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Understanding Diversity Within AAPI: Disaggregating Data and Other Inclusive Practices

Aya Yagi
Jasmine Huang, PhD
Aimy Ngo

This is the first in a series of blog posts we are releasing exploring diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies focused on the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. This first post will focus on the diversity of the AAPI group and the importance of disaggregating AAPI data. In subsequent posts, we will share more research, strategies, and resources related to celebrating AAPI folks, unpacking feelings of invisibility among AAPI people, combating the “model minority myth,” and challenging the “bamboo ceiling.” We hope these blog posts will serve as a springboard for your continued learning and inspire you to take action to support your AAPI employees, colleagues, and community members.

In recent months, corporate America has experienced an overdue wake-up call to the racism and experiences specific to Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in the United States. As many have written, none of this is new. And while some people in the AAPI community benefit from social and economic privileges, there is also a long history of systemic racism and inequalities against AAPIs in the United States, from the egregious — the Chinese Massacre of 1871, Japanese American Incarceration during WWII, and xenophobia directed at South Asians and Muslims after 9/11, to name a few — to the routine, like the daily microaggressions of being mistaken for another AAPI acquaintance or colleague. 

There is a long history of AAPI activism (e.g., Larry Itliong and Ai-jen Poo), cross-racial solidarity movements, and many examples of the joy, innovation, and creativity of the AAPI community; but much of the rich history and complexity of this broad community has been erased, ignored, and/or misinterpreted. This AAPI Heritage Month, take the opportunity to better understand the history, diversity, and needs of AAPI folks and use this knowledge to improve your organization’s DEI strategy in support of our community.

How to Understand the Diversity within the AAPI Community 

AAPIs are the fastest growing racial/ethnic group in the U.S. and an immensely diverse group of people in terms of income, ethnicity, migration status, and education. AAPIs represent both some of the highest and lowest income earners in the country, have the highest education attainment as a group but among the lowest education attainment within subgroups, and are a majority foreign-born population, including many undocumented people. 

Many of us have identities that vary wildly depending on our exact roots and our histories, cultures, governments, and experiences with colonialism and imperialism — the experience of Pacific Islanders is different from those of Central Asians, which are also different from those of South Asians, West Asians, East Asians, and Southeast Asians. The intertwining and complicated histories between many of these countries adds further complexity, and there are conflicting ideas (even within same ethnic groups, and certainly between groups) as to whether they want to even be included in “Asian” or “AAPI.” 

Finally, the experiences of AAPI are further differentiated by when we or our family members migrated to the United States, the conditions that brought us here, and our intersecting identities (e.g., gender, sexual orientation, class background, disability, skin color, body type, and additional race/ethnicities).

In the workplace, this diversity within the AAPI community often goes completely unrecognized. When this treatment of AAPI people as a monolith is compounded by the model minority myth that assumes Asians are doing “fine,” AAPIs often get excluded or forgotten in DEI strategies and representation goals. Simply because some subgroups within AAPI are not the “most” underrepresented, the entire group — many of whom face significant barriers to equity and inclusion — is overlooked. 

What Can You Do?

Quite simply, include us in your DEI strategy! We are your colleagues, customers, consumers, patients, vendors, and your community members, and are underserved by existing organizational processes and norms that often center around the values of white employees, at the expense of people of color

As organizations begin reckoning with the pervasiveness of racial inequity in the U.S. and evolve their DEI strategies, it is important to remember to include AAPIs in that work and create solutions tailored to the specific manifestations of racism and inequity that emerge for this (very diverse) group.  

Tip 1: Do some research: Read, listen, engage, and learn. 

Google is your friend! Start with some simple search strings like “AAPI activism,” “AAPI diversity,” “AAPI issues,” or “AAPI inclusion,” and then search specifically to learn about the histories, successes, and issues impacting more marginalized groups within AAPI, like Pacific Islanders and Hmong. Take time to understand the nuanced experiences of who may or may not want to be included within the AAPI group and under what circumstances.

If your organization is hosting speakers or any AAPI-focused events throughout the year, attend them! Engage with the social media channels and work of AAPI DEI leaders and consultants like Lily Zheng, Kay Fabella, Michelle Kim, Ruchika Tulshyan.

You can also visit Paradigm’s list of suggestions on what to watch, listen to, or read; NBC’s overview of how to support the AAPI community; or Flexport’s collection of anti-Asian violence resources. 

Tip 2: Don’t assume everyone has the same experience. Think through the different needs of the AAPI folks within your sphere of influence.

As discussed, the different groups under the umbrella of AAPI are not interchangeable. Be aware of what is happening in the U.S. and the world, especially regarding events or circumstances that impact cultures that your employees are close to, and act accordingly. For example, the devastating impact of COVID in India in recent weeks has taken a toll on many who have friends and family in India. If you have employees with ties to India asking for flexibility, give it to them. 

(Quick note: remember that while we want to be aware of patterns of experiences for groups, we can never assume that everyone within the AAPI umbrella — or even everyone from a specific culture — are equally affected. Remember that individual experiences always differ, as it does for any group).

Tip 3: Disaggregate AAPI data. 

For all the reasons we described above and more, it’s important to be able to parse out different experiences within “Asian.” One specific action you can take is to begin disaggregating your AAPI data in your HRIS system if it allows. By collecting more granular data, you can begin to understand the diversity of AAPI employees in your organization. Depending on your organization’s size, you can start by splitting the “Asian” category into a few subgroups (e.g., “South Asian,” “Southeast Asian,” “East Asian”) in addition to making sure to have a “Pacific Islander” category. For more information on why and how you can disaggregate your data, see the California Law Review’s case for disaggregating data and AAPI Data’s website. For one example of how one company reports disaggregated data, see Slack’s DEI report

Beyond your employee representation, some survey platforms include disaggregated racial/ethnic breakdowns — check your employee engagement and DEI surveys if you’re not sure. If the sizes of your populations are small, keep to the larger AAPI category, but try to understand any nuances through qualitative feedback and asking AAPI employees how you can better serve the diverse group. You can also get feedback from your employees (e.g., through your employee resource group) to see what would feel helpful to them, in terms of how their representation is tracked and reported. 

And finally, don’t disaggregate your data just to disaggregate it. Make sure to actually use and leverage this data if you decide to collect it, and always communicate clearly about why and how employees’ data will be used. For example, if you see that your East Asian employees are reporting similar engagement survey results around fairness of opportunities and psychological safety when compared to White employees, but there’s a clear trend of more negative experiences around those themes for Southeast Asian employees, dive further into those findings and try to understand the pain points leading to those different experiences. As another example, if you’re tracking disaggregated applicant data, you might be able to identify that one subgroup of AAPI employees is especially underrepresented in the applicant pool or experiencing significantly lower pass-through rates across the stages of your interview process. Once you identify those trends, you can hone in further to understand why those challenges exist and take a more tailored approach to closing the existing gaps.

Tip 4: Listen to your employees, and understand their experiences beyond the statistics.  

In addition to more “quantitative” data (such as survey data, employee representation, promotion rates, attrition rates, and compensation by disaggregated categories), take the time to also collect qualitative data. If your employees are willing to share, take time to really listen and hear the nuances of their experiences.

As a general rule, your DEI strategy for learning more about any group should never solely rely on your employees’ energy and efforts. However, employees (especially those in employee resource groups or affinity networks) have often already spent time and energy trying to raise awareness on DEI issues and experiences specific to their community. If this is the case in your organization, you have the opportunity to recognize and leverage their existing work!  Revisit any presentations or memos that your AAPI employee networks have shared with you, and authentically acknowledge the work being done (and, if relevant, the lack of attention your organization has paid to AAPI issues until now). If you aren’t yet plugged into your employee affinity group(s), ask the leaders of your organization’s AAPI affinity group(s) if they’d be willing to share what they feel your organization has been doing well, what needs improvement, and how they want to be supported (e.g., resources, visibility, time with senior leadership). As always, make sure you are meaningfully recognizing the work that your employees are doing (e.g., a stipend or hours dedicated as part of their role).

There are many more steps leaders and organizations can take to better understand the diversity within the AAPI community! We hope the tips provided in this first blog post help inspire initial action. More to come! Stay tuned. 

May 17, 2021

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