Karyn Nishimura Sneath, FASAE
Karyn Nishimura Sneath, FASAE, is owner of Npower and director of education at the Society of Professional Journalists.
Although the fastest-growing racial group, Asian American Pacific Islanders lag in representation in middle and executive association management. As AAPI Heritage Month is celebrated during May, it’s a good reminder for groups to create safe spaces and promote leadership pathways year-round to close this gap.
In 2020, Wendy-Jo Toyama, MBA, FASAE, CAE, CEO for the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine; Khánh Vũ, CEO and executive director for the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers; and Linda Akutagawa, president and CEO for Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, presented a session at ASAE’s Virtual Annual Meeting exploring Asian myths.
The presentation revealed a startling gap in Asian representation within associations at all levels. Although the fastest growing racial group, only 3 percent of ASAE members identify as Asian, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander. This lags the Asian-American population nationwide, which Pew cites as 7 percent.
Since organizations with racially diverse boards and executive teams financially outperform other groups, a deeper understanding of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) attitudes toward working in associations can help leaders recruit and retain these professionals. Here are some steps to take.
AAPIs may not always feel safe or supported in the workplace. While anti-Asian hate is not new, violence against Asians increased significantly during the pandemic and has not abated. Anti-Asian hate crimes tripled from 2021 to 2022, according to The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.
Associations should recognize that AAPI employees may experience workplace challenges and create a trusted space to talk with AAPI employees. In addition, recognize events that affect AAPIs, such as reflecting on the tragedies that touch on the community with your team; include AAPI perspectives in organizational and program planning; and demonstrate a commitment to supporting AAPI advancement within your organization.
Seeing someone who looks like you signals that the culture supports AAPI advancement. Incorporating this value into the workplace takes time and needs to complement an association’s ongoing work to address inequities for other historically marginalized and minoritized groups. While there are many ways to shape an environment of belonging, here are three “Ps” to get started:
Policies. Examine current policies and add antidiscrimination, harassment, and microaggression to them. Ensure there are procedures to address and handle issues. Embrace and strengthen diversity and educate others.
People and partnerships. Create opportunities for special interest and resource groups to meet. Connect AAPIs with coaches and professional partners within the association, industry, and other associations.
Place (workplace culture). Develop training opportunities to address all behaviors from outright racism to unconscious bias. Invite staff to share what makes them feel safe and invite additional ideas. Regularly assess the culture, collect feedback, and make improvements. People support what they help to create.
If AAPI professionals are not represented in associations, they may feel that they do not belong, leading to a cycle that furthers the gap. In September 2022, McKinsey and Company found that Asian American employees dropped in representation and promotions at senior levels. Asian women experienced the greatest decrease.
When Toyama left her last organization, an Asian employee shared how much it meant to work for an Asian woman and that she would have that opportunity to work for someone who looked like her again.
Professionals will seek places where they have a sense of belonging. That’s why it’s important to build a community for AAPIs: consider AAPI representation when seeking speakers, panelists, and moderators; offer opportunities for staff to learn about AAPI culture; and create space for AAPI team members who are willing to share their stories, remembering to use a trauma-informed lens.
In addition, highlight AAPI culture year-round. For example, Association Management Center shared information on Day of Remembrance on February 19, marking the Japanese American incarceration during WWII.
Collecting data could also inform strategies to build community for AAPIs. For example, aligning activities and speakers with membership could have greater appeal and allowing identification along ethnic lines can help AAPIs feel seen and heard.
“Without equitable representation, it is a challenge to acknowledge and communicate our community's complete potential and contributions to the work,” said Allegra Tasaki, communications director at the National Association of Bond Lawyers.
The Bamboo Ceiling is real; there aren’t many AAPIs in middle and executive management. According to Board Source, 2 percent of nonprofit CEOs and board chairs identify as AAPI; 3 percent of board members identify as Asian; and less than 1 percent of CEOs, board chairs, and board members report as Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander. Asians have the largest leadership gap among other racial groups.
Representation must be incorporated holistically within an organization. Work with hiring managers and external executive search firms to ensure diverse candidates. Augmenting AAPI professional support, through mentors, role models, and sponsors can also boost participation and advancement.
In addition, organizations can make space for exploration and creation of an action plan. ASAE convened a 17-member AAPI Advisory Group to explore motivations and barriers for AAPI professionals entering and advancing in associations. The group developed a 2023-2025 strategic plan with goals to reach 7 percent AAPI participation within ASAE.
“Seeing other Asian Americans succeed and lead in the world of association and nonprofit management matters,” said Joe Lindahl, senior associate at MCI-USA. “There needs to be a better understanding of how our population views this work and how we can better educate and accelerate more AAPI perspectives into our industry.”