
  3. Equip all leaders in the organization to build a more inclusive culture in order to retain top talent for the long term.

Asians are underrepresented in the C-suite

The imbalance between Asian Americans in leadership roles compared with those in rank and file roles has been well– documented in recent years.

Asian Americans comprise 12 percent of the professional workforce and are more likely than any other group to hold a college degree, but fewer than 1 percent of S&P 500 CEOs were of East Asian descent in any year from 2010 to 2017, according to a 2020 study by Jackson Lu of MIT, Richard E. Nisbett of University of Michigan and Michael W. Morris of Columbia University.2

A 2017 analysis by Ascend Foundation puts an even finer point on the problem, using EEOC data to reveal that Asian Americans at some leading technology firms are less likely than any other racial or ethnic group to be promoted from individual contributor roles into either mid–level management or executive roles.3

This analysis focused on the San Francisco Bay Area, which has the largest Asian population of any metropolitan area in the continental US as well as a high concentration of large, successful public companies, mostly in the technology sector. Close to 50 percent of the professional workforce in the region is Asian American, yet looking at the ratio of managers to professionals (Management Parity Index), Asian Americans were well below 1.0, or parity, and worse off than the other racial demographic groups in the study.

Management Parity index By Race, Tech Firms 2007-2018
(% of managers/% of professionals) 

 200720082009201020112012201320142015201620172018
White1.321.321.311.311.311.321.311.321.311.311.321.33
Black1.221.171.191.131.151.141.101.151.151.050.991.01
Hispanic1.231.241.291.251.241.241.261.251.261.161.141.16
Asian0.620.630.640.650.660.670.670.670.690.700.720.72

 Source: Ascend data, including 2007-2015 published analysis of EEOC data for NAICS Manufacturing segments 31, 32, 35 and Information segment 51 for the San Francisco and San Jose core-based statistical areas, as well as 2016-2018 unpublished analysis for NAICS Manufacturing segment 35 and Information segment 51.

This gap grows even wider when comparing the percentage of executives to professionals.

Professional Vs. Executive Representation By Race, Tech Firms, 2007-2018

 200720082009201020112012201320142015201620172018
 White 
% Executives74%73%73%73%71%72%68%67%69%68%66%65%
% Professionals47%47%47%46%46%45%45%44%44%44%41%40%
Gap27%27%27%27%26%27%23%23%25%24.6%25.2%24.6%
 Black 
% Executives1.0%1.1%1.0%1.1%1.0%1.0%1.1%1.0%1.1%1.1%1.0%1.3%
% Professionals2.5%2.4%2.2%2.2%2.0%2.0%2.0%1.9%1.9%1.9%2%2.1%
Gap1.5%1.3%1.2%1.1%1.0%0.9%0.9%0.9%0.8%0.8%1.0%0.8%
 Hispanic 
% Executives3.5%3.2%3.1%3.4%3.3%3.5%3.4%3.4%3.5%3.2%3.2%3%
% Professionals5.2%4.9%4.9%4.8%4.7%4.7%4.7%4.7%4.8%4.7%5%5.1%
Gap1.6%1.7%1.8%1.4%1.4%1.2%1.3%1.3%1.3%1.5%1.8%2.1%
 Asian 
% Executives20%22%22%22%23%22%26%28%25%26%28%29%
% Professionals44%45%45%45%46%46%46%47%47%48%49%50%
Gap24.3%23.5%23.1%23.4%22.5%24.3%19.8%19.2%22.1%21.5%21.6%20.7%

 Source: Ascend data, including 2007-2015 published analysis of EEOC data for NAICS Manufacturing segments 31, 32, 35 and Information segment 51 for the San Francisco and San Jose core-based statistical areas, as well as 2016-2018 unpublished analysis for NAICS Manufacturing segment 35 and Information segment 51.

With the management parity index as a leading indicator, this data clearly shows that Asian Americans are not progressing along the corporate ladder as one would expect, given their high level of representation at the professional level.

Lack of talent, lack of ambition– or neither?

What are potential reasons for Asian Americans not being promoted up to managerial and executive level roles in proportionate numbers? Companies that fail to achieve diversity in their executive ranks often point to a lack of qualified up-and-coming talent or a lack of interest on the part of more junior employees.

However, another possible explanation for this imbalance is cultural stereotyping and unconscious bias.

Prior research has pointed out that Asian Americans are commonly expected to be quiet, hard-working and self sacrificing— in contrast to prototypical US leaders, who are expected to be bold, disruptive and ambitious. As rare as Asian American CEOs are in the US, a recent study of about 5,000 public companies shows that they were most likely to be appointed when a company was in decline, presumably to leverage these perceived hard-working and self sacrificing tendencies. 4

More commonly, unconscious bias leads to perceptions about Asian American executives not being as ambitious in their careers as others, or not having the necessary soft skills to command authority and take decisive action. When Lu, Nisbett and Morrison surveyed various groups of current professionals and MBA students, they found non–Asians almost universally held these perceptions of their East Asian peers’ leadership potential.

These perceptions often feed the sense that there is not enough “executive-ready” talent among Asian American professionals. However, it is important to separate perceptions from reality. The Lu, Nisbett and Morrison study found Asian Americans had equal levels of leadership motivation and desire for career advancement as other professionals and students. This underscores the fact that Asian Americans strive for top roles as much as their peers, yet are overlooked because of common misperceptions.

To the extent there is a true lack of talent, it may be due to promising professionals leaving major companies to start their own businesses. When Asian Americans have had challenges moving up within their organizations or fail to see their opinions and ideas supported, we have seen new companies spring up and become highly successful. Video conferencing platform Zoom is a prime example. Chinese-born founder and CEO Eric Yuan started his career at Webex, but left after Webex was acquired by Cisco Systems Inc. because he felt the company’s priorities did not align with his own.5

Narrow definitions of good leaders

Past efforts to fill this leadership gap have mainly focused on how Asian Americans should individually moderate their leadership styles to adapt to the dominant culture. Yet this approach opens the possibility that they will be criticized for another reason: failing to match American expectations of stereotypical Asian American behavior. We consider this a “double-edged sword,” with neither path allowing them to be recognized and rewarded for their authentic leadership styles, wherever they fall on the spectrum of cultural expectations.

Past research has proven the negative effects of not fulfilling stereotypical expectations. One paper by Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, Christy Zhou Koval, Anyi Ma and Robert Livingston looked at this effect for women, and the particularly acute effects for Black and Asian American women.6 Based on their own research as well as past studies, they note that “Asian women who do not fit the descriptive stereotype of being demure and subservient often receive unfavorable receptions and are perceived as a ‘dragon lady’.” Other research shows these effects occur for men and women. A 2010 study by Thomas Sy and others showed that Asian American men and women were consistently rated by others as more competent when they were in engineering roles that fit cultural expectations, and as less competent when in sales roles that violated these expectations, regardless of actual performance in the role.7

In our experience, the leadership gap is not a reflection of how well Asian Americans can lead, but rather how narrowly companies define what a successful leader looks like and how he or she should behave. By broadening this definition and recognizing that successful leadership can occur in many ways, companies stand a much better chance of building a more diverse leadership team and seeing its benefits.

New research on leadership styles reveals different definitions of good leadership

To better understand the role that Western expectations of leadership styles may play in preventing Asian Americans from attaining C-suite roles, we took a close look at the quantitative assessments that may be prevalent in each context and the range of possibilities for Asian Americans’ leadership styles. We compared proprietary psychometric data from Russell Reynolds Associates’ Leadership Span model for 881 C-suite executives in the US to data for 317 C-suite executives in China, Japan, India and other parts of Asia. Through these large-scale samples of executives in equivalent roles at companies of the same size and scale, we are able to see how the behaviors of successful leaders can vary in different cultures. (See Methodology for more details on each group.)

Russell Reynolds Associates’ Leadership Span model separates C-suite leadership competencies into four major categories: Setting Strategy, Executing for Results, Leading Teams, and Relationships & Influence. Each of these categories comprises two opposing qualities, as shown in the diagram below. The qualities at the bottom of the diagram (Disruptive, Risk Taking, Heroic and Galvanizing) are the “louder” ones. Under the same major categories, those on the upper side (Pragmatic, Reluctant, Vulnerable and Connecting) are the “quieter” qualities respectively. Executives may be strong in one or both of the qualities; to the extent they score highly in both they are considered to have a high span, or ability to adapt their style to different situations, a non-negotiable for C-suite success.

Leadership Span™ in partnership with Hogan Assessment Systems

C-suite DifferentiatorsCore Leadership
SETTING STRATEGYEXECUTING FOR RESULTSLEADING TEAMSRELATIONSHIPS AND INFLUENCE
SoftPRAGMATICRELUCTANTVULNERABLECONNECTING
LoudDISRUPTIVERISK TAKINGHEROICGALVANIZING
 

Leaders challenge the status quo and make the case for fundamental changes.

However, they also act as an organizational filter during times of volatility and understand the practical limits on the amount of change an organization can absorb.

Leaders thrive in ambiguity and adapt nimbly.

Yet, they also exercise caution in taking risks and foresee threats of the horizon.

Leaders display perseverance in the face of challenges and assert their own strengths.

They are also acutely aware of their limitations.

Leaders inspire trust through influence, charisma, and drive.

Conversely, they let others take the spotlight and empower others to create powerful networks within and beyond the organization.

Looking at Leadership Span scores, we find that both our Asia-based and US-based executive groups are above average across the four Leadership Span competencies, with each group scoring in the top two quartiles in every category. This baseline finding ensures that we are comparing two groups of high-potential, well-rounded executives in both contexts.

However, there were some notable and significant differences between the two groups. Overall, more US-based executives tended to score highly, on a certain set of factors indicating more expressiveness, assertiveness, and overall “loudness.” This may be reflective of a culture that places high value on self-expression and outward confidence.

This emphasis on loud personality traits among US-based executives suggests that cultural stereotyping puts Asian American professionals in an interesting situation. To be considered ready for promotion, they are often counseled to act differently––more disruptive, risk taking, heroic and galvanizing. Yet as noted earlier, Asian Americans who successfully display these traits may be penalized for not fulfilling expectations from their cultural stereotypes. This can leave ambitious Asian Americans with no “right” path to progress, and low acceptance for their natural leadership styles, regardless of how inherently loud or quiet they are.

Looking at preferred styles in rank order, U.S leaders and Asia-based leaders were equally likely to use a mix of loud and quiet traits.

Difference In Leadership Styles Based On Absolute Scores

 Rank Order of Preferred Styles
ASIAUS
Disruptive12
Heroic25
Risk Taking34
Vulnerable43
Connecting51
Galvanizing66
Reluctant77
Pragmatic88

Source: Russell Reynolds Associates, based on assessments of 317 executives in Asia and 881 in the US.

Note: Based on an 8-point scale

Difference In Leadership Styles Based on Normed Scores 

Asian Leaders Score Higher
PragmaticReluctant
6%4%
US Leaders Score Higher
ConnectingVulnerable
8%5%

Source: Russell Reynolds Associates, based on assessments of 317 executives in Asia and 881 in the US.

Note: Based on an 8-point scale

Asian leaders score relatively higher on two of the quiet traits, pragmatic and reluctant. We can interpret this to mean they tend to be more analytic and deliberate in their decision-making. Perhaps surprisingly, though, the biggest differences between the two groups lay in the two other quiet traits: vulnerable, which relates to openness to feedback from others, and connecting, which ties to empowering others. US leaders scored higher in both, with averages up to 8 percent above those of Asian executives.

While we often think of Asian cultures as being more sensitive and perhaps deferential to others, this difference may reflect a more authoritarian or “high power distance” view of leadership in Asia, compared with the more egalitarian, or reduced power distance, in the US.

This idea of power distance is reinforced by separate research conducted by Geert Hofstede, who created six factors to frame cross-cultural communication. The high scores in China and India show a comfort with hierarchy and unequal power distribution, while low scores in the US show an emphasis on equal rights. Translated to leadership behaviors, leaders in China and India tend to seek obedience, which does not require vulnerable behaviors such as inviting feedback from others. Leaders in the US, conversely, feel they must persuade others and will necessarily invite feedback and collaboration to win over their peers.

The disparate scores on individualism are also helpful in understanding Leadership Span findings.

High individualism scores in the US show a cultural emphasis on understanding each person as an individual with bespoke motivations; low scores in Asia show the emphasis on putting group above self. Since connecting behaviors are about creating deep-intentional relationships to engage each person, they can be seen as essential leadership skills in high individualization cultures, while less relevant in low individualization cultures.8

Cultural Compass Survey, Hofstede Insights, Country Comparison

 ChinaIndiaUS
Power Distance807740
Individualism204891
Masculinity685662
Uncertainty Avoidance304046
Long-Term Orientation875126
Indulgence242668

Seven steps to moving forward

To thrive in different cultures, leaders must be able to flex across the Leadership Span to respond appropriately in different circumstances. Consider the vast differences expressed by common axioms such as “the loud duck gets shot” in Asia, compared to the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” in the US. Even for executives based in a single geography, learning to recognize and accept a variety of leadership styles is a key part of inclusive leadership, which is a critical factor in attracting and retaining a diverse workforce.

Creating meaningful change in C-suite diversity—and new leadership opportunities for Asian American executives ––requires organizations to embark on a multi-step journey. This is essential for multinational corporations and executives who wish to become global leaders. It is also essential for any company that wants to maintain a competitive advantage and retain top talent.

To move forward, we recommend focusing on three broad categories—nurturing the talent pipeline, reconsidering definitions of who is qualified to lead, and equipping all leaders to welcome diverse colleagues through the following seven steps:

Nurture The Talent Pipeline

Strengthen internal pipeline:

To improve the executive-to-professional ratio for Asian Americans, start by consciously increasing the ratio of managers to professionals, as this is a leading indicator. Look closely at promotion decisions at this level to root out potential bias.

Mentor promising Asian American leaders:

Encourage them to lead with their authentic styles, adjusting only in case of gross misfit, and publicize success stories within and across organizations. Proactively address comments about Asian American leaders reflecting stereotypes—whether they are fulfilling or disrupting them—so people are mindful of biases.

Consider other generally accepted diversity solutions:

One option would be to offer leadership training specifically designed for Asian American professionals and managers. Build relationships with existing external organizations and networks of Asian American leaders.

Reconsider The Definition Of Good Leadership 

Acknowledge unconscious bias may be at play:

It is a basic fact that leaders tend to gravitate toward successors who look and act just like them.9 It is driven by an element of narcissism, as well as a sense of safety with the familiar. By recognizing and examining this natural tendency, leaders can begin to overcome such biases.

Enhance inclusive leadership competency to build flexibility and adaptability:

Help leaders build awareness around the vast differences in cultural contexts and help them accelerate development of complementary competencies to adapt. This applies especially to hiring and promotion decision-makers.

Equip all leaders to welcome diverse colleagues

Inclusive behaviors and leadership are an increasingly important competency.

Use a framework such as the Inclusive Leadership model to focus on individual development and create space for different leadership styles to thrive.

Create accountability among leaders.

Assess them on their inclusive leadership behaviors and provide professional development opportunities to see beyond their own cultural lens in order to value the contributions of others. This can include geing feedback from diverse employees on people leaders who make hiring and promotion decisions.

Looking Ahead

Asian Americans are significantly underrepresented in the C-suites of US-based companies despite academic and professional accomplishments. To explore potential underlying factors for this gap, we examined new data on leadership styles using more than 1,200 psychometric assessments from Russell Reynolds Associates’ Leadership Span model.

Comparing Asia-based to US-based leaders, we have seen different cultures produce different types of leaders, which can give us a window into the range of Asian American leadership behaviors. It should not be surprising to see that leadership styles and expectations might reflect underlying cultural values about power, individualism, and more. These differences contribute to our understanding of cultural stereotypes and why Asian American professionals may not initially be seen to have leadership potential by US companies. They also show the beneficial and potentially complementary competencies that Asian Americans can provide to help diversify US-centric leadership.

One encouraging sign for the future can be found in the significant number of Indian American CEOs currently leading large US companies, including Alphabet, Adobe, Mastercard, Microsoft, and more recently, IBM. To continue closing the leadership gap and help companies retain highly-talented Asian Americans, we suggest organizations nurture their talent pipelines while simultaneously increasing the aperture of how they define good leadership, challenging internal expectations and unconscious bias impacting high-potential Asian American leaders.

Methodology

We compared averages, standard deviations and distributions from Russell Reynolds Associates’ Leadership Span model for 881 US C-suite executives to data for 317 executives in C-suite positions in China, Japan, India and other parts of Asia. Data was analyzed and normed by our partner, Hogan Assessments. Each group represented a broad range of C-level titles industries and company sizes.

 USAsia
DEMOGRAPHICS
Male70%77%
Female28%15%
Did Not Declare2%8%
INDUSTRY
Industrial29%22%
Healthcare21%10%
Consumer15%11%
Fin Services14%43%
Technology11%12%
Nonprofit10%10%
COMPANY SIZE (Revenue)
$1 bn or below32%34%
Between $1 bn and $10 bn39%30%
$10 bn or more29%36%
ROLE
CEOs22%28%
CFOs13%10%
CMOs22%37%
Other C-Suite roles37%25%

 

  1. We use “Asian American” to refer to anyone of Asian descent, whether US-born or foreign-born.
  2. Lu, J.G., Nisbett, R.E., & Morris, M.W. (2020), The Bamboo Ceiling: Why East Asians but not South Asians are underrepresented in leadership positions in the United States, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(9), 4590–4600.
  3. Gee, Buck and Denise Peck, The Illusion of Asian Success: Scant Progress for Minorities in Cracking the Glass Ceiling from 2007 to 2015, Ascend Foundation, 2018.
  4. Gundemir, Seval, Andrew M. Carton, Astrid C. Homan, The Impact of Organizational Performance on the Emergence of Asian American Leaders, Journal of Applied Psychology, 2019,
  5. Hawk, Steve. Eat, Sleep, Zoom, Insights by Stanford Business, July 31, 2020.
  6. Rosette, Ashleigh Shelby, Christy Zhou Koval, Anyi Ma, Robert Livingston, Race matters for women leaders: Intersectional effects on agentic deficiencies and penalties, The Leadership Quarterly 27 (2016) 429–445
  7. Sy, Thomas, Lynn Shore, Ted H. Shore, Judy Perkins Strauss and Susanna Tram–Quon, Paul Whitely and Kristine Ikeda–Muromachi, Leadership Perceptions as a Function of Race–Occupation Fit: The Case of Asian Americans, Journal of Applied Psychology 2010, Vol. 95, No. 5, 902–919.
  8. Hofstede Insights
  9. Sanger, Michael and Tomas Chamorro–Premuzic, What Kind of Leaders Do People Love? Human Capital Leadership Institute, May 27, 2016