Op-Ed: Despite what you might have heard, Asian American CEOs are the exception, not the norm

Google CEO Sundar Pichai announces a new initiative in Pittsburgh, Pa. on Oct. 12.
(Keith Srakocic / Associated Press)

Google, Microsoft, Adobe and Blackberry are leading technology companies with something notable in common: They are all run by Asian American CEOs. The visibility of Asian American leaders in tech companies has not gone unnoticed. Former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon infamously complained that “two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or Asia.” Perception is far from reality, however. A new report by Ascend shows that Asian American CEOs are the exception, not the norm.

Rather than being overrepresented in Silicon Valley, Asian American executives are severely underrepresented. They may be hired in large numbers by tech companies, but Asian Americans are the group least likely to be promoted into managerial and executive ranks. Whites are twice as likely as Asians to hold executive positions. And while white women have made gains over the past decade as more have broken through the glass ceiling, Asian women have not experienced the same. In fact, they are among those least likely to be promoted, and their gap with white men has worsened over the last decade. So, while Asian Americans can get through Silicon Valley’s doors, they are unable to move up the ladders.

What might account for this bamboo ceiling? One obvious explanation is racial discrimination, whether based on explicit or implicit bias about who“fits in among corporate leaders. Employers often counter that their judgments about leadership potential are based on evidence, not stereotypes. Asian American employees, they suggest, tend to rank high in hard skills such as technical competence, but low in soft skills such as the ability to communicate and work well with others. This perceived deficit in soft skills may be particularly acute for first-generation Asian immigrants, who may have lower levels of English proficiency, speak with a foreign accent or lack deep familiarity with American cultural traditions.


Only 51% of Asian American employees indicated that they had led a meeting at work, compared with 68% of white employees.

Recent data reveal something else at play: Asian Americans aren’t provided basic opportunities to demonstrate their soft skills and hone their leadership abilities, and this is true not only for first-generation immigrants but also for those Asians born in the United States. In the 2016 National Asian American Survey, we included several questions about leadership experiences at work and elsewhere. The survey was based on a nationally representative sample of Asian Americans, with comparable samples of whites, African Americans, Latinos and Pacific Islanders.

Our survey showed that an identical proportion of Asian American and white employees said that they serve in a supervisorial capacity (40%), and Asian American women actually were slightly more likely than white women to serve in such a capacity (35% versus 32%). Significant differences emerged, however, when we asked employees whether they ever planned or chaired a meeting at work.

Running a meeting at work is a relatively low bar for providing employees with leadership experience — a prerequisite for an executive position — but our data suggest that Asian Americans are significantly disadvantaged, even in this simple endeavor. Only 51% of Asian American employees indicated that they had led a meeting at work, compared with 68% of white employees. Results for African American and Latino employees were on par with Asian Americans, at 53% and 50%, respectively. The situation was worse among women, with Asian American women 25 percentage points less likely to chair a meeting when compared with white women. Racial gaps persisted even among those in supervisory roles, with Asian American supervisors 18 percentage points less likely to chair a meeting than white supervisors.

What can be done to address these disparities? One obvious, simple and costless solution is for employers to make sure that everyone who’s qualified gets an opportunity to lead a business meeting. (Asian American employees also can show greater initiative by explicitly requesting such opportunities.) Mentoring also makes a difference: Research shows that when white men in leadership positions mentor minority employees, the latter are more likely to advance.


Of course, larger problems with implicit bias and explicit discrimination may await those who move on to higher-level leadership experiences, as the case of Ellen Pao recently revealed. And the remedies for those higher-level problems may range from diversity training and inclusion programs to the threat of lawsuits and public shaming. Still, employers can do more to help Asian Americans break through the bamboo ceiling.

Karthick Ramakrishnan is associate dean of public policy at UC Riverside (@karthickr). Jennifer Lee is professor of sociology at Columbia University (@JLeeSoc). Together, they are writing a book on Asian American mobility and soft skills.

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