Asian Americans face glass ceiling at tech firms, report says

Google said it launched a $150-million diversity initiative that includes funding leadership programs.

Google said it launched a $150-million diversity initiative that includes funding leadership programs.

(Paul Sakuma / Associated Press)
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SAN FRANCISCO — As a student, Janet Wong thought she knew what it would take to have a successful career. A third-generation Chinese American, her family had drilled into her what they said were the keys to success: Stay in school, make good grades, work hard and the rest will come.

Wong didn’t know it at the time, but her family’s advice might not always be enough to get to the top.

“They never taught me the soft skills or leadership skills,” said Wong, who went on to become an accountant and partner at KPMG in Silicon Valley. “So when I started my career, I thought all I had to do was keep my head down, do good work, and I’d be acknowledged and have a successful career.”


Wong, now retired, says this mind-set may be preventing more Asian Americans from rising to leadership positions.

A new report released Wednesday finds that although Asian Americans may be well represented in the high-tech San Francisco Bay Area, they are severely underrepresented at the executive levels.

Called “Hidden in Plain Sight: Asian American Leaders in Silicon Valley,” the report is based on an analysis of 2013 employment data filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by five major Silicon Valley tech companies: Google, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, LinkedIn and Yahoo.

The report is the latest blast at Silicon Valley’s record in hiring, retaining and promoting women and ethnic minorities within tech and venture capital firms.

Last year a study by the Center for Talent Innovation found that half of women in tech will leave the industry at some point in their careers because of hostile work environments. In March, former venture capitalist Ellen Pao lost a high-profile gender discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in which she alleged that the firm failed to promote her because of her gender. More gender and racial discrimination lawsuits against Twitter and Facebook have since emerged.

The report Wednesday came from the Ascend Foundation, a nonprofit Asian membership organization for business professionals based in New York. Wong is an executive advisor to the group.


Asian Americans comprise roughly a third of the workforce at Google, Yahoo and Facebook, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics figures. That far outpaces blacks and Latinos, who combined made up only single digits at those companies.

But while Asian Americans have strength in overall numbers, they are severely underrepresented at the executive levels, according to the new report. The EEOC defines “Asian” as anyone with origins from the Far East, Southeast Asia or the Indian Subcontinent.

Using the data, the report’s coauthors — including Wong — developed the Executive Parity Index, a tool that compares the numbers of Asians in management with their overall numbers at the companies.

Ethnicity ended up being more significant than gender in getting ahead, said report coauthor Buck Gee, a former vice president and general manager of Cisco Systems’ data center business unit.

“White men had a 42% advantage over white women” when it came to being promoted to the executive level, Gee said. That was expected, he said, but it paled in comparison to the 260% advantage they have to Asian women. “So that was a big surprise.”

The report also found that whites have a 150% advantage over Asian Americans, regardless of gender.


“It gives us an idea of what the dynamics of the pipeline are like,” Gee said, and demonstrates what coauthors called an invisible “glass ceiling” blocking promotions.

The coauthors attributed the glass ceiling to “gaps in expectations” and implicit biases.

The gaps are a problem that Wong believes is prevalent among Asian Americans, especially those who have grown up within a culture that promotes keeping one’s head down and working hard.

According to Wong, company-provided training programs can go a long way in helping Asian American workers reach their leadership potential.

The report did not measure how much of the glass ceiling was due to the lack of soft skills — such as being risk averse, lacking vision or having poor relationship-building skills — and how much was a result of unconscious biases. The coauthors said the latter is an important factor that companies need to address.

Gee pointed to implicit biases such as the belief that Asians might be good engineers but poor leaders. But it goes further than that.

Silicon Valley companies say they are making strides to improve the hiring and promotion records.


Google, when asked how it planned to address diversity, pointed to its recently launched $150-million diversity initiative, which includes funding leadership programs and training to overcome unconscious bias.

LinkedIn, meanwhile, said it has invested in programs that have resulted in an increase in Asians in leadership positions, and Intel said it has created a $300-million diversity in technology fund. Yahoo directed The Times to a blog post containing its 2014 diversity numbers. Hewlett-Packard did not respond.

Despite those efforts, minorities continue to face difficulties in tech. And studies show that Asian American women in particular are subject to unique biases.

In a separate study published last year by UC Hastings College of the Law titled “Double Jeopardy,” the authors examined gender bias against women of color in science.

The study found that on top of the biases women already face in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, Asian women experience the double whammy of being negatively stereotyped and facing workplace pressures to fulfill traditionally feminine roles.

“All women walk this tightrope,” said Joan C. Williams, a professor at UC Hastings. “Asian women experience sharply higher levels of pressure to behave in feminine ways, and they experience higher levels of pushback if they don’t.”


Twitter: @traceylien