Femme Forward: Odds are stacked against Asian-Americans in PR

Senior executives should reframe how they define leadership traits to encourage more diversity in the industry, says Asian-American PR pro Moon Vitiello.

Femme Forward: Odds are stacked against Asian-Americans in PR

In my experience, you don’t see many Asian-Americans in the public relations field.

Like many in the industry, I started at the bottom and worked my way up through the grind and with grit.

Mine is a typical story. Yet, despite all my qualifications, the odds were often stacked against me.

We’re long overdue for an open and honest conversation in the PR industry about the elephant in the room. Though there are large numbers of women in the PR profession, the picture is quite stark in terms of the lack of Asians, African-Americans, Latinos and other diverse groups in America.

As you look at the corporate ladder, the rungs for advancement begin to disappear for a person of color the higher you go. How many account directors do you know who look like me? How about your colleague with a slight Korean accent? Is she leading your new business pitches? Likely not.

For those of us who do choose this industry, we typically get our foot in the door with impressive degrees and résumés stacked with entry to mid-level experience. Unfortunately, the progress often stalls from there.

We produce excellent work, but many of us are not identified and/or preened as future managers. Rarely are we given moments in the spotlight to demonstrate the soft skills we possess beyond the hard.

Growing up Asian-American, assimilation was a survival tactic, a means of advancement.

As a child, my mother forbade my sister and I from speaking Korean at home. My mom made us baloney sandwiches for lunch.

We went to private schools and joined the track and swim teams. My sister and I both went to college. She became a cardiologist and I owned a successful PR company. Model minority indeed.

But this perceived proximity to whiteness hasn't completely shielded us from discrimination, and has only made it easier for people to ignore the very real struggles of AAPI professionals.

A lot of Asians struggle every day with a persistent sense of otherness. No matter what we do, how successful we are, what friends we make, we don’t belong. We’re foreign. We’re not American.

Whether I’m at a social gathering or a networking event, I’m consistently asked by strangers “Where are you from?” or “Do you speak Korean?” There’s something objectionable in the substance of these questions, an implicit assertion that people with Asian features, or descendants of Asian immigrants, are somehow less American.

It’s hard to adequately describe, substantiate or rationalize a clear solution, but I do know it starts with recognition and understanding.

A very real possibility exists that minorities are not entering PR because the profession has failed to explain the viability of this career option. I have risen on the corporate ladder because people not only noticed me, but also saw me and recognized my individual potential, despite perception and stereotypes I sometimes fulfilled.

I am here because I took advantage of all opportunities, big or small, presented to me. To be clear, it took a handful of good and invested people who nurtured me and brought me into the fold.

At the end of the day, that’s the real challenge: finding role models and peers who invest in you.

The biggest challenge today is to challenge agencies to reframe how we define leadership traits. Without Asian-American representation in management positions, younger professionals may have a harder time finding mentors and sponsors to support their career advancement.

We need to recognize the problem and realize there are things we can do about it. Only then can we make development opportunities more available, accessible and attractive to Asian-Americans.

Moon Vitiello is managing director at WeRaise PR.

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