Credit: Jason Leung
Last week, the Wall Street Journal published An Open Letter from Asian American Business Leaders. Sharing the exhaustion, anger, and fears of my peers, I signed this letter in support of this movement and with optimism that continued dialogue can educate, change perceptions, and ultimately support a more inclusive America.
I don’t want to be afraid, don’t want to fear for my family and friends, I don’t want to consider the potential for violence in something as ubiquitous as shopping. I know that I am not alone in this; underlying fear is now pervasive across the Asian American community – perhaps I am an optimist, but I believe we can do better.
Over the last year, we have witnessed significant unrest in our country, and indeed across the globe. Much has been written about stereotyping, subtle and more obvious forms of aggression, the systemic impacts of racism, and recommendations on how we can tackle these important issues globally.
Given the global nature of our biggest brands, it’s no surprise that in the business world countless bold statements have been made about improving diversity and inclusion across industries.
From more representation on boards to hiring practices, executives across the world have voiced their support for inclusion, but what does that really mean?
At Palladium, we have shared our thinking on diversity and inclusion, with an understanding of the value that true diversity brings to organizations. From moving beyond gender parity, to tokenising board appointments, we have often articulated the importance of considering a full spectrum of diversity, including gender, ethnicity, and critically socio-economic backgrounds, amongst other factors.
While such discussion is encouraged and undeniably helps to move social consciousness, the high-level nature fails to consider the specific lived experiences of individuals within various groups. Talking about “minorities” as if they are a homogenous group does a disservice to the lived experiences of individuals in the same way that limiting discussions on gendered experiences to simply sex (biological or identified) fails to consider the impact that certain intersections with gender (for example sexual orientation, race, religion, and education) have on “women’s issues”.
Going Beyond Box Ticking
I am an Asian American woman. Recently in conversations about board diversity (as one example), several people have mentioned to me the ease of which an Asian American female may have in the current time seeking board experience. Why such ease? The underlying assumption in this scenario is that a board characterised by white men may appoint a ‘docile’ Asian woman with a view to continuing to do business the way it has always been done, with thanks to an agreeable new board member, while benefiting from increasing ethnic and gender diversity.
These discussions inevitably led me to consider not only my own experience, but also the wider impacts of perpetuated stereotypes.
Who is the Asian American woman? If stereotypes are to be believed, her persona is one that is meek, subservient, or alternatively hyper-sexualized. What are the impacts of these stereotypes? Taking you back to the exhaustion, anger, and fear outlined so articulately in this open letter, these typecasts and associated box-ticking diversity appointments – be they to boards, or within recruitment initiatives – are damaging not only to the individual, but also to the board or company, and may further support ongoing perpetuating of stereotypes beyond the boardroom.
Let’s consider some potential, hypothetical scenarios: newly appointed to a board, I listen more than speak as I get to know the business. Perhaps this is perceived as expected behaviour, head nodding and allowing business to proceed as normal. This may make it more difficult for me to voice alternate opinions later on (as, internalising the views of my fellow board members, I continue to behave as expected). Conversely, as I become more comfortable with the business and begin to express alternate options, perhaps my contributions are met with surprise, as I’ve been pigeonholed into a supportive, rather than strategic role. In either case, additional pressure has been placed upon me as a board member, either to be the face of the diverse board member, or to try to break through assumptions.
Assuming I take the latter option, my attempts to educate are likely to distract from the task(s) at hand, thus negating the true opportunity, and value, that a diversity of backgrounds and opinions presents to businesses.
So how can we be better?
As with most things, the key is action rather than words. Many companies and boards will continue to provide lip service around the need for diversification or simply check the box and move along. Greater action from both companies and individuals will be critical in moving progress forward.
But where to start? For companies, forums for discussion, tactical actions to encourage and promote inclusivity, real diversity of thought and experience on boards and leadership, cultural and nuanced openness, and open support of anti-racism organizations are all pieces of the puzzle. Acknowledgement should be first and foremost before any action can be taken.
For individuals, speaking up, promoting diverse perspectives, candid sharing and listening among teammates and colleagues, committing to long-term anti-racist thinking and behaviour – these are not-so-small things that can contribute to huge improvements.
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