Margaret Ashida

(WOMENSENEWS)–While U.S. corporations are creating and touting their diversity programs, professional women of Asian descent say their needs in the workplace are often overlooked and that these initiatives do not always include them as much as other women of color.

The results, Asian women say, is that they are often locked out of top jobs in the workplace. Compared to other minority groups, Asian women make up a particularly minuscule portion of Fortune 500 corporate officers.

To combat this, female executives of Asian origin who have moved into high ranks within their companies say that it is up to them to shatter the stereotypes of being mild-mannered and submissive and promote themselves vigorously within the corporate setting.

“Asian women don’t speak up as much as they should and they need to be more cognizant of their talents and their roles within the companies they work for,” says Quinn H. Tran, 45. She left the corporate world at Xerox ColorgrafX Systems, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Xerox Corp. in San Jose, Calif., over a year ago and started her own company, KnowledgeTek Software Inc., in Redwood City, Calif. “Also, adding to the problem, from what I’ve experienced, is that diversity programs have been more focused on other segments, like African Americans, or women in general, compared to just Asians.”

Tran says she had to change her own communications style to be more authoritative while in the corporate world. Rather than stay in a technical role, she asked for more assignments in sales-related areas that offered higher potential for her to advance. When she left Xerox ColorgrafX Systems, she had attained the title of vice president and general manager.

“Asian women have to be willing to take risks on the job and not be worried about losing face,” says Tran, who immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1974 at the age of 16. “A lot of Asian women have been raised not to rock the boat and they have to get past this to move up in the corporate world. And, then it’s up to their employers to also not harbor stereotypes about them and recognize their talents.”

Higher Education, But Fewer Promotions

The numbers support what Tran and other Asian women say. In fact, a study released last summer by Catalyst found that among women of color, Asians were the most likely to have graduate education and yet the least likely to have line or supervisory responsibilities or hold a position within three levels of the chief executive officer.

Quinn H. Tran

Catalyst, a New York City-based organization that studies women and business trends, surveyed 413 Asian women in Fortune 1000 companies and conducted focus groups.

Women also told Catalyst that Asian cultural values, which are reinforced by their families, are frequently at odds with the ability to successfully move up within corporate America.

“For some women, particularly those who are a little older, there is a conflict between keeping their heritage and doing what it takes to succeed. In Asian culture, the family comes first and you can wind up feeling torn between being a good wife and mother and a good employee,” says Duy-Loan Le, 41, a senior fellow with Texas Instruments in Houston. The Vietnam native has been with the company for 21 years.

In addition, only 9 percent of those women in the Catalyst survey said that they feel they benefited from their companies’ diversity programs, due to a perception that Asians do not require specific diversity efforts. There is also the perception that Asians have not been the victims of prejudice to the same degree as African Americans or Hispanics, says Catalyst President Sheila Wellington. Only 0.29 percent–or 30 of the more than 10,000 corporate officers within 429 Fortune 500 companies–are women of Asian origin.

“Asian women report that they feel isolated. Corporations need to create more internal networks for these highly skilled employees to turn to and bond within the workplace,” Wellington says. “There is the perception in the corporate world that Asian women are just sweet, dependable and good at carrying out orders, but this does not help them be taken seriously and it doesn’t enable them grow and advance.”

Being Direct, Social Contacts

To overcome this, Asian women need to be more direct with their bosses, indicate what they are hoping to achieve in the workplace and decide just how hard they want to work to achieve their professional goals, Le says.

“A lot of women will make others guess what they want, instead of telling their bosses what they want and need,” Le says. “They need to go to their bosses with problems and together try to come up with solutions.”

In addition, Asian women should also build more social relationships with supervisors and colleagues, says Linda Ann Smith, senior vice president at Manchester, Inc. a New York City executive coaching, leadership development, and outplacement firm who has worked with many female Asian professionals.

“Don’t undervalue the importance of social events in the workplace. This is a great way to network, find mentors and get yourself known in your company,” Smith says.

For some Asian women, being less conscious of differences has been key in helping them to move up the corporate ladder. This is often easier for women who are more acculturated and are born in the United States or immigrated as young children.

For instance, Margaret E. Ashida, 47, director of corporate university relations for IBM in Somers, N.Y., says that while growing up in Nebraska she never really paid much attention to cultural or racial differences. Ashida, whose father is Japanese and whose mother is of European ancestry, has been with the computer giant for 19 years.

“I just focused on where I wanted to go in my career and sought leadership roles within my organization, networked and found formal and informal mentors who could guide me,” Ashida says. “I’ve found that I need to brief others around me on what I am doing in my work and what I have accomplished. For some Asian women, that may be in conflict with a value system that teaches one to be humble.”

Laura Koss-Feder is a freelance business and features writer who covers small businesses and career/workplace topics. She has written for The New York Times, Business Week, Time, Money, Investor’s Business Daily, Newsday, Family Circle, and Self.

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