Lots of Asians in Tech, But not in Management

Asians, especially Asian women, are among the least likely to be promoted to management positions.


When Silicon Valley talks about diversity, about boosting underrepresented groups, they’re not talking about Asians.

Asian tech workers are lumped in with white employees—categorized as overrepresented, a group that companies don’t need to worry about.

That perception has for years overshadowed the reality faced by these tech workers, according to a study released this week: Asians, especially Asian women, are among the least likely to be promoted to management positions.

And that is just the beginning of Silicon Valley’s continuing problem with race, according to an analysis of federal employment data from 2007 to 2015 by the Ascend Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for Asian representation in business.

Representation among black and Hispanic workers declined over that time period, the study found. And though the gender gap is closing for white women, who have increased their representation in leadership positions by 17 percent over the nine-year period, women of color lagged far behind.

“It’s pretty startling that over the last nine years, not much has changed as far as upward mobility for minority groups,” said Denise Peck, one of the study’s authors and a former vice president at Cisco.

Part of the problem, the researchers said, is that while executives may examine data about their workforce, they may not scrutinize the problems that certain groups — like Asian and Hispanic women — have with getting promoted.

“Asians are the only race underrepresented in middle management — that really surprised me,” said Buck Gee, who is also a former Cisco vice president and co-author of the study. “And that’s a trend that is consistent over time, not just a one-year aberration.”

“You see a lot of Asians all over campus, and you don’t get a sense there’s a problem by just the sheer number,” Peck added. “But when you look at the data, you see that, my goodness, they’re the most likely to be hired but the least likely to be promoted to mid-level or senior management.”

It’s not just tech leaders who assume Asians are overrepresented in tech.

Even Steve Bannon, the White House’s former chief strategist and close adviser to President Trump, suggested in a 2015 interview with Trump that there were too many Asian CEOs in Silicon Valley.

Bannon, in the interview resurfaced last year by the Washington Post, made reference to the idea that foreign-born students should return to their countries after completing school in the United States, rather than applying for jobs here and working, say, at a tech company.

“When two-thirds of, three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think …” he said, trailing off. “A country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.”

Two of the most prominent CEOs in technology are, in fact, Asian: Google’s Sundar Pichai and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella are originally from India.

According to Ascend’s analysis of data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Asian men make up about 32 percent of the tech workforce — an increase of about 9.5 percent since 2007 — and about 20 percent of tech executives.

Meanwhile, Asian women, who make up about 15 percent of tech’s workforce, hold only about 5 percent of leadership positions, according to Ascend.

White women, though only 11.5 percent of the tech workforce, make up 13.4 percent of tech leadership, the study found.

Looking at the patterns of white women and men versus those of racial minorities led the authors of the study to conclude that race, rather than gender, appeared to be a bigger hindrance for tech workers seeking a promotion.

“What you start to see when you really study this data is there are specific problem areas with specific demographic groups,” Peck said. “With black women, you have a problem of recruitment and retention. With white women, it’s mostly recruitment. With Asians, you have a problem of promotion. I think what we need tech companies to start doing is to look at their diversity data in a very fine-grained way.”

Though the Asian diaspora is wide and culturally varied, Gee and Peck said the trends among Asians in their study held true for East Asians and South Asians alike. Because they relied on a data set collected by the U.S. government, they were unable to break down the numbers into specific ethnic groups, such as Chinese, Indian or Filipino.

Asians encounter a clash between their cultural norms and behavior expected of tech leaders, said Kim Marcelis, Cisco’s vice president of operations and a former adviser to the company’s Asian employee resource group.

“I think a lot of Asians believe that if they keep their head down and do the work, their work will speak for itself,” she said. “It’s a cultural thing that many of us are brought up believing.”

Potential leaders, she said, are expected to network and assert themselves.

Marcelis said when she was younger, she would call her manager with weekly voice mail updates of what she was working on and how she was doing. It was perfect for her, a self-described introvert: She could call and talk to a machine, delete and re-record as many times as she wanted, and still get across the message that she was doing good work and convey confidence.

Despite companies’ growing moves to report diversity data and spend millions of dollars on recruiting and retention, the representation of other minority groups, like black and Hispanic tech workers, started at low levels and worsened over the period studied.

Black women, the least represented group in tech, make up less than half a percent of executives, the study found.

The researchers based their findings on the responses of nearly 261,000 workers at companies including Apple, Facebook, Cisco, Twitter, Intel, Hewlett-Packard and Yelp.

— San Francisco Chronicle

© The New York Times 2017

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