Asian Americans Scarce Among Silicon Valley Executives

By Michael Nam


Photo by Shutterstock

A new report released by the Ascend Foundation, a Pan-Asian non-profit advocacy group, described another aspect of Silicon Valley’s well-documented issues with diversity. Asians nearly equal whites in staff roles in the five major tech companies that were researched but hit a “glass ceiling” when it comes to executive and management positions.

The five companies studied were Google, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, LinkedIn and Yahoo. Using the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) definition of Asian (Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian Subcontinent), the report found that Asians were overrepresented at 27.2 percent of the professional ranks, but they only made up 13.9 percent of executives.

In order to illustrate this difference in the management pipelines, Ascend utilizes an Executive Parity Index to describe the gap in representation:

We also evaluated the executive pipeline with an “Executive Parity Index” (EPITM), comparing the representation of each group at the executive level to the group’s representation at the non-managerial (or individual contributor) professional level. An index above 1.0 indicates that cohort is above parity at the executive level.

Other key takeaways from the study include:

White men and women are 154 percent more likely to be executives compared to Asians.

Asian women are the least represented among executives compared to the overall workforce population.

The gap between Asians and whites was 3.7 times greater than the gap between genders in terms of executive representation.

As the study notes, there appears to be an “Asian effect” in play where leadership stereotypes between “Western” and Asian expectations could be playing a role in impeding the flow into the management pipeline for Asian employees.

“There really is a bamboo ceiling. I get this frequently’Wow, you have great public-speaking skills,'” said Anne Chow when speaking of her own achievements as a senior vice president at AT&T (No. 7 on the DiversityInc Top 50 for Diversity list). “I don’t think I would get that comment if I were any other demographic.”

For Chow, her mentors at AT&T recognized the need for experience in sales outside of technical professional work in order to move upward through the glass and/or bamboo ceiling into management. With Asian women particularly at a disadvantage in terms of executive representation (1 executive for every 285 Asian women employees in the survey), mentorship and cultural fluency take on a high level of significance.

Still, as Fortune points out, the overall representation of Asian employees in Silicon Valley is exceedingly high as Asians only make up 5.3 percent of the U.S. population. The issue of diversity as a whole in tech fields has been increasingly emphasized in the past year, with the representation of women, Blacks and Latinos taking on additional importance.

“We bought stock in each of the major companies in Silicon Valley, just enough to get on the floor and make our protest,” Rev. Jesse Jackson said of his push to diversify the tech industry during the Diversity Top 50 event. “All of them had about zero people [of color] on the board. We went to the shareholders meeting to make the case that we ought to change the direction of growth.”

One thing the lack of Asian representation in executive positions may give evidence to is the implicit bias among the mostly white male controlled tech industry businesses. If the largest sub-group among their employees has difficulty breaking into management roles, the obstacles for other less-represented groups to enter into the industry at all become that much more difficult.

While the numbers for diverse representation in Silicon Valley still look pretty dismal, Rev. Jesse Jackson’s initiatives to press the issue on the tech industry show that there has been some progress as he describes the effort by Intel, one of the companies in the Ascend report.

“Intel put forth a proposition with 300 million dollars with the goal of by 2020 making Intel look like America,” Rev. Jackson said.

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