meditations on visibility
A couple of years ago, I read two articles that got me thinking about two things: visibility and rice.
The first article followed Tristan Walker, Founder/CEO of Walker & Co., whose mission is to “build the world’s most consumer-centric … company” and “make health and beauty simpler for people of color.” Walker, who attended Stanford, interned at Twitter, and was an entrepreneur-in-residence at Andreessen Horowitz, is now 32 years old and one of the few black CEOs in Silicon Valley. Both CNN and Time have praised him for his success in breaking down barriers for people of color in tech, and Fast Company calls him “the Visible Man”, someone who has taken one large step for minorities and paved the way into the C-suite.
It’s well-known that Silicon Valley has a diversity problem. The statistics alone are staggering:
And in an environment in which Asians occupy 37% of the workforce, it’s surprising that Asian CEOs make up only 1.6% of the Fortune 500 companies. Which prompted me to think of the second article, about the difference between wheat and rice.
Which two of these belong together? A bus, a train, and train tracks. Western culture is known for being individualistic, whereas Asian cultures are typically more interdependent. This is reflected, interestingly, in their choice of staple crop. Because rice is a high-maintenance crop that requires complex and intersecting irrigation systems, communities of rice farmers need to “work together in tightly integrated ways.” Wheat has none of these restrictions and requires significantly less work, and “substantially less coordination and cooperation. And historically, Europeans have been wheat farmers and Asians have grown rice.” It’s not just a lifestyle choice; it’s an entirely different framework for thinking. And that’s why Western or European people tend to pick the bus and the train: because they belong in the same category. Asians generally pick the train and the tracks, because they work together.
Asian-Americans have earned the nickname “the model minority,” meaning that they are in a higher socioeconomic bracket than other minority groups. They are known for being “intelligent” and “hard-working,” but this stereotype often hurts them in workplace culture, as they are perceived to lack assertiveness, interpersonal skills, and creativity — in short, all of the qualities that generally typify success in Western management. This is known as the “bamboo ceiling”: despite their generally high academic achievement, Asian-Americans have the lowest chance of rising to executive-level positions within companies.
One problem is that such discrepancies are rooted in Asian cultural teachings, which subscribe to the idea of a meritocracy: work hard, and you will be rewarded. But this presents an inherent disadvantage when trying to break into executive roles, positions that require soft as well as hard skills, and emotional intelligence as well as competence. These are radically different systematic challenges than those faced by other minority groups, like blacks. We don’t have to worry about appearing “too threatening” or being shot on the street, and we are rarely assumed to be uneducated. But somehow, we lack the same visibility they do. And while this is by no means the worst diversity-related problem, it is a frequently-ignored one: while companies make an effort to increase racial diversity in terms of black and Latino representation, Asians are often excluded from such efforts.
I struggled with the angle on this piece for literal months, trying to figure out why I cared so much about this. But the personal is political. Representation matters. Visibility matters. When there are no people that look like you in the C-suite, it subconsciously affects your idea of what a leader looks like. I was lucky to serve as president of Alpha Kappa Psi in my last year at UCSB, but one of the things that surprised people most (and one of the things I was most proud of) was that I was an English major. I like to think that it conveyed to people that even if you weren’t an Econ/Accounting or Communications major (and are a 5'2" Asian girl), that you could still be in an executive position in the fraternity.
And that’s one reason it’s important for me to be very vocal about social issues. As an Asian-American female, the number of preconceptions I contend with on a daily basis is still astounding to me. I am consistently placed into boxes because of my appearance that dictate how I should think, act, and feel — boxes that I have to make a conscious effort to break out of.
And the idea of a bamboo ceiling (along with the highly-controversial idea of a glass ceiling) is disheartening. It reveals, painfully, exactly how frequently our judgment is based on cognitive ease facilitated by implicit and unconscious bias. It’s an indication that the problem itself is fundamental, the result of a working culture whose ideals are simply too rigid and outdated, and don’t accommodate different leadership styles regardless of how “colorblind” it claims to be. It goes beyond equal opportunity laws and straight to the incredibly personal nuances of prejudice. It necessitates the question, “Am I part of the problem?” But I think the first step is not to turn to programs that encourage forced diversity (which have the potential to devolve into affirmative action), but to proactively seek out these questions and the resulting conversations, to be aware of our biases and strive to counteract them. While it may not seem like a big deal to assume that an Asian is smart or hard-working, it unfairly places them into a box, while simultaneously giving them an unwarranted advantage over other qualified minorities.
In the case of Tristan Walker, visibility wasn’t necessarily about being at the top; it was about putting African-Americans on the map. And this post is not meant to draw attention away from the fact that minority groups like blacks and Latinos are still monumentally excluded in STEM fields, but rather to highlight a little-known factor in the limitations to Asian-American leadership and success in the workplace. America is missing out on a lot of great talent by continuously upholding its narrow standards even while the world is rapidly progressing, and we confine ourselves to a very limited worldview by not encouraging more cultural, racial, and ideological diversity. Silicon Valley is a start. It’s already proven that the traditional business model is flexible; now it’s time for its leadership and culture to reflect the same.
And of course, I like to write these things so I can discuss them with people much smarter than I am, so as always let me know what you think!
Originally published at www.jayemsey.com.