Asian Heritage Month is recognized by businesses across Canada to celebrate diversity and the contributions of professionals of Asian Heritage. Nonetheless, diverse professionals report that they still face systemic barriers in their career development. What can be done to improve inclusion and support the advancement of Asian and other diverse professionals in the workplace? Level5 Consultant Michael Luu, Graphic Designer Aaron Inocencio, Senior Director Raphael Rajan and Managing Partner Hua Yu share their insights.
Hua Yu: You have to deal with stereotypes in the work environment when you look different, sound different, or have different perspectives because of our cultural roots. People expect you to behave a certain way. People may look at you and make judgments based on your appearance. On the other hand, I think being different can also be an opportunity. For example, being Asian has helped me build my brand because there are so few of us in the management consulting industry, and especially at the senior level.
Aaron Inocencio: One of the barriers I have experienced and witnessed is around communication, especially when English is not your first language. I find that there can be a bit of stigma around how a person sounds. People judge the book by its cover and say, “I cannot understand that person”, and they may not make an additional effort to figure out what was said. I feel fortunate that for the most part, people are able to understand what I try to say, even when I am still working on improving my English. My accent is still strong after almost 20 years in Canada because I mainly speak Tagalog in my home and with Filipino friends.
Another barrier to consider is cultural differences. Nowadays, there is a lot more appreciation for Asian cultures, but I feel there are still some deeply ingrained stereotypes that persist. At some points in my life, I’ve felt substantial pressure to change myself to be more likeable, especially when I’ve felt my cultural or social differences could cause others to perceive me to be ‘weird’. But overall, I’ve always learned that in the end, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. I try not to think about stereotypes and be happy with who I am. It’s important to be genuine about who you are.
Michael Luu: Poor understanding of cultural differences can be a problem – in some cases, you’re expected to fit into a specific mold that doesn’t take into account one’s unique background and lived experiences. As a result, extra time and effort is needed to adapt, creating additional workload and pressures.
Conflicting norms in Asian and Western culture lead to many hurdles that Asians must learn to get over. For example, in traditional Asian culture, it is seen as disrespectful to speak up against your elders; as a result, we learn to stay quiet to show respect and avoid confrontation. However, in Western culture, challenging ideas is often encouraged and advocated for – showing one’s engagement and interest in the conversation.
Raphael Rajan: In my career, I don’t feel like I’ve encountered many day-to-day challenges that are unique to my heritage. However, there are certainly pet peeves I have on how our Asian experiences can often be diminished in communication with others and I have experienced one-off events that have left deep scars that don’t heal easily.
“Nobody wants to be the person who comes into work and be that bummer who brings everyone’s energy down by sharing these stories. So, it’s organizations that need to recognize some of the unseen challenges in the market we exist in and create opportunities and channels for Asian and BIPOC employees to voice their experiences.”
To describe how communication can impact one’s identity in a community… I feel Torontonian because I live here. I like the city. I’m building a family here with my wife and kids. I enjoy working with my colleagues and have formed amazing friendships here. But, I still don’t feel like I’m able to truly integrate because of the propensity that persists in the North American communities to jump to generalizations when talking about and interacting with other cultures. Of-course, this isn’t everyone and I have also had wonderful experiences, but you see and feel it just enough for it make you feel like you’re still on the outside looking in. An example, which is a pet peeve of mine, is the use of the term “brown guy”. I haven’t heard this term used more anywhere else in the world than I have in North America, and it is usually loaded with a whole host of pre-conceived notions and assumptions of who a “brown guy” might be. Personally, when I think of my identity there are so many facets to who I am, what I bring to the table, who I aspire to be, how I want to impact people, the diversity and richness to my experiences… but then to be so easily put into a bucket can feel highly dismissive and diminishing.
In terms of the tougher to digest events that shake you, right here in Toronto, where we are already considered to be a melting pot of diversity and inclusion, I have experienced explicit, unwarranted, unprovoked incidents of explicit racism multiple times against me. Once, I was called the “N” word accompanied by a whole host of derogatory expletives when I was waiting for the TTC. Another time, I had someone say to me “Go back to where you came from.” And another time, as I took photos of a group of birds as an avid photographer, I had an elderly person passing by say some very specific and deeply negative things about my color and how I was what was wrong with this country. All these events happened on my way to work or back from work going to see my family. I’d then have to go into meetings or about my day with utmost professionalism, putting on a smile, with anyone knowing about these experiences. Sadly, this isn’t unique to me and with the heightened scary incidents we’re seeing, captured through stories from the Anti-Asian Hate and BLM movements, my stories even seem tame.
Nobody wants to be the person who comes into work and be that bummer who brings everyone’s energy down by sharing these stories. So, it’s organizations that need to recognize some of the unseen challenges in the market we exist in and create opportunities and channels for Asian and BIPOC employees to voice their experiences.
Raphael: Something I found quite powerful at a previous company I worked for was conducting ‘bias assessments’ across teams. You go through a series of tests to evaluate your own biases, it could be about gender, race, etc. Everyone had the opportunity to do it and the results were powerful, because a lot of individuals don’t realize they have some inherent biases that skew one way or another. They just might not have consciously thought about it. In my experience the results of the bias assessments allowed us to start to have meaningful conversations. In addition, when these conversations were facilitated by third-party experts in the field, we were able to get coaching on how to make sense of it all and how to take actionable steps in our professional settings and personal lives.
Hua: I’ve been thinking about this because bias is not just for white people. It’s a universal problem. Chinese people have biases about things too. We naturally have biases against people who are different from us. So even for me, although I belong to an ethnic minority in Canada, I still have a lot to learn when it comes to understanding the needs and wants of other groups of people.
Raphael: I was working for PWC when Black Lives Matter and Anti-Asian Hate bubbled up. To talk about these difficult and complex topics, the company held open-forum town hall style dialogues. There was a big emphasis put on participation and again experts were brought in to help us navigate the conversation and think through the impact. In the process, our colleagues started to share their own experiences, which was extremely powerful. Listening to what our Black and Asian colleagues were going through on top of our professional lives and commitments was incredibly eye-opening. Especially in the world of consulting, we all think of ourselves as somewhat A-type, privileged, and working within the same parameters and opportunities, but the individual stories showcased the differences eloquently.
Dialogue really changed the dynamic of how we thought about everything within the firm structurally. There’s a different lens put to recruiting, performance management, training, coaching, compensation, etc. It was an important and rigorous process of discovery and action. I think things like this are fundamentally what organizations need to do, because otherwise you have one-off discussions here and there about diversity and no real action is taken.
Michael: Acknowledging the challenges that Asians (or any minority groups) experience is the first step in helping to improve the situation. It requires empathy and an active commitment to understanding the cultural differences that exist. It’s often difficult to have these types of discussions – when employers and colleagues are open-minded and willing to have an open conversation, it can benefit both parties. Putting in the extra effort to implement equitable practices on top of those that promote equality show that organizations care, and this can result in a greater positive impact on Asians facing inequity in the workplace.
“Acknowledging the challenges that Asians (or any minority groups) experience is the first step in helping to improve the situation. It requires empathy and an active commitment to understanding the cultural differences that exist.”
Aaron: With regard to recruitment, and the problem of cultural differences, I feel like there should be a more holistic consideration of a candidate’s circumstances and experiences rather than focusing on just their skills and technical experience. There should be more attention to their individual qualities that can bring value the organization and the team. Taking the time cut through cultural differences and getting to know the candidate can reveal how they can make a positive influence on the workplace culture.
Despite any cultural differences, I’ve become more comfortable being myself around my colleagues because they have continuously motivated me to thrive and show my strength and resilience. In order for people to develop self-confidence, they need an environment where they can feel comfortable being themselves surrounded by supportive people, and with the safety to speak openly about how they are doing. It’s about having colleagues and employers who are great listeners.
Hua: I think it takes time for others to understand who we are. It’s just like going through a consulting project to help our clients to understand consumer behavior. You have to put on someone else’s hat and shoes to really understand, and that is the biggest challenge for any employer.
You can have the best “inclusive and diverse” promise, but do you truly understand those diverse people? Your EDII (Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, & Indigeneity) strategy has to be rooted in a deep understanding of each particular group of employees need and want, and what can be done to help them build confidence, overcome their challenges and build a successful career.
Raphael: I think getting someone that’s experienced in DE&I (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) to do an audit of recruiting and compensation processes is a very reasonable step for organizations to take. There’s so much talent that’s missed out on especially in the recruiting process. Having been involved in recruiting extensively, I’ve found myself advocating for factors like anti-bias against accents. I’ve had experiences where individuals’ communication was called into question because of heavier accents. You must ask yourself if it is just an accent or do they really need to work on their communication skills? These are two very different factors. Removing these types of biases is important. And then looking at experience more holistically, not placing significant weight on Canadian experiences versus global experiences, because there are a lot of top class Asian and global companies. The kind of knowledge and the mindset that people have in those organizations are global and can easily translate over.
Raphael: I’m fortunate that my upbringing afforded me the opportunity to develop strong self-confidence. I had a comfortable middle-class life, growing up in Dubai. I had the best access to education all through my life. I have not faced significant health and societal challenges. All of this privilege made it easier for me to develop my self-belief and confidence. But I recognize that same level of confidence is not afforded to all Asians equally as we come from so many different circumstances. For me personally, my dream is for us as an Asian community to be way more confident in articulating and feeling the wonderful skills and knowledge we bring to the table. I think we do ourselves a disservice by not recognizing our own gifts and potential. It is often tied to our culture(s) where we are expected to be polite, humble, and respectful, and that translates to how we interact with organizations and senior management, where we don’t feel like we can be authoritative and take control of our career trajectories whether that be about the type of job, levels, salaries, or leadership opportunities.
In my own experiences with my Rotman community, I found that many of us from Asian backgrounds came into the MBA program with big aspirations only to find ourselves second-guessing our abilities, path, and prospects in this market. I had to ask myself why and how this was happening. We are as good, if not in some cases more capable in terms of our experiences but were walking out of a top-ranked MBA program with a lack of confidence. Over the years, having built relationships and mentoring Rotman students, while most conversations start with “How do you crack the interview?”, almost all of them ended up being about “How do you gain and showcase the confidence to bring your best self to the table?”.
“It’s important to share, be transparent, and be open with other Asian professionals. Not everybody is comfortable playing the role model role, but there is a need for it.”
Hua: It’s important to share, be transparent, and be open with other Asian professionals. Not everybody is comfortable playing the role model role, but there is a need for it. I know a lot of great Chinese women in the professional world, but some are more technical-driven versus purpose-driven. As Asian female leaders, we have earned the privilege to lead, and with the privilege comes the responsibility to give back and help the younger Asian generation build successful careers. And we need to let them see that we are not perfect, even for accomplished business leaders. We all have our challenges, flaws and weaknesses, but that should not prevent you from achieving your career goals.
Raphael: I also want to say that I’ve benefitted from mentorship tremendously. I’ve seen great Asian leaders in the companies that I’ve worked who have trail-blazed, within and outside of consulting, and brought their authentic selves to work and been uncompromising. This has had a massive impact on how I’ve approached my own career and trajectory. Even watching from afar, leaders that I aspire to be like are Asian. Indra Nooyi from PepsiCo and Satya Nadella from Microsoft are high on the list. These are leaders that have done it their way and I love that they didn’t lose their identity in the process. Another example is Deloitte’s CEO, Punit Renjen, and the way he talks proudly about his love for cricket. He is unapologetic about what is core to him. That stands out to me. We, Asians, can do it at the highest level, being ourselves, bringing our backgrounds and what we grew up with, what we love, and it will only amplify our performance, growth, and impact.