Gen Z Asian Americans are Done Assimilating to Break the Bamboo Ceiling

Diversity, equity, and inclusion aren’t just buzzwords for this generation

Words by Suneil Kamath

Sarah Chow worked as a graphic designer for a local city government in rural Georgia during the height of the pandemic. The 25-year-old Laotian American was required to work in the office with coworkers who had strong anti-mask sentiments, making her feel understandably uncomfortable, especially because Asian Americans were the main racial group consistently wearing masks there.

When six Asian Americans were killed at an Atlanta spa in 2021 and #StopAAPIHate gained steam, Chow’s work situation didn’t improve. Her coworkers didn’t acknowledge the situation or talk to her about how she felt. As the youngest person in the office and the only person of color, Chow didn’t know how to navigate these uncomfortable situations and, as the child of immigrants, didn’t feel she could ask her parents for advice either.

“All these issues were happening, and I was looking at my friends at bigger companies that were investing in social issues and talking about these problems. I wanted to join that type of culture, so I began looking for new opportunities,” says Chow, who now works as a UX designer at a global media company in Atlanta.

...even though Asian Americans are well educated and, depending on the industry, are represented well in individual contributor and lower management roles, they aren't represented proportionally in senior leadership roles.

Chow’s not the only Asian American feeling ostracized at work. In a recent survey of more than 10,000 business professionals on inclusion and belonging at work, the management consulting firm Bain and Company found that Asian men and women were the least likely to feel included compared to other demographics. This compounds the fact that even though Asian Americans are well educated and, depending on the industry, are represented well in individual contributor and lower management roles, they aren't represented proportionally in senior leadership roles.

There have been studies that try to answer why. For instance, Asian Americans often face several stereotypes, like being deemed too quiet or not assertive. The older generation of Asian American leaders that have broken the bamboo ceiling have often done so by assimilating into traditional Western culture. Unlike their parents, though, Gen Z Asian Americans are seeking opportunities where they can be their authentic selves and don’t have to assimilate or adhere to cultural expectations that are inconsistent with their values.

Annie Wagner

Annie Wagner

Annie Wagner, 24, for instance, has worked almost every position in the service industry, from the back of the house to the front. As a bartender, there were more than a few times when Wagner, who is a biracial Korean American, had unsavory interactions with older male customers due to her gender and race.

“It was as if I was constantly put on this strange pedestal…but when you’re in the service industry making $8 an hour, there’s this attitude that if you’re uncomfortable in a situation or feel like you’re being harassed, you’re not getting paid enough [to put up with that]. It’s a huge part of the reason why I wanted to get out of the industry,” says Wagner, who now works as a social media coordinator at an agency.

This defiant mindset might have stemmed from her childhood. “Growing up, I went to a Korean church. I felt different because I was half white, half Korean, and sort of a tomboy,” she says. “My mom wanted me to be docile, but I couldn’t fit into that box. I didn’t want to wear stockings or study for the SATs. I only cared about sports.”

Ronak Shetty

Ronak Shetty

Stanford University freshman and nonprofit founder Ronak Shetty can also relate. When Shetty was in the third grade, he started preparing for standardized testing. “I wanted to do anything to please my parents,” the 18-year-old says.

But even this early preparation couldn’t shield Shetty, who is Indian American, from developing crippling testing anxiety in middle and high school. And, as a queer person yet to come out, Shetty struggled and developed suicidal thoughts.

It wasn’t until his junior year, that Shetty started to break away from the expectations of his family, who often compared him to his peers, and community. “What really saved me was reading these Spanish plays and music. I learned that I can separate myself from my parents and the community to fulfill my goals,” he says.

“I don’t want to work for a company that just preaches inclusivity, but actually tells you how they are dealing with inclusivity.”

When Asian American Gen Z’ers are identifying companies that are inclusive and match their values, they’re looking for companies to implement diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives (DEI) such as ensuring Asian American leaders are represented at all levels throughout the organization and that there’s equity and inclusivity in compensation and benefits.

“I don’t want to work for a company that just preaches inclusivity, but actually tells you how they are dealing with inclusivity,” Shetty says, when describing what he’s looking for in full-time opportunities. “Most organizations are making an effort to promote DEI, but unless you have a plan, you aren’t practicing what you’re preaching.”

This echoes sentiments Gallup learned about Gen Zers. “DEI is not a ‘nice to have’ for this generation; it’s an imperative that is core to their personal identities.” Many of these DEI initiatives can take time to execute and see the results, which could be too late to retain Gen Zers. There are immediate actions companies can take, however.

Eileen Lo, 24, works in the audio industry, which is dominated by older, white men. In her current company, she’s one of a few women, people of color. That didn’t stop her from working there, though.

When Lo, a Chinese American, interviewed with the company, even though the panel was mostly white men, she observed the positive ways they interacted with other women and people of all levels at the company, giving them space to voice their opinions and speak up. “It’s the small things that matter,” she says when describing the process.

Now, a little more than a year into the job, Lo plans on staying for the time being, partially because of the way her colleagues make her feel included and amplify her voice, especially in conversations with external partners. “I was onsite with a third-party company. The client we were working with only addressed my coworker, who is an older white male,” Lo says. “Throughout the conversation, my coworker would continually tell the client that they should talk with me because I was aware of the details and that he’s not always the point of contact.”

If companies don’t start making some progress, they risk alienating a large portion of the American workforce. According to Deloitte’s 2022 survey on Gen Zers and Millennials, “nearly two in five say they have rejected a job or assignment because it did not align with their values.” Furthermore, “Those who are satisfied with their employers’...efforts to create a diverse and inclusive culture are more likely to want to stay with their employer for more than five years.”

As Lo described, hopefully, with time, things will change within her industry and the overall workplace for younger Asian Americans, because as she says, “if you can see it, you can be it.”

Some names have been altered for confidentiality purposes.

Published on October 18, 2022

Words by Suneil Kamath

Suneil Kamath is a project manager and freelance writer. A LinkedIn Top Voice, he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.