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The Model Minority Myth poses a major problem

Sep. 22, 2022

The stereotype says Asian Americans are smart and successful. What’s so bad about that? Keep reading.

By YeaJin Lee

“Everyone knows Asians aren’t leaders. They’re good at execution but when it comes to leading, they don’t have the skills.”

That’s what a manager at a different company once told Steven Pae, vice president, Global Head of Marketing and Enterprise Digital Technology, Global Technology for Prudential, when Pae questioned how they were preparing for a potential crisis.

Pae, who is Korean American, was initially shocked. Then he became angry.

“I worked hard to get to the position I was in. But this person just shattered what I considered to be my professional achievements,” he recalls.

The Model Minority
Pae’s experience illustrates what’s known as the Model Minority Myth. The term “model minority” was coined by a sociologist back in 1966; it posits that Asian Americans are “quiet, hardworking and studious.” That might not sound so bad — but it also labels us as weak, docile, complacent and overly deferential.

“It is a myth that oversimplifies Asian culture and assumes all Asian Americans are successful, which masks the multiple problems and bias that Asian Americans face in the workforce, at schools, and the communities in which they reside,” wrote Ngan Nguyen, Ph.D., national director, Foundation Research and Executive Networks for Ascend, the largest nonprofit Pan-Asian membership organization for senior executives, business professionals and students.

While many Asian Americans are indeed successful, there is a limit to our success. As you can see in the infographic below, less than 5% of Fortune 1000 board members are Asian American. When you look at Asian American women, the numbers drop even more, to 1.47%.

“The Model Minority Myth’s presumption of Asian success in corporate America and beyond often leads to the exclusion of Asian Americans from important discussions about workplace diversity and breaking the glass ceiling,” wrote Nguyen.

I couldn’t agree more.

Where are the role models?
Being Korean is a big part of who I am — I lived in Seoul until I was 18 — and I’ve experienced the effects of the Model Minority Myth firsthand. For one thing, I have always struggled to find role models in my career. That’s not surprising: In the communications field, Asian representation is the lowest among all racial groups, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In past roles, I often felt I had to fit in to a company’s culture rather than contribute to shaping it. In my performance review, I had received comments for being “quiet” and “timid.” Such feedback made me doubt my abilities. At one point, I thought about leaving the field altogether.

I came to Prudential’s Communications team and joined the APA business resource group for Asian Pacific Islander Americans. The fact that I’m now one of many who share similar experiences has been eye-opening and empowering.

Like me, Pae chose to turn his negative experience into a positive path forward. He mentors early-stage companies and connects people in his network to become advisors. “I help to build a community that will break this perception of weakness and ensure we have great Asian leaders in corporate America,” he explains.

And there’s certainly need for more mentors, advocates and sponsors in our community. Yuran Xu, who goes by Sydney, is Chinese American and a vice president in PGIM Fixed Income. The mentors and role models she’s benefited from in her career have mostly been white. “This is not because Asian Americans are not good at mentoring, but because on Wall Street, there were relatively few of us in trading seats 15 years ago, and even fewer who were running trading desks,” she says.

Xu ponders the future for her 9-year-old daughter.

“I hope a day will come when she will not be passed over for a leadership role — if she qualifies — just because she enjoys eating chicken feet and having a sip of Soju. And I hope that by sharing my thoughts, I can bring light to someone’s career, just as those people who have been the lighthouses in uncharted waters have done for me.”

A ‘happy problem’
At Prudential, we have a "happy problem” where we have many Asians at every level, exceeding industry benchmarks, according to our 2021 EEO-1 data. While this is certainly something to celebrate, the numbers shouldn’t mean we can overlook the harms of the Model Minority Myth — and more importantly, overlook dedicating resources to develop AAPI professionals into leadership roles or attract early talent.

Last year, Prudential Learning and Development sponsored 22 Asian employees to participate in McKinsey’s Connected Leaders Management Accelerator program, and there are 37 employees in the program this year. This is part of Prudential’s suite of leadership development programs and is designed to empower participants with expanded peer networks and diverse perspectives to strengthen leadership and management skills. It also offers Elevate, a sponsorship program for high-performing top talent who are Black, indigenous and people of color. This year, 22 Asian employees have participated, representing 44% of all participants.

Rob Barea, vice president, Culture, Diversity and Engagement, Inclusive Solutions, acknowledges that more can, and will, be done for Prudential’s Asian employees.

“We understand that the AAPI community has different experiences and concerns than other colleagues,” he says. “We’re developing partnerships with outside organizations that speak to their nuanced needs. We’re also working with our business resource group leaders as well as other Asian leaders for input on other ways to make progress. And we’ll use the EQ Survey results to identify themes specific to the AAPI community and work with our partners across the firm to improve the experience of all our employees.”

4 ways we can combat the Model Minority Myth — together
Overcoming a bias that’s been around for more than 50 years is not an easy task. But with a collective effort from our community members and allies, we can create meaningful change.

  1. Recognize that the AAPI community is not a single entity. It consists of 22 million people from more than 20 countries in East and Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. One employee’s experience can be very different from another’s.
  2. Ask questions to increase your cultural intelligence and become a better ally. As a simple example, I appreciate it when someone asks me how to pronounce my name (it sounds like “Yeah Gin”) rather than making assumptions or not using it at all.
  3. Take charge of our careers. This advice comes from James Chae, vice president, PGIM Fixed Income. “Some Asians self-select out of stretch assignments and leadership roles,” says Chae, who is Korean American. “I was guilty of this early in my career until a mentor explained that unless we apply to those roles, we’ll never know which skills we need to develop. Rejection is hard, especially within the Asian culture where failure is often not considered acceptable. But we need to challenge the old style of thinking and realize it’s an opportunity to develop and grow.”
  4. Consider whether you are truly fully inclusive in your daily practices. Beyond Asians, all groups need to be included, such as those with invisible disabilities like mental health issues; people in the LGBTQ+ community; and veterans, so we can foster and maintain an inclusive workplace where we harness the true power of diversity.

I’m proud to work for a company that makes diversity, equity and inclusion such an important part of its culture. I’m looking forward to the future we’ll build together.

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