Asians Are Kicking Ass in Silicon Valley, So Why Are So Few in the Boardroom?


Asians are far less likely than whites to land tech leadership roles. Ascend

When people talk about the need for diversity in tech, they aren’t usually talking about Asian Americans. Though they make up less than 6 percent of the overall workforce, Asians account for a whopping 17 percent of all tech-sector workers and a far higher percentage of engineers. (At Twitter, for instance, people of Asian descent hold 34 percent of the technical positions.) By focusing exclusively on the obvious need for more blacks, Latinos, and women in Silicon Valley, however, diversity advocates have missed a key point: Asian workers are far less likely than whites to end up in the leadership ranks.

White workers were 2.5 times more likely than Asian workers to end up in leadership roles, the study found.

According to a study that the nonprofit Ascend Foundation released last week, white workers are two and a half times more likely then their Asian counterparts to serve as executives at major tech companies. The study, which examined the workforce demographics at Google, HP, Intel, LinkedIn, and Yahoo, found that the “Asian effect” was nearly four times greater than gender as a glass-ceiling factor. (The authors also pointed to leadership gaps for blacks and Latinos, but dismissed those results as less statistically significant, given how few blacks and Latinos are employed by the industry overall.)

The finding for Asians is notable, among other reasons, for what it says about the case of Ellen Pao, whose unsuccessful sex discrimination case against her former employer, the VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, obsessed the technology press. Though the particulars of her case are unique, the study suggests that Pao, as an Asian American, was 40 percent as likely as a white woman and 28 percent as likely as a white man to land in a leadership role.

“Asians are generally stereotyped as being nonconfrontational or timid,” says Pandora’s Lisa Lee, “so they may be overlooked.”

The “bamboo ceiling,” as author Jane Hyun terms it, is hardly limited to technology, but its existence in a sector where Asians are thriving illustrates the intractability of the problem. Hyun blames the workers for the promotion gap, arguing that they need to take a page from Sheryl Sandberg and “lean in.” But other observers, such as Lisa Lee, a senior diversity manager for Pandora, point to the need for companies to curb their preconceptions about who will make a good leader.

“Asians and Asian Americans are generally stereotyped as being nonconfrontational or timid,” says Lee, the former publisher of Hyphen, a magazine about the Asian-American experience. “So they may be overlooked for leadership roles because they’re not thought of as leadership material. This has nothing to do with their actual skills or abilities. Part of the solution is companies making a concerted effort to address bias in the promotion process to ensure it’s more fair for everyone.”

There may be additional factors at play. Mario Lugay, a program officer at the Kapor Center for Social Impact, which advocates for diversity in tech, makes the point that non-Asians are quick to lump Asians into one category, whereas Silicon Valley, for example, includes economically disadvantaged Southeast Asians and foreign-born workers from a variety of cultures. “My hope is that we strive to research and address the nuances of underrepresentation,” says Lugay, who is Filipino. “That includes the diversity within the category of Asian, as well as Asian Americans.”

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. It's our first time asking for an outpouring of support since screams of FAKE NEWS and so much of what Trump stood for made everything we do so visceral. Like most newsrooms, we face incredibly hard budget realities, and it's unnerving needing to raise big money when traffic is down.

So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate