Tech’s difficult history with Asian workers


According to MarketWatch, Asians make up the majority of tech workers in Silicon Valley at around 57%. However, they are severely underrepresented at the management level: 27% at Apple, 40% at Google and 25% at Facebook.

The big picture: Many tech executives like to think that the field is “after the race” and often refer to the handful of Asians, mostly East and South Asian men, who hold prominent leadership positions. The reality is far more complicated.

Why it matters: Industry rhetoric about Asians has long masked the disparities affecting black and Latin American workers. It also overlooks Asians’ precarious place in the system – and the long history of technology’s anti-Asian bias.

Game Status: According to an analysis of national workforce data published in Harvard Business Review in 2017, Asian-American employees are the most unlikely racial group to be promoted to management in Asia.

  • “All of this has to do with stereotypes of what leaders look like and … a lot of assumptions about Asian characteristics,” said Ellen Pao, who made national news in 2012 when she filed a sex discrimination lawsuit against Silicon Valley Venture capital company Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Yeong Cheng, a software management manager and founder of the Denver Asian Collective, said they had struggled to get where they are in their careers.

  • After Cheng unofficially led a full-time team at a computer software company for six months, Cheng said they were denied manager promotion even though the six white men who started at Cheng were all promoted to management.
  • Even in recent years in leadership positions, they say they are often infantilized. “I’ve been questioned by default until I’ve proven beyond a very high bar that I not only know what I’m talking about, but that I am the expert in the room,” they told Axios.

Every working level is saturated with these prejudices, be it due to accents or names of the Asians, cultural differences, a perception of their foreignness or racial stereotypes that classify Asians as submissive or robotic.

  • Asian women face additional barriers and burdens, which is reflected in the spate of gender and racial discrimination lawsuits in the technology industry sparked by Paos.
  • Case study: A former employer once told Pao that he only wanted Asian women to work for him because they “work so hard and don’t complain,” she said.

The history: Asian Americans have been a good part of the tech industry since the 1960s when the US repealed laws that largely banned Asians from entering the country.

  • At the time, the government prioritized entry for Asians with educational backgrounds or professional specializations – mostly from East and South Asia.
  • However, their status in America was largely conditional – depending on the work they produced and their willingness to assimilate.
  • They were also easily exploited by white employers who viewed them as “good workhorses” but not as leaders, as engineer David K. Lam told the New York Times in a 1992 article.

The big picture: According to the racial triangulation theory of scholar Claire Kim, America’s racial hierarchy ranks Asians between superior and inferior, but solidly describes them as alien.

  • That strangeness is a constant shadow, but for decades, Asian Americans have heard the same refrain: “You should be grateful.”
  • Industry discussions about diversity have tended to exclude their prominent Asian working population, which means they won’t face any adversity as they appear to have one foot in the door, said Pawan Dhingra, president of the Association for Asian American Studies.
  • However, according to a 2018 report by the Pew Research Center, 44% of Asians in STEM occupations report discrimination in the workplace.

What you say: “There’s a huge problem with pitting groups against each other instead of trying to fix the system,” Pao told Axios.

  • When Cheng tried to raise concerns about anti-Asian racism, her colleagues told them that they were “distracting” [Black Lives Matter]. ”

The bottom line: Pao, who started the Include nonprofit project to help companies improve their equity ratios, said that with the rise in hatred of Asians and tensions between the US and China, we are “at this unique point, where we have the opportunity to suppress racism or let it fester further. “

  • “We’re definitely making people better understand what’s going on,” she added. “The hard part is getting people to actually act on it.”

Editor’s Note: We have updated Yeong Cheng’s identification in this story.


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