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Clint Coghill co-founded Backstop Solutions Group in 2003 and now leads the Backstop Executive Team as CEO.
Last year, a research study from the Association of Asian American Investment Managers (AAAIM) and co-sponsored by my company, was released. In the survey of over 100 Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) investment professionals, many shared disturbing experiences of bias and racism in the workplace. Their stories, plus the dismal statistics of AAPIs reaching leadership roles in financial services, pointed to the existence of a “bamboo ceiling.” This was a term I had never heard before. What, exactly, is a bamboo ceiling?
Simply put, a bamboo ceiling refers to the obstacles placed in front of AAPIs in the workplace. This bias and discrimination typically affect the performance, evaluation and career advancement of these individuals and is sufficiently widespread that it was given a memorable name. Although our joint research with AAAIM focused on members of the investment management industry, its analysis may well apply to other sectors.
Because Backstop interacts daily with professionals of diverse ethnic backgrounds at all levels of responsibility and in multiple arenas of the investment industry, I was a bit shocked at the results of the study. The report, “Good Workers—Not Leaders: Unconscious Biases That Stall AAPI Advancement”, published in September 2021, found that more than 90% of the professionals interviewed had experienced the limiting force of the bamboo ceiling and faced discrimination in their careers. The difficulties they encountered and the stories they told were disturbing, to say the least.
• One person was often berated by his manager in the hallway, simply because the manager knew he would not push back in a public setting.
• One woman was called “Stephanie 2.0” because she had replaced a woman named Stephanie, and her co-workers considered her a better version of her predecessor. This robbed her of her own identity and suggested all Asians are interchangeable and can be lumped together.
• From the report, I learned that Asian culture itself may play a role in the reactions and behaviors of AAPI individuals facing racism. In many Asian cultures, it is considered taboo and disrespectful to talk back to elders and people in positions of authority, in public and private settings. Imagine the internal conflict of wanting to stand up for yourself, but feeling the pressure of your upbringing not to do so.
Reading these anecdotes of blatant racism, as well as more subtle acts undermining the contributions by AAPI professionals, spurred me to call the issues of active and unconscious bias regarding AAPIs to the attention of my colleagues in the investment sector. Too often, studies like these place the onus of individual and racial progress on the shoulders of the group that is disadvantaged. In other words, in order to succeed, the minority individuals must do more to advance in their careers. Find mentors. Speak up more. Network more. Become more proactive. In essence, take on all the work.
But what about support from the employer and the industry? The business case for diversity among leaders has long been made. Studies have shown time and time again that diverse teams perform better.
I now challenge myself and other executives to join us in the following steps. They align with the recommendations of the AAAIM report, which focuses on the individual investment professional and investment firms:
Include AAPIs as a group in the diversity and inclusion efforts already underway. The model minority myth often obscures the plight of Asian American professionals because it creates the impression they’re not really disadvantaged. Although two of the five members in my C-suite are AAPI, I can do more here as well.
Have your executive team participate in sensitivity training specific to Asian Americans. Today, corporate chief diversity officers are shifting from the former “how to fit in” discussion to instead focus on helping people uncover their own unconscious biases. Becoming self-aware of perceptions of the expected traits, competencies and abilities that make someone successful means everyone around the table has to adjust their view of leadership and diversity.
Create opportunities for your Asian American employees to be seen in the media. Being quoted in the news increases the prominence of the employer and may attract new business inquiries, partnerships with groups focused on diversity success and even potential new hires. The executive may be interviewed by other media outlets in the future, as many news organizations are themselves eagerly seeking diverse voices for comment and insight regarding the investment sector.
Recruit AAPI professionals as keynote speakers, conference panelists and workshop leaders on timely industry issues, beyond diversity topics.
Nominate AAPI peers as candidates for awards, granting them a higher profile within their industry. Their experience and success, pushing past the obstacles they encountered due to bias, deserve wider recognition.
Finally, many mentorship, sponsorship and allyship programs already exist within the investment community. It’s time for the next phase. Individual organizations should publish their success stories, so others may emulate their strategies. Share best practices at conferences organized with professional membership organizations and ad hoc. These meetings will draw the attention of C-suite executives, which may lead to the creation of initiatives at peer companies where they do not currently exist. Plus, these lessons learned may be incorporated into the expansion of ongoing programs and renewed dedication of funds to such mentoring programs.
I ask my fellow CEOs and the leaders of investment management firms to also read the AAAIM report, consider the above suggestions and take steps to think about their role in removing barriers for AAPIs in the workplace.
There is importance in highlighting this issue, especially at a time when violence against AAPIs has risen. For that reason, there is no time like the present to examine some of our long-held beliefs and biases. I look forward to making progress in the investment management industry that we serve, and I look forward to continuing to support AAAIM.
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