How Asian Women figure in Tech

It was recently announced Ellen Pao is going to publish a memoir chronicling her highly publicized case of gender discrimination among other things and moreover, the toxic culture that pervades the tech industry.

Her book will be called “Reset” and deals with her experiences as a woman of color in Silicon Valley.

A fearless first-person account exposing the toxic culture that pervades the tech industry

That’s not all, Ellen Pao (and friends) have spearheaded an organization calledProject Include, which will be an open community that will work towards providing meaningful diversity and inclusion solutions and insights for tech companies.

As I read dozens of articles on LinkedIn and Medium each quarter on inclusiveness in Silicon valley and women in tech in general, I can’t help but get the feeling that this is still a very contemporary issue. After having written half a dozen articles on women in tech this year, and having received my share of trollish comments I have to wonder.

Asian Women in Tech are an Unheralded Minority

There’s more to the story in the women in tech debate, one thing nobody seems to mention is how it’s led in part by Asian women. This to me, is highly significant. Ellen Pao and Tracy Chou are to me at the epicenter of this movement.

The former CEO of Reddit and a software engineering star at Pinterest, Pao and Chou are interesting figures and represent GenX and Millennial women who believe in the same cause, who have the courage to stand up and create new momentum to implement more inclusiveness in tech.

You don’t need a diversity report card to be aware Silicon Valley’s big players (or Hollywood’s for that matter) aren’t exactly known for being equal opportunity institutions.

However in fact, Asians tend to do pretty well in tech fields (at least the Asian men in technical positions!).

  • Asians tend to have a higher preponderance of representation in the tech industry (Asian make up only 4.43–5% of the US population).

So Asian women in technology, are a pretty significant demographic and likely have to bear a lot of the brunt of the institutionalized sexism (and racism). Tracy Chao, even wrote a Medium blog article about it specifically.

The conversation about Asians in tech is confusing and complicated. So we just get left out, discounted as people of color… we don’t complain about the bamboo ceiling ,we stay quiet on issues of race.

A Millennial Issue still for Women & Work Culture

Maybe after Tracy Chou coming out about this and paying the price, more Asian women in tech specifically may be inspired and see the value of speaking out. We might even say Isis Anchalee’s coming out on this issue was in part accidental, though she is still disrupting our sea of homogeneity, since 2015.

Asian Women Face Epic Bamboo Ceilings in Leadership

And yet for Asians doing amazing in tech and especially engineering roles, is it the same in leadership?

  • Asian women have the lowest chance of holding a leadership position in major tech companies, only beaten out by African-American and Hispanic women respectively. Where do you suppose Asian Millennial women fair in moving up the ladder?

Gender and ethnicity are obviously equally important issues in the inclusion debate, but specifically, what if you are both? What if you belong to an ethnic minority and are a woman.

What if you are from a culture which collectivistic values inherently predisposes you to being less out-spoken (e.g. of Chinese heritage?). While this may be the last generation dominated by a white demographic, leadership in a Millennial era has to catch up to the current times and a more equal distribution.

Anil Dash, draws a surprising conclusion re the diversity state of tech jobs in California:

Asian American men who work in tech are benefiting from tech’s systematic exclusion of women and non-Asian minorities.

While I see this point, where does this leave Asian women? The unspoken for minority no longer, or a perfectionist demography who still lack the confidence to speak out for their rights? Though this does not mean that the tech industry is not improving (or is it?), it’s just a snapshot of a deeply elitist (patriarchal) institution that Millennials will have to continue to transform. Don’t forget, Pao lost her sex discrimination case.

Pao writes:

We want executives and managers to understand that diversity and inclusion is a company-wide effort driven from the top down to every employee: If a CEO isn’t invested in the success of D&I, these programs will not succeed…

In 2015 according to a report, Asians were 27.2% of professionals, but only 18.8% of managers, and only 13.9% of executives. We know from the 2nd visual above how women of Asian descent fair in leadership positions, 3rd to last of all segments.

The study found there is only one Asian female executive for every 287 Asian women professional jobs at five major tech companies featured. Pretty ridiculous numbers, and I really wonder if women of Asian descent are comfortable with this statistic.

Will Asian Women Continue to be the Silent Martyrs in the Millennial Tech Workforce?

Asian women then face the “double whammy” of racial and gender discrimination, so naturally one would hope that they in particular step-up to be leaders of the movement to correct the process, improve data transparency and spearhead changing the venture capital culture itself which fuels the entire machine. It does however take a critical number of advocates to truly influence social change of the magnitude we are talking about.

While women are underrepresented in tech companies, it’s clear from the state of Asian women in tech, they face more than a little bamboo ceiling in reaching management and executive positions. Since the opportunity for leadership is a huge issue for Millennials, are we somehow to assume this isn’t the case for female Millennials of Asian descent?

Why do we hear so little about Asian women in the public media and in gender discrimination cases before or since Ellen Pao case? It’s because Asians make uponly 5.3% of the total population, according to the Census Bureau, while at the 5 major tech companies featured, 80.3 percent of executives were white, according to Ascend’s analysis.

Many note that while Asians tend to excel in technology roles such as engineering, it’s possible that Asian culture under-emphasizes the importance of social sciences and “under appreciate the importance of personal and organizational leadership skills as requisites for higher management roles”, and although this may be true for some tech professionals of GenX, I believe for

Asian Millennial Women are a new Breed

Millennial women of Asian descent, this is certainly less true as a stereotype. There are many cases of south Asians and Indians in prominent positions of leadership, but why is this not the same with representatives of East Asian descent?

Ironically, immigrants have a super-star track record of being the founders of tech startups. There are now more Millennial women led startups than ever before. There are initiatives in VC to be more representative of startups with female representation.

However, for a lot of professionals such as Tracy Chou, young Millennial women in tech, it’s still a question of living with the discrimination or facing the consequences of speaking up.

In many Asian cultures, the emphasis of following tradition, respecting ones elders and following the status-quo obediently is highly indoctrinated, but at what price in the context of ultra competitive and individualistic Silicon Valley and North American tech culture? Will 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation Asian women working in tech break the mold?

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Jun 11, 2016
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What do you think of the place of Asian women in Tech? Can Asian Millennial women submit to continued exclusion of leadership and management positions or will they campaign for more equality?