Asian Americans in the Boardroom

Douglas K. Chia is the President of Soundboard Governance LLC. This post is based on his Soundboard Governance memorandum. Related research from the Program on Corporate Governance includes Politics and Gender in the Executive Suite by Alma Cohen, Moshe Hazan, and David Weiss (discussed on the Forum here).

Throughout American history, there has never been a sense of urgency to increase the numbers of Asian Americans in corporate, professional, or civic leadership positions, despite their success in the upper-middle ranks of a multitude of fields, most notably medicine, engineering, and information technology. Asian Americans are still in the phase of breaking the color barrier, sometimes referred to as the “bamboo ceiling.” (e.g., Andrew Yang, Nikki Haley). Similarly, there has not been a sense of urgency to increase the numbers of Asian Americans in the boardrooms of the largest public company. Is that about to change?

Based on 2018 data from Deloitte and the Alliance for Board Diversity, the percentages of Fortune 500 company board seats held by people identified as African American/Black, Hispanic/Latino(a), and Asian/Pacific Islander were 8.6 percent, 3.8 percent, and 3.7 percent, respectively. That was up from 7.6 percent, 3.0 percent, and 2.1 percent, respectively, in 2010. Based on the latest estimates from the US Census Bureau, the percentages of people in the United States who identify as African American/Black, Hispanic/Latino, and Asian represent 13.4 percent, 18.3 percent, and 5.9 percent, respectively. [1]

There is some evidence that Asian American women may be treated differently than Asian American men in director searches, resulting in Asian American women having relatively better recent success in board appointments. From 2016 to 2018, representation of Asian/Pacific Islander women on Fortune 500 boards increased by 38.6 percent, whereas the increase was 20.3 percent for Asian/Pacific Islander men. This may be attributable to the more deliberate and intense focus on increasing the number of women in corporate boardrooms. Board recruiters have explicitly said that Asian American men are treated as white males for purposes of director searches. This differentiation runs counter to the initiatives for more overall board diversity by the NYC Comptroller, Goldman Sachs, the US Congress, and others.

“Model Minority” Director?

The notion that Asians are the “model minority” group in America has long been perpetuated, and the basis, meaning, and impact of that term has been the subject of spirited debate within the Asian American community. Most conclude that this characterization stems from a blanket perception among Caucasians that Asian Americans work hard, are law-abiding and fiscally conservative, focus on and make sacrifices for their children’s education, and have imbedded cultural norms to accept subordinate positions and defer to higher authority. Often cited is the proverb used in several East Asian cultures, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” to explain Asian Americans’ not drawing attention to themselves or vocalizing dissent.

The conventional wisdom of Asian Americans being the model minority should theoretically create the dynamic where Asian Americans become more attractive director candidates, as scholars posit that boards are still for the most part hand-selected by their CEOs, and CEOs seek to populate their boards with directors who will most likely defer to the preferences of management. In addition, the fact that many potential Asian American director candidates can be found in the technology sector, or in technology-related roles at companies outside the technology sector, suggests there is a pool of Asian Americans who should be sought after by boards due to the increased demand for director candidates with technology, cybersecurity, blockchain, and artificial intelligence expertise and experience. The next wave of demand may very well be for medical and public health credentials should boards be expected to take a bigger role in overseeing the risks related to disease outbreaks post COVID-19, which demand should also result in the consideration of more Asian American director candidates from the medical and public health fields.

We have not seen any of these dynamics play out thus far. This may relate to Asians American being less likely to promote and advocate for themselves to the people seeking board candidates, such as board chairs, CEOs, chairs of board nominating committees, and director recruiters. As is the case with many highly sought-after corporate opportunities, people eager to be identified for director slates take affirmative steps to make their interest known and strategically interact with the those already on boards and those who can get them there. Some enroll in training programs on how to position oneself for a board seat opening and understand the job of a director. Asian Americans may be less likely to take those steps. Moreover, the dearth of Asian Americans in CEO and other c-suite positions at large public companies is a major structural barrier, as it is for other minorities and women.

Waiting Game

The diversification of boards is following the same pattern as the waves of civil rights efforts in American history. Women fought for and were able to successfully gain access to the ballot box during the early 20th century women’s suffrage movement. In the mid 20th century, African American leaders mobilized and achieved results in the face of extreme and violent resistance during the civil rights movement. From then on, the prominent voices for civil rights have mostly been African Americans and now Hispanics (although to a lesser extent). A national movement and well-recognized leaders for Asian Americans have yet to materialize.

The current shifts in board composition are following a similar progression. In the push for diversity in the boardroom, corporate leaders (e.g., Thirty Percent Coalition), investors (e.g., State Street Global Advisors), and policy-makers (e.g., California State Legislature) have focused more on pressing every public company board to have at least one female director and accelerate the replacement rate of board members to 50 percent women.

This is a logical strategy given the gender issue is binary, the data on the benefits of having women on boards are available (although not dispositive), and the ultimate outcome desired is clear (i.e., 50/50). On the other hand, discussions over race and affirmative action in the United States very quickly become highly charged and political, and endless quandaries arise. Who is to identify a person’s race? What about people of mixed race and ethnicity? Which racial groups should benefit from affirmative action and why? What is the ideal proportion for each race? How are goals and quotas different? And, what about claims of “reverse discrimination”?

Progressive social change in the boardroom has always lagged behind the corporations themselves. Boards would rather resolve the more clear-cut issue before turning to the more complicated one fraught with reputational risk. For many boards, the former will be done out of expediency, but the later will be strongly resisted. As these dynamics play out, Asian Americans will be standing in line behind women, African Americans, and Hispanics for open board seats.

Endnotes

1The terms “African American/Black,” “Asian/Pacific Islander,” and “Hispanic/Latino(a)” used by Deloitte and the Alliance for Board Diversity, and “African American/Black,” “Asian,” and “Hispanic/Latino” used by the US Census Bureau include people from outside the United States who were not born and/or raised in the United States. The term “Asian Americans” as used by the author in this article refers only to people of Asian/Pacific Islander descent who were born and/or raised primarily in North America.(go back)

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