Leadership and Race: Are Leadership Skills Affected By Our Identity?

Can we teach leadership skills without considering race and ethnicity? For a long time, I thought leadership was a skill that everyone could learn. But when I wanted to cite an example of a well-known female Asian business leader as an example for this article, I couldn’t think of a single name. I realized I had made an important discovery and after a little more digging, I found an alarming pattern.

The more research I did, the more I realized leadership in business and one’s chances of earning an executive level position were in fact strongly affected by one’s ethnic background. Asians in the United States, for example, held many professional positions but few top-level leadership positions.

When I looked at my own personal experiences with race, it was clear that race and ethnicity determined how people perceive you. If that were the case, how could we teach leadership skills so that all races and ethnicities would have a fair shot at executive positions?

Can Asians Ever Be Canadian?

Asians born in Canada or born in the US (or any nation that isn’t considered an Asian country) are familiar with the following inquisition when they try to explain to people that they are Canadian (or American or something other than Asian).

I’ve always considered myself to be Canadian. As for role models, I choose them from any ethnic background, although I prefer successful female businesswomen, so that I could aspire to become like them.

I have quite a few women role models: teachers I admire, bosses that inspired me, and favourite authors. But out of all them, none were Asian. When I looked at my business mentors, the situation was also grim.

My two business mentors are highly successful millionaires or near millionaires and both are Chinese. They are examples of how immigrants could come to Canada, work hard, and become financially successful. They were leaders that I could follow but they were men.

The successful women leaders that I could think of were the wives of these men. They hadn’t created their financial success on their own, but they learned leadership skills to help their husbands in their careers.

I decided to look past my own experience and see if I could find more successful Asian leaders in North America. First, I wanted to establish what qualities I wanted to see in a strong leader.

What Leadership Skills Should We Teach Managers And Executives?

When you think of leaders that you admire, what qualities do they have? Are they good listeners? Do they show empathy? Do they inspire you to work hard to attain their level of success?

The leaders I admire are very good at taking charge, providing direction for the team, and being someone you can depend upon. At the same time, even though they are the leader, or the boss, I never feel like they are demanding me to complete a task. They ask me in such a way that I feel that I’m doing them a favour. A favour that I’m not likely to refuse, of course, because it’s a request from a supervisor.

Do Asians have the leadership qualities that I’ve identified?

Maybe they do. And maybe they don’t. The American workforce either lacks Asians that have what it takes to be an effective leader, or they aren’t seen as having the qualities needed for leadership. A closer look at numbers reveals a gloomy situation.

How High Is the Bamboo (Glass) Ceiling for Leadership?

A 2010 study cited by Harvard Business Review (HBR) found that “Asians do outperform other minorities and white people when it comes to education, employment, and income.” If they are so successful, then shouldn’t they also successfully climb the corporate ladder as well?  

Apparently, they don’t have far to climb before they bump into the glass ceiling. HBR used the term “bamboo ceiling” – the equivalent to the glass ceiling. In addition to the 2010 report, it cited a 2015 report on diversity.

It found that, “Asians represent only 1.5% of corporate officer positions in the Fortune 500, according to 2012 data.” The situation for Asian women was worse because these women represented only 3.1% of executives five tech companies in a study, while Asian men represented 13.5%.

What could be creating these limitations?

All races face stereotyping at the workplace. Employment data cited above suggests that Asians are highly competent at finding high paying jobs. Their success may make them appear threatening in the workplace. However, Asians are also perceived to have a critical weakness.

The HBR article study observed that “stereotypes about Asians lacking social skills make them seem unfit for leadership.”

An article in Bloomberg suggests that Asian culture encourages communication and networking styles that go against the “mainstream dynamic of assertiveness and directness.” For this reason, Asian Americans are considered as fitting for “low- to mid-level management positions, but not top-level leadership.”

How Many Asians Are In Executive Positions?

A Silicon Valley report found that Asians were so underrepresented in leadership positions that they were grouped into other, larger categories. In the report, “Asian men are lumped into a ‘non-underrepresented’ category with white men” while “Asian women are assigned to a category that includes women of all races.”

These types of numbers were repeated in other industries, where Asians continued to be underrepresented in the executive ranks of companies. See the table below.

What can be done to increase the number of Asians in top level executive jobs? Could their social skills truly be so lacking that they would be unsuitable leaders? Or would it be possible to teach leadership skills in such a way to compensate for disadvantages from any cultural differences?

Future of Leadership Skills

It would be interesting to see the data for other races and ethnicities. What is the ratio of their ethnic group in jobs in an industry, compared to the percentage in executive positions for that industry?

If a wide gap exists between the lower ranks and the executive ranks, what can be done to level the playing field in leadership?

From these studies in this article alone, it seems that perception of cultural differences affect how people from different races are promoted to leadership positions.

In future, one recommendation would be to design leadership training skills that address stereotyping and culture. It’s possible to have talented and skilled leaders equally represented from all ethnic backgrounds.

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