One of the brightest notes in the outcome of 2020’s tawdry political process is the historic election of the first Black and Asian American female vice president, Kamala Harris.
As a self-identifying Asian American of Chinese descent, I say, “Yay for us!” At the same time, I must confess, I don’t exactly feel a blood kinship to the nation’s new veep.
While Asian communities are generally seen as more insular than their BIPOC counterparts, it’s important to understand what Vice President-elect Harris’s accomplishment quietly validates: People of South Asian descent—those with ties to India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh—are more successful than other Asians when it comes to defining American leadership. (Harris’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, immigrated to the U.S. from India.)
It’s been well documented that conventionally cited “Asian” students (those of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean heritage) routinely outperform their white peers on standardized tests and Ivy League admissions. At the same time, they are woefully underrepresented in the C-suite and boardrooms (aka “the bamboo ceiling”).
But take a look at the Asians currently atop Fortune 500 companies, and you’ll see they’re almost entirely of South Asian descent. Three of the most highly paid CEOs in 2019—Ajay Banga of Mastercard, Satya Nadella of Microsoft, and Sundar Pichai of Google—are of South Asian cultural heritage. They join a contingent of highly lauded current and former CEOs of American companies, such as Shantanu Narayen (Adobe), Arvind Krishna (IBM), and Indra Nooyi (Pepsi).
That’s at odds with the statistics: There are 1.6 times as many East Asians as there are South Asians in the U.S. True, you can Google to find people like Eric Yuan (Zoom) and John Chen (Blackberry), a few East Asian senators (Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois), and several representatives. But in the world of business, an East Asian with a C-title is rarer than it should be.
Why is that? What’s keeping East Asians from stepping up?