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Asian Americans most likely to join employee diversity groups but don't feel supported, report says

“The pattern they see is regardless of whether they’re involved in these ERGs, they’re not seeing much in the way of progress,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder of AAPI Data.

Asian Americans are most likely to participate in employee affinity organizations, but don’t feel sufficiently supported within their companies, a new survey shows. 

Research recently released by AAPI Data and polling firm Momentive revealed that despite their particularly high levels of participation in employee-led resource groups (ERGs) — twice the rate of workers overall — Asian Americans continue to feel left out of corporate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. 

The study, which examined diversity across American life, found that Asian Americans participate in employee-led groups at 16%, far exceeding the 8% of workers overall. While more than half were motivated to do so to connect with others, 44%, said they were driven by professional growth opportunities and 39% cited the opportunity to raise awareness and inclusivity within their organization. 

Still, almost one-quarter of Asian American workers reported feeling excluded from discussions about diversity and inclusion at their workplace. These feelings of inadequate support are also seen in discussions of leadership roles, as roughly only one-quarter said they have seen themselves represented in leadership positions at the workplace, a lower proportion than any other race. A similar percentage of Asian Americans surveyed reported feeling supported to take on leadership opportunities.

While ERGs most often exist to foster a sense of belonging and connection in the workplace, they can also help build momentum toward leadership and offer mentorship opportunities. But this doesn’t always translate for Asian Americans, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder of AAPI Data. 

“The pattern they see is, regardless of whether they’re involved in these ERGs, they’re not seeing much in the way of progress in terms of people being promoted to leadership and executive positions within the company,” Ramakrishnan said.

Citing leadership statistics, Ramakrishnan said that Asian Americans “feel excluded because they are.” Analysis released by management consulting company McKinsey in September found that despite being overrepresented by more than two times their share of the population at the entry level, Asian American representation drops off by more than half overall at the board of director level. Asian American women, the analysis showed, are doubly penalized for both their gender and their race, experiencing an 80% dropoff at the board level. 

Michael Chui, a partner at McKinsey and co-author of the September study, previously told NBC News that companies have taken little initiative to remedy the glaring disparities, in part because many DEI initiatives, which often focus on recruiting and retention, do not include Asian Americans in the first place “due to the myth that they are already well represented in senior roles.” 

“In terms of feeling unsupported and unrepresented, Asian Americans are very off the charts in a bad way,” Ramakrishnan said. “I think it’s important to see that there’s a lot of improvement needed in how corporations provide leadership opportunities and also effectively communicate with their Asian American workers.”

That’s not to say that employee resource groups aren’t meaningful spaces for Asian Americans, however. Ramakrishnan said that oftentimes these groups serve as places for workers of color to confidentially share and connect on issues they may not be comfortable voicing in a larger group setting. They’re also often able to find some peer support and potentially organize to get their companies to do better, he said. 

“What we also saw was the uptick in the anti-Asian violence and anti-Asian hate, these ERGs have also provided a venue for people to make sense of what was happening even outside of work,” Ramakrishnan said. “I mean, first of all microaggressions and discrimination in the workplace, but outside the workplace as well.”

The study also looked at other issues, including gun violence in the wake of the two mass shootings in California earlier this year, which targeted the Asian community. Asian Americans reported highest levels of fear over becoming a victim of a mass shooting at 84%, compared to 74% of Black Americans, Latinos, and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. Whites showed the lowest percentage at 59%. Of the groups, Asian and Black Americans displayed the most support for stricter gun control laws and a nationwide ban on assault weapons.