Studies show that inclusion in the workplace increases team engagement, decision-making, and overall workplace growth. Yet, research from Bain & Company reveals that just 25% to 30% of all employees feel included at work, with Asian employees feeling the least included of all demographic groups.

According to Bain’s survey of more than 10,000 individuals across various industries and backgrounds, 16% of Asian men and 20% of Asian women said they felt included in the workplace.

“There are both behavioral and systemic factors that cause people to feel more included,” says Bain & Company Partner Pam Yee. “And for Asian employees, there are a lot of reasons for why they don’t feel this way.”


Asian women make up less than 1% of C-Suite promotions.

- Lean In and McKinsey & Company

For starters, Yee says that a lack of representation at the top is a key reason why some Asian people may feel as though they don’t belong. According to Lean In and McKinsey & Company, Asians are overrepresented in entry-level and management positions, but underrepresented in senior-level roles. Currently, Asians account for 9% of senior vice presidents, but just 5% of promotions from senior vice president to C-Suite in the United States. Asian women make up less than 1% of these promotions.

This Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Yee, along with Chief Member Linda Akutagawa, President & CEO at Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, share how adding more Asian professionals to the top isn’t nearly enough. Instead of focusing solely on diversity numbers, leaders need to critically examine how they can root out biased perceptions and policies in order to create more inclusive workplaces for API employees to succeed.

Always the Perpetual Foreigner

According to Lean In and McKinsey & Company, the perpetual foreigner stereotype is a common perception that casts Asians as outsiders in American society, despite their history here. This perception, researchers say, is what contributes to Asian people having lower rates of professional advancement, despite having high rates of educational attainment.

“Asians don't have a problem getting a job and perhaps moving into the middle,” says Akutagawa. “For Asians, it's getting beyond a director level and into the C-Suite.” She says that to many people the model minority myth presents this idea that all Asians have a high level of success and therefore a focus isn’t needed on the challenges they face at work. But the reality, Akutagawa says, is that many Asians, particularly Asian women, are only seen as “good individual contributors and good worker bees” who “don't have the leadership presence, the gravitas, the assertiveness, and the voice to be an executive leader.”

“There are stereotypes about Asian women being too quiet, too passive, and too nice,” she says. “And then there’s the other extreme of this whole ‘dragon lady’ where we’re seen as super aggressive, super mean, and uncaring. But people don't want to be known in just a one-dimensional way. Why can't we be tough, but yet compassionate? Why can’t we have high expectations and demand a lot from our direct reports, and at the same time be allowed to be empathetic?”

These entrenched biases turn into expectations of how Asian leaders should act, forcing them to walk an impossible tightrope that leads them to feel like outsiders or that sets them up to fail. According to research, the Asian workforce experiences lower levels of fairness, feel less like they’re able to be themselves at work, and feel like they receive less support from sponsors than their White counterparts. In fact, when asked if their company provides all employees with the mentorship and coaching needed to be successful, just 27% of East Asian employees and 32% of Southeast Asian employees agreed, compared to 44% of White employees, according to Lean In and McKinsey & Company.

This lack of inclusion, according to Bain researchers, leads to high levels of workplace turnover and dissatisfaction, further impacting the pipeline of driving diverse talent to the top.


The API community represents more than 50 ethnic groups that speak over 100 languages.

- National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF).

Creating Enablers

To better understand and solve for the challenges that API employees face, Akutagawa says it’s critical that leaders look beyond aggregated data. According to the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), the API community represents more than 50 ethnic groups that speak over 100 languages. As a result, this community has one of the widest racial pay disparities among racial groups, with Taiwanese women making as high as $1.08 for every dollar paid to White men and Nepalese and Bangladeshi women making as low as $0.48. Yet, very little research is done on the diversity of experiences this widespread community faces.


Nepalese and Bangladeshi women make as low as $0.48 for every dollar paid to White men, while Taiwanese women make as high as $1.08.

- National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF)

To move the needle, Yee says leaders need to be aware of the enablers that will close these pay and leadership gaps and, as a result, make Asian employees feel more included.

“There are behavioral enablers and there are systemic enablers,” she says. “Behavioral ones are perceptions, mindsets, and more intangible kinds of behaviors of how individuals operate in an organization. Systemic enablers are structures. So these include fair recruiting processes, equitable promotion opportunities, and more formalized structures for things like coaching and professional development.”

Both of these, Yee says, are important to building an inclusive work environment. But, where many leaders fall short is they focus solely on the behavioral enablers by verbalizing that racist, sexist, and discriminatory remarks and actions are not tolerated, while failing to put in place actual systems and practices that ensure these biases don’t take place.

“Organizations need to be intentional about putting systemic structures, programs, and processes in place versus just trusting that we will all do better,” she says. “And it’s incumbent for leaders to not put the onus of inclusion only on employees. There needs to be accountability and responsibility on the company’s end, and that’s where these systemic enablers come in place.”