Priyanka Carr is chief operating officer at Momentive, the maker of SurveyMonkey. Views are the author’s own.
May is Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, a time to honor, celebrate and recognize Asian and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. There will be inspirational stories, special events all around the country, and many, many social media posts. But it should also be a time to ask ourselves about the actual experience of Asian & Pacific Islander (API) individuals in America — and what we could do to make it better. Simply put, there are changes we need to make, and they aren’t talked about often enough.
If businesses commit to being proactive in building a safe, inclusive and equitable environment where all employees feel not only seen, but heard too, this would go a long way in showing continued support and acknowledgment of the API community. Further, with these changes there can be even more to celebrate in the months that honor API heritage for years to come.
Here are three areas in which many businesses are falling short.
1. Showing support when it comes to mental health
Research shows that AAPIs are less likely than any other major racial/ethnic group to seek mental health support — despite being the least likely to report that they think they have excellent mental health. This is, obviously, a big problem, and one that companies need to consider when developing and raising awareness around their mental health initiatives.
Mental health is incredibly important for overall wellness and the ability to thrive at work. On top of that, API employees often feel unsafe day to day given the rise of anti-Asian violence reports in the news over the past several years. In a single year, Stop AAPI Hate received reports of 6,603 incidents of anti-Asian discrimination — more than 32% of which occurred in the workplace or places of business. The coronavirus pandemic stoked historic levels of anti-Asian bigotry, and even individuals who haven’t directly experienced this still have to cope with what is happening to their community.
Reservations around seeking mental health support are preventing Asian and Pacific Islander workers from having healthy, balanced lives, processing traumatic events and feeling confident — all of which affect their experience at work and ability to be effective. So what’s keeping them from seeking help?
Beyond personal reservations or social and generational stigma, Asian and Pacific Islander folks might also be worried about being taken less seriously or perceived as being less reliable. API workers are more likely to face bias than their white counterparts, so they may be more hesitant to identify with a mental illness or seek resources. The work for society (and for employers) starts with destigmatizing mental health care and actively encouraging people to seek it out. Some companies may even want to specifically address why it’s so important for API folks.
One way to show support is by creating employee resource groups. These communities cultivate a strong sense of belonging by celebrating diversity and acknowledging our unique cultural values. Sixteen percent of Asian Americans participate in ERGs — more than twice the rate of workers on average — demonstrating the community’s eagerness to connect, support one another, and contribute to their workplace.
At Momentive, for example, our API ERG works to strengthen the experiences and advancement of Asian and Pacific Islander colleagues in the workplace by raising awareness around the diverse community. This collaborative community provides a dedicated safe space for our API employees to discuss issues surrounding mental health and racial justice, and to advance the path toward widespread growth for API employees and leaders.
Beyond ERGs such as this, offering mental health benefits is simply best practice for the good of all employees, regardless of race.
2. Offering equitable opportunities for advancement
Communities are just now starting to become aware of what's sometimes being called the “bamboo ceiling.” It’s a similar concept to the “glass ceiling” for women, and essentially means that API workers are unfairly underrepresented in leadership roles — despite the fact that they have the highest level of education in the country. As of 2020, only 2.4% of Fortune 500 CEOS were Asian. It follows that only 26% of Asian American workers ‘strongly agree’ that they feel supported in pursuing leadership opportunities.
Asian and Pacific Islander colleagues are often excluded from leadership roles for the same reasons that people of other marginalized groups are: lack of representation, inherent bias and lack of network. The lack of disaggregation of data is also a factor, resulting in the “Asian monolith” where Asian and Pacific Islander employees are being treated as a single category in which they are often perceived as not underrepresented, even though there may actually be underrepresentation of certain subgroups or at different organizational levels.
So, addressing this inequity starts with working on those issues. Companies that are serious about giving equal opportunities to people of Asian and Pacific Islander backgrounds should actively recruit leadership candidates of diverse backgrounds and invest in mentorship programs for existing employees. Often, we see DEI efforts towards API employees broadly focus on recruiting, when retention and advancement to the executive level should be where the greatest investment is made.
Bias is harder to address. The high achievement levels of some API folks both academically and professionally makes it clear that they’re more than competent enough to be promoted, but it’s insidiously easy to naturally gravitate toward individuals with similar backgrounds, many times without knowing why. Businesses have a responsibility to monitor whether inherent biases may be holding back API employees, both by doing regular diversity audits — at every level — and by training managers.
3. Being purposeful when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts
Despite the challenges they face, API employees are often overlooked by DEI efforts. One in four APIs say they feel excluded from DEI events.
Workplaces can make strides by being purposeful about the work they do to strengthen their commitment to DEI, to create a more equitable (and therefore happy, balanced, and successful) overall culture and workplace. It is fundamental that leaders across the industry are receptive and welcoming of the progressive changes today, and those that inevitably lie ahead.
Further, DEI efforts should not be just limited to a department or function. While it can be conducive to have a DEI or social impact team, initiatives to increase equity and inclusion should be woven into organizations’ day-to-day — from hiring practices to acknowledging holidays to promotion processes. This way, Asian and Pacific Islander employees can feel supported in areas that impact them most.
Helen Zia, Chinese American journalist and activist for Asian American and LGBTQ rights once put it best: "There have been moments where I didn’t say things, and I always felt like I should have said something. But the times that I did speak up and tried to do something, to the best of my ability, those I think were the things I could say I’m proud of.”
We leaders face many challenges in today’s day and age. With no manual on leading effectively, recognizing when we are falling short and taking action is our guiding light.