Despite relatively high salaries and an outsized share of Ivy League degrees, Asian-Americans are underrepresented in executive suites, according to a study released Monday.
Roughly 5% of U.S. residents identify themselves as Asian, but less than 2% of executive roles at Fortune 500 companies are held by Asian-American professionals, according to the report from the Center for Work-Life Policy, a New York-based nonprofit think tank funded by some of the country's biggest companies.
Indeed, only seven Asian professionals currently lead Fortune 500 companies, including Vikram Pandit at Citigroup and Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo. Yet Asians often hit the workforce with highly coveted degrees. Asians and Asian Americans comprise 16% of undergraduates in the Ivy League, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and 35% of undergraduates at University of California at Berkeley, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University.
The Center's report surveyed 2,952 Asian-Americans (about half born in the U.S.) and included follow-up interviews with respondents and with a number of companies that are building career development initiatives for Asian employees.
One-quarter of Asian respondents said they face workplace discrimination, while only 4% of Caucasians believe Asians are treated unfairly on the job. According to the report, Asian-American workers are also more likely than other minority workers to work less or consider quitting because of bias.
Ironically, the relative success of Asian workers may be exacerbating the problem. To date, few companies have had career development programs for Asian employees, because they are seen as a "model minority," according to the report.
Ripa Rashid, a coauthor of the report, said that the survey reveals something that she hears often from workers and managers: Asian-American employees are culturally uncomfortable with the type of swagger and self-promotion that often spells success in U.S. firms.
The study also showed that Asian employees may be less comfortable sharing their personal lives with coworkers and less likely to enlist more senior coworkers as mentors or sponsors.
"They just put their heads down and work and believe that's all it takes to get to the top," Ms. Rashid said.
A few companies have addressed the issue. Merck & Co. started a program dubbed "the Art of Cultural Fluency" to help Asian employees fine-tune soft skills like presentation. "The ah-ha [moment] came quite a few years ago when we knew we needed a bold plan," said Deborah Dagit, the pharmaceutical giant's chief diversity officer. At the end of 2009, 6% of the U.S. workforce at Merck claimed Asian heritage, but that demographic comprised only 4% of the company's executives and senior managers.
In early 2010, AllianceBernstein started twice monthly voluntary seminars for its Asian employees with Toastmasters, a nonprofit public-speaking organization. The fund management firm now has its own Toastmasters chapters in New York, San Antonio, Tex. and the United Kingdom. "We didn't want to do a training program, because they tend to be one-size fits all," said Vicki Walia, director of talent management and diversity at AllianceBernstein. "This gave each individual an opportunity to practice a skill."
Jane Hyun, a corporate consultant and author of "Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling," said Asian-Americans face very subtle but strong cultural barriers at work.
"In Asia, there's a saying that the loudest duck gets shot; in America it's: the squeaky wheel gets the grease," said Ms. Hyun. "These things are totally different and at odds with each other."
Ms. Hyun helped Merck craft its program. Critical to its success, she pointed out, was buy-in from 20 non-Asian senior managers. "In America, we tend to assume that we should simply treat people the same way," she said. "But that's not always the best way to handle very different cultural values."
Write to Kyle Stock