Economy

How Asian American Women Are Forgotten In The Tech Diversity Debate

CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Risberg

Ellen Pao, Reddit CEO

Three Asian American women are putting prominent tech companies on the hot seat, charging they faced discrimination at work over their gender and race. The slew of lawsuits has shone a light on what appears to be a blind spot in the debates surrounding Silicon Valley’s diversity problem: how Asian women often fall through the cracks.

Last week former Facebook employee Chia Hong, who is Taiwanese, filed a lawsuit accusing the social media giant of gender and racial discrimination in the workplace. Hong says while she worked she was asked why she didn’t just stay home to take care of her children; ordered to organize parties and serve drinks to male colleagues; belittled or ignored at group meetings; and told she was not integrated into the team because she looks and talks differently. After Hong protested this treatment she claims the company retaliated by firing her in an “outrageous” manner and replacing her with a less qualified, less experienced man.

Facebook denied Chia Hong’s allegations, stressing that they work “extremely hard on issues related to diversity, gender and equality.” “In this case we have substantive disagreements on the facts, and we believe the record shows the employee was treated fairly,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

The same week, a former Twitter employee, Tina Huang, filed a lawsuit seeking class-action status, alleging gender discrimination in the company’s promotion practices. Huang, an Asian American software engineer, says she was overlooked for a promotion to Senior Staff Engineer without good reason, that the company’s promotion practices favor men, and that when she complained she was put on administrative leave and ultimately forced to leave.

Twitter also denied Tina Huang’s allegations in a statement to The Verge, saying, “Ms. Huang resigned voluntarily from Twitter, after our leadership tried to persuade her to stay. She was not fired. Twitter is deeply committed to a diverse and supportive workplace, and we believe the facts will show Ms. Huang was treated fairly.”

But research over the last decade doesn’t indicate fairness at all, rather strong evidence that Hong and Huang are not alone. In fact, their cases are brought at a time when widespread criticism of Silicon Valley and tech is growing for its disproportionately male-dominated, ethnically non-diverse workforce that often leads to hostile work environments for women and people of color.

Indeed it was just this Saturday a judge ruled that Ellen Pao, who is Chinese American, could sue her former employer Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins for possibly in excess of $16 million in punitive damages for gender discrimination and retaliation. Closing arguments in her case began Tuesday.

Pao’s lawyer has portrayed her client as a high-performing and promising venture capitalist whose success was obstructed by sexism. But the defense for Kleiner Perkins made a point to cast Pao as incompetent, arrogant and callous while also calling her “quiet” and unable to “hold a room.” “The defense’s arguments that Pao is both too combative and competitive yet not bold or outspoken enough,” Mashable noted, “can sometimes seem at odds with each other.”

Professor Joan C. Williams, author of a recent groundbreaking report on women of color in STEM, told ThinkProgress diametrically opposed images of Asian American women in the industry aren’t odd or uncommon at all but part of the very specific oppression Asian women face in STEM. Her research shows while all women are forced to navigate a tightrope between being seen as too feminine to be competent or too masculine to be likable, Asian American women walk the thinnest line of all.

“The tightrope is literally narrower for Asian American women,” Williams said. Asian American women are more likely than other women to report pressures to play traditionally feminine roles, such as office mother or dutiful daughter, but also backlash for stereotypically masculine behaviors such as being assertive and self-promoting. Williams said she clearly sees these same narratives being spun in Ellen Pao’s case, “There it is. Right there.”

It’s a common assumption that Asian women are doing fine, that they are well represented and have no difficulty excelling in STEM careers. The challenges faced in STEM by women of color at the intersection of gender/race, articulated as a “double bind,” are thought to apply less to Asian women than other women of color. But research suggests otherwise. Lilian S. Wu, Global University Programs Executive at IBM and past chair of the National Research Council’s Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine, is co-author of a report that focuses on Asian women in STEM careers. Wu said she was asked a few years back to speak at a National Science Foundation (NSF) workshop on women of color. “At the time I thought we have no problem because I see so many Asian faces around campuses and labs,” she said, “But when I looked at data from NSF, it told a different story, which really surprised me.”

The data in Wu’s report, written with research associate Wei Jing, showed an alarming scarcity of Asian women in upper management and leadership positions. In fact the advancement of Asian women in STEM careers lags behind not only men but also all other women. For instance, the percent of Asian women employed in universities and colleges who were tenured in 2008 was 20.6 percent compared with 40.5 percent of white women, 32.1 percent of black women and 30 percent of Hispanic women.

Among Fortune 500 companies, Asian women lag behind pretty much everyone, including not only whites and Asian men but also all other people of color, men and women. In 2010 for instance, Asian women represented 0.4 percent of Fortune 500 directors compared with the 0.7 percent who were Latina and 1.5 percent who were Black. Sociologist Michael Useem calls those who sit on three or more Fortune 500 boards “the innermost ring within the inner circle.” At the time Asian and Latina women comprised respectively only 0.5 and 0.6 percent of the innermost ring compared with 3.9 percent Latino men, 4.0 percent Black women, 12.1 percent Black men, 14.4 percent white women, and 64.2 percent white men.

According to a report by Catalyst, a nonprofit research and advisory organization working to advance women in business and the professions, women of Asian origin are one of the fastest growing groups of women in the U.S. labor force and yet their scant representation in influential leadership roles demonstrates profound racialized gender bias. Asian American women are most likely to have a graduate education but least likely to hold a position within three levels of the CEO or to have supervisory responsibilities.

All of this should demand greater attention, more targeted programmatic efforts, and inclusion in national discussions. Yet the report found many Asian women still feel overlooked by diversity programs and policies, an invisibility that may be due to perceptions that Asians do not require specific diversity efforts compared to less represented minorities, who are more likely to report that they benefitted from company diversity programs.

Silicon Valley has generally taken pride in being at the frontlines of innovation, outfitted with what it sees as its own progressive thinking and offerings of meritocratic, modern workplaces. But as major companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter have released dismal diversity stats, that image has been challenged. The tech world may have a long road ahead of them to achieve gender and racial inclusion – the lawsuits from Huang, Hong, and Pao are only part of the beginning.

Sharon H. Chang is an author, scholar, sociologist and activist. She writes primarily on racism and social justice with a feminist lens. Her pieces have been featured in Racism Review, The Seattle Gloablist, Hyphen Magazine, ParentMap Magazine, AAPI Voices and on her own blog, Multiracial Asian Families.