Celebrating Asian American Pacific Islander Leadership
By Daisy Han
Close your eyes and think about three Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) leaders.
Who do you think of? How long did it take? Can you name three leaders you personally know? In what ways have AAPI leaders been presented in your life? In what ways have you interacted with them? How does your socialization of stereotypes about Asian people impact your perception of our leadership, or even our capacity to lead?
In my own upbringing, as a first generation Korean-American child, I had very little exposure to AAPI leadership. In fact, it wasn’t until college, majoring in Ethnic Studies, that I learned about three of my most inspirational leaders: Grace Lee Boggs, Yuri Kochiyama and Patsy Mink. Yet even with this lack of representation in my daily life, the term “model minority” would haunt me as if to say I had it made to succeed.
Through my career as a Montessori teacher, I have been able to cultivate my voice to confront injustice in one of the most powerful platforms of them all: the classroom.
One of the most prevalent myths about AAPI as a model minority is the idea that the group is overrepresented in leadership and C-suite positions of American society. In reality, while Asian Americans have a high level of representation in professional roles, research into career advancement across workers of various ethnicities suggests the group remains deeply underrepresented among managerial and executive positions. (Gee et al., 2020)
The model minority myth creates both a racial wedge that sets Asian Americans apart to reinforce harmful stereotypes and contributes to the perpetuation of racial hierarchies, making it more challenging to build solidarity and work collectively to address systemic issues.
In my own role as CEO of Embracing Equity, I have often been mistaken as junior staff to my white colleagues, or even questioned as to why an Asian American woman would be working in the social justice movement in the first place. One funder exclaimed upon meeting me, “You’re doing this work but you’re not even Black!”
Yes, social justice work is everybody’s responsibility and certainly not just the work of Black people. It’s also telling that even with high educational attainment and upward economic mobility, Asian Americans are often seen as doers and not leaders. The stereotype of the subservient, obedient Asian shows up in the room before I do, and it impacts every aspect of my leadership ability.
McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace study surveyed more than 400 large organizations across the United States in 2021 and found that Asian Americans account for 9 percent of senior vice presidents but just 5 percent of promotions from senior vice president to the C-suite. Asian American women make up less than 1 percent of these promotions (Chui et al., 2022).
According to the Federal Asian Pacific American Council (FAPAC) website, the 2023 theme is “Advancing Leaders Through Opportunity.” So what does this mean? How does this theme’s omission of who those leaders are perpetuate the invisibilization of Asian Americans? Why are Asian Americans sometimes not considered People of Color or a marginalized community? Unfortunately, when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion programs most don’t include Asian Americans. This is due to the myth that they are already well represented in senior roles or somehow are proximate enough to whiteness to no longer be a minority or oppressed group, despite overwhelming data showing otherwise.
My challenge to all of us during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month – and truly all yearlong – is to take stock of what concrete actions can better support the advancement of AAPI people within their organizations.
#1: Track and Reflect on the Data
At Embracing Equity, we believe this means starting to track the data. If you don’t track the racial equity data, you don’t have the evidence to demonstrate the trends when it comes to promotions and how leaders are cultivated through organizations. Equity doesn’t live in a mission statement. It lives in your budget, HR practices and policies, promotion patterns, and sense of belongingness of every member of the team.
Start by tracking the racial identities of your existing leadership team and full-time staff. If possible, track the historical data for the leadership roles. Have they always been white and male? What does that mean for those who see themselves and others as a leader? In what ways does the organization promote a diversity of leadership?
#2: Interrogate Your Own Bias
We live in a racist society. This informs all of our interactions, our career moves, and our ability to have access to opportunities. Check your own bias, not just around race but around all of your social identities. In what ways are you experiencing your marginalized identities? In what ways do your privileged identities show up? Often, our privileged identities are invisible to us.
Hence why AAPI leadership is not just a race issue but also includes other social identities like gender. According to the research, the share of promotions for Asian women is 1 for every 2 Asian men at the senior manager level, dropping to 1 for every 6 Asian men at the C-suite executive level (Chui et al., 2022).
Once you are aware of your bias, perhaps your own internalization of the model minority myth, you have a choice to be part of the solution. Complacency, silence, and avoidance of issues that may not directly affect you, holds us all back.
#3: Take Anti-Racist Action and Promote Authentic Belongingness
Feelings of belonging aren’t accidental; they are deliberately and intentionally designed into the culture of the workplace, classroom, or community. What are the pathways to advanced opportunities at your organization? How can one access professional development to refine their skills and enhance their leadership abilities? In what ways does the organization uphold and divest from White Supremacy Culture? How are different cultural practices celebrated and upheld?
Embracing Equity is dedicated to creating systemic solutions to truly create cultures of belongingness and we are constantly working on creating new models for leadership and building a collective consciousness for all people to be recognized and nurtured to their fullest potential. Start wherever you are; start with learning about the lives and legacy of three AAPI leaders and begin building authentic relationships with AAPI people beyond the stereotypes.
Together, we can collectively use our voices to effect change. The power of the individual voice and the impact of the collective voice are the reasons I continue my work as a Montessori teacher and leader of color.
AANHPI Resource Center. FAPAC. (n.d.). Retrieved May 2, 2023, from https://fapac.org/AAPI-Resources#:~:text=FAPAC%20is%20proud%20to%20select,is%20Advancing%20Leaders%20Through%20Opportunity.
Chui, M., Ellingrud, K., Rambachan, I., & Wong, J. (2022, September 7). Asian American workers: Diverse Outcomes and hidden challenges. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved May 2, 2023, from https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/asian-american-workers-diverse-outcomes-and-hidden-challenges
Embracing Equity. Retrieved May 2, 2023, from https://embracingequity.org/
Gee, B., Kim T., Peck, D. (December 2020) Race, gender & the double glass ceiling. Retrieved May 3, 2023, from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5e8bce29f730fc7358d4bc35/t/5ff66a62cc85ca2d29e2d858/1609984611034/race-gender-and-the-double-glass-ceiling.pdf
About the Author
Daisy Han (she/her) is an antiracist educator, speaker, and activist, and the founder of Embracing Equity. Throughout her career, Daisy has combined her expertise in experiential curriculum design and adult learning with her experience as a teacher, principal, instructional coach, and organizational leader for positive social change. At the Harvard Graduate School of Education, she taught a yearlong course, Leading for Equity, pairing students with district practitioners to institute systemic change. Learn more about Daisy and Embracing Equity at embracingequity.org.