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Catalyst Study Highlights The Unique Challenges Asian Women Face in the Workplace

Many Asian Women Feel Overlooked by Their Companies' Diversity Programs

Women of Asian origin are one of the fastest growing groups in the U.S. labor force, but make up only 0.29% or 30 of the more than 10,000 corporate officers in 429 Fortune 500 companies who supply this data each year. A new study by Catalyst, Advancing Asian Women In The Workplace: What Managers Need to Know reveals these women face many of the same challenges to advancement as other racial and ethnic groups and provides strategies managers can employ to advance and retain this important group of women. 

“In this report, Catalyst finds that lack of key relationships is a major barrier to Asian women in the workplace,” said Catalyst President Sheila Wellington. “They have difficulty finding a mentor and few report having positive relationships with their managers. This study gives both the managers and the women who work for them tools to overcome these barriers.” 

Catalyst surveyed 413 Asian women, conducted 12 focus groups with entry- and mid-level Asians as well as in-depth interviews with senior Asian women. Among women of color, Asian women are the most likely to have graduate education yet the least likely to have line or supervisory responsibilities or hold a position within three levels of the CEO. Also, compared to other women of color, Asian women are significantly less likely to be born in the United States. 

The second in a series of reports focused on individual groups of women of color, Advancing Asian Women In The Workplace: What Managers Need to Know, is sponsored by McDonald’s Corporation, and contains action steps for individuals and managers to improve the recruitment, retention and advancement of Asian women.

More Acculturated vs. Less Acculturated – Differences in Experience
The study also uncovered two distinct categories of Asian women surveyed – more and less acculturated. The first group of more acculturated women is defined as those born in the United States or immigrated as children and speak only English at home. The second group of less acculturated women immigrated to the U.S. at an older age and speak a second language at home. 

There are significant differences in the experiences of these two groups in their job satisfaction. The more acculturated women are less likely to have elder care responsibilities; are more satisfied and successful in their careers and are more likely to be paid what they feel they are worth. 

The less acculturated women are less likely to feel it is appropriate to challenge the way things are done in their workplace and less likely to report that diversity efforts have created a supportive environment. These women are more likely to report that other co-workers feel uncomfortable around them and that they must make adjustments to fit in. 

Cultural Values vs. Corporate Values
When trying to navigate the American corporate culture, these women told Catalyst that Asian cultural values, learned or reinforced by their families, are frequently at odds with their ability to successfully navigating the corporate landscape. 

 “The discomfort some Asian women have with self-promotion makes advancement problematic, and their strong work ethic appears to limit networking opportunities,” said Katherine Giscombe, Ph.D., senior director of research at Catalyst. “Some Asian women report that they feel pressure to change to fit in to their work environments which makes it more difficult for them to advance." 

Overall, Asian women told Catalyst they feel overlooked by their companies’ diversity programs and policies, possibly due to their companies’ perceptions that Asians do not require specific diversity efforts

Action steps for advancing Asian women in the workplace can be found at Catalyst’s web site at

The sponsor of this study is McDonald’s Corporation. 

About Catalyst: Catalyst is a nonprofit research and advisory organization working to advance women in business and the professions, with offices in New York, California and Toronto. The leading source of information on women in business for the past four decades, Catalyst has the knowledge and tools that help employers and women maximize their potential. Our solutions-oriented approach-through research, Advisory Services, Corporate Board Placement, and the Catalyst Award—has earned the confidence of global business leaders. For additional information or to obtain a copy of this report, please visit our web site at or call 212-514-7600.