I grew up in Flushing, Queens, in the 1980s, on streets that felt more like Hong Kong than New York City.
Cantonese was the Chinese dialect of choice back then. But my family was from Taiwan, so we spoke Mandarin, which made it difficult to communicate at supermarkets or restaurants. As immigrants in a new country, my parents were lumped in with all the other Asians, despite the fact that we spoke different languages and dialects.
The street we lived on was about half Asian, with families from across the Asian diaspora. And while we all came from different ethnicities, we shared certain traits: the almond shaped eyes, the yellow-toned skin, the black hair. Many of us began elementary school together, bonding over ESL; as children of immigrants, we learned Chinese, Korean, Japanese, first.
At home, we were taught that hard work, respecting your elders and humility were more important than anything. We were taught to keep our heads down and never stand out. Teachers recognized our hard work and stellar grades — the only reflection that mattered to our parents. It set a behavioral precedent: as long as we didn’t rock the boat, our hard work would be recognized and we’d be justly rewarded.
Little did we know how wrong we were.
This didn’t lay the foundation for a successful career; in fact, it made it harder for us to succeed.
Violence against Asians continues to skyrocket, most notably the recent shooting spree in Atlanta that left eight people dead. We’ve used our voices to raise awareness and support. I’m buoyed by reading opinion pieces that argue to #stopAAPIhate by Eric Toda and Bill Imada; listening to Clubhouse roundtables with Andrew Yang, Grace Meng, and Lisa Ling; attending rallies fueled by Jo-Ann Yoo at the Asian American Foundation; seeing posts by Cynthia Chen and Minjae Ormes on LinkedIn; and speaking with leaders at ASCEND, a professional development organization for Asian Americans.
But it’s time to bring this advocacy to the workplace.
At the root of this movement lies the myth of the “model minority,” a perception rooted in many of the behaviors we were taught as Asian Americans: Keep your head down, work hard, don’t rock the boat, and you’ll be rewarded.
To an extent, it’s true. Asian Americans make up 12% of the professional workforce but just 5.6% of the U.S. population, according to the Harvard Business Review. Unfortunately, as a result, we don’t get support as part of our professional development. The myth also lumps all Asian Americans together, when we are a diverse group of people with unique cultures, backgrounds and aspirations.
For far too long, this bamboo ceiling has been a barrier for Asian Americans to ascend to the C-Suite and boards — where true impact can be made. While Asian Americans are more likely than any other group to hold a college degree, fewer than 1% of S&P 500 CEOs were of East Asian descent in any year from 2010 to 2017, according to a 2020 study. South Asian CEOs only faired slightly better.
It took me nearly two decades to find my voice and advocate for myself, for my team, and those who look like me in the workplace. Similar to our BIPOC allies, seeing Asian leaders in the most senior positions impacts how high we aim our ambitions. I never thought to push for higher roles until I saw others who looked like me hold CMO titles.
There are some actions that will help us push beyond the model minority stereotype:
1. Fight against our natural impulse not to rock the boat.
We need to consciously separate from deeply-ingrained programming to be well-behaved. That means being able to understand and visualize the benefits of doing so. Strong points of view are valued in marketing and advertising. We need to speak up to bust the model minority myth, not perpetuate it. You never know who you might inspire or educate in the process.
2. Embrace our whole selves in the workplace.
Asians should live our truth and be proud. Be open to connecting and sharing. Storytelling is such a large part of our heritage and history — and it’s what we do professionally. We need to build safe spaces and communities within our organizations to share our stories.
3. Senior executives: fight like hell for visibility.
And make sure you’re lifting up others along the way. Entry and mid-level talent can benefit from support by both Asian and non-Asian leadership alike, but they need to see it to be it. We need to shine a light on the model minority stereotypes that insidiously undermine Asians – and disproportionately punish them when they don’t live up to stereotypical expectations.
4. Join the cause.
Organizations like Asians in Advertising are developing a free community to help elevate Asians to higher leadership positions. ASCEND is another professional development organization for Asian Americans, from entry-level to board-level.
5. Allies: give us the space to speak up.
Ask for our opinions, or connect with us in a safe space to hear our perspective. Our culture needs to change its expectations of Asians in the workplace and the reasons why we value them — for being diligent and cooperative.
It isn’t until we reward those bold enough to break the stereotype that change can happen.
Michelle Tang is chief marketing officer at Digitas North America