When it comes to Silicon Valley, Asians are an overrepresented population in the workforce. Even among the tech industry’s most valuable companies, two of the more visible CEOs, Google’s Sundar Pichai, and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, are both Indian. Which is why it might come as a surprise that Asians—especially Asian women—are among the least likely to be promoted into leadership positions, according to a new study from Ascend Leadership, a nonprofit group for Asian professionals.
“That’s why we call the report the Illusion of Asian Success,” says Buck Gee, a former vice president at Cisco and one of the authors of the study. The natural assumption is that if Asians are more prevalent in the workforce, they will be more prevalent at the top. But “when you look at the hard data, that is a fallacy,” says Gee.
Gee and his co-author Denise Peck, also a former vice president at Cisco, studied a data set of 184,776 employees, 63,299 managers, and 12,856 executives, information collected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission between 2007 and 2015 from technology companies in the San Francisco and San Jose areas, a group that covers Apple, Facebook, Cisco, Twitter, Intel, HP, and Yelp. (The EEOC has this data because Title VII of the Civil Rights act requires private employers with more than 100 employees to submit confidential reports.) The study focuses only on the promotion within an organization, not hiring or retention. The authors measured leadership representation by comparing the percentage of entry-level “professionals” from a particular group, say Asian women, the percentage of “executives,” according to job categories in the EEOC reports, which also includes “administrative support” and “service workers.”
After sifting through the data, the authors concluded that race is a stronger impediment than gender when it comes to climbing Silicon Valley’s corporate ladder. Representation of white women in leadership roles improved by 17 percent between 2007 and 2015, whereas for all other minority groups, the percentage went down.
“White women are continuing to benefit from the system of racism, even when they are also experiencing discrimination because of their gender,” says Hannah Lucal, associate director at Open Mic, a nonprofit group that works with socially conscious investors. Lucal says that companies should approach the issue with an understanding that sexism and racism are structural issues that always operating in tandem, rather than interpret studies like this as a hierarchy of discrimination.
Ascend’s findings revealed unique diversity issues for each segment. For black women, the data pointed to potential hiring and retention issues. There was a 13 percent decline from 2007 and 2015 in the number of black women who even entered the tech workforce. The number of Hispanic women, on the other hand, declined slightly at the professional and managerial level, but they had the worst leadership representation after Asian women.
Gee says this study came about because an earlier report in 2015 that used EEOC data from companies like Google and LinkedIn ended up on the desk of Jenny Yang, the outgoing commissioner of the EEOC. Yang asked if the lower proportion of Asian executives was the result of discrimination and might be applicable for lawsuits, Gee says. He told her no. “We have never seen any overt discrimination or policies that create these disparities,” Gee explains. Rather, after conversations with 60 or 70 Asian executives, the authors say they noticed a pattern of cultural traits among some Asians that did not align with leadership expectations in Western corporate culture, such as risk-taking and being confrontational.
Gee gave the example of an executive who started the first Asian affinity group at Intel decades ago. He noticed that Chinese engineers were unhappy and not succeeding in Intel’s culture of “constructive conflict,” which involved heated debates during meetings.
“Some people call it unconscious bias. For Asians, it’s actually a very conscious bias,” says Gee. Studies show that assumptions that Asians are good at math, science, and technology make it easier for them to get in the door, but the same bias is reversed when it comes to leadership roles, he says.
Department of Labor lawsuits have touched on differential treatment at tech companies based on race. In April, Palantir paid a $1.7 million settlement after a Department of Labor investigation found discrimination against Asian employees. There is an ongoing investigation into Oracle for favoring Asian workers in recruiting and hiring for technical roles, but paying white men more than women, black, and Asian employees.
Several advocates and investors have pressured publically-traded companies like Apple and Alphabet to better diversify their ranks. In 2015, Jesse Jackson’s group Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a nonprofit, began demanding diversity numbers from tech companies, including showing up at shareholder meetings for Facebook and Amazon. In a statement to WIRED, Jackson said, “Tech companies over and over have said they ‘must do better’ but the fact remains that blacks and Latinos still make up just 2 to 3 percent of the tech workforce, even less representation in the C-suites and board rooms.”
Zevin Asset Management, a firm with more than $600 million under management, has made a shareholder proposal to increase diversity at Alphabet. Pat Miguel Tomaino, an associate director of socially responsible investing at Zevin, has long been concerned about the lack of diversity in the tech sector becoming a material issue that affects hiring talented people and representing the needs of their consumers. Tech has been talking a good game “and then falling on their faces when it comes time to train, properly incentive, and promote those talented people,” costing the company time and money for preventable reasons, he says.
Lucal says that the conversation about diversity in the tech industry needs to move beyond just the numbers and examine who has power in terms of influence and decision-making. Otherwise, efforts to improve diversity are limited to who is in the room, and not who is at the table. Studies like this show it’s time for a new table, she says.