Tech's troubled history with Asian workers

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Asians make up the majority of Silicon Valley's tech workforce at roughly 57%, according to MarketWatch. Yet they're vastly underrepresented at the leadership level: 27% at Apple, 40% at Google and 25% at Facebook.

The big picture: Many tech leaders like to think the field is "post-race," often pointing to the handful of Asians, mostly East and South Asian men, who occupy prominent executive roles. The reality is far more complicated.

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Why it matters: The industry’s rhetoric around Asians has long obscured disparities that affect Black and Latino workers. It also overlooks Asians’ precarious place in the system — and tech's long history of anti-Asian bias.

State of play: White-collar Asian American professionals are the least likely racial group to be promoted into management in Silicon Valley, according to a 2017 analysis of national workforce data that was published in the Harvard Business Review.

  • "All of that comes down to the stereotypes around what leaders look like and … a lot of assumptions about Asian characteristics," said Ellen Pao, who made national news in 2012 when she filed a gender discrimination suit against the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Yeong Cheng, a software management executive and the founder of Denver Asian Collective, said they've had to fight to get to where they are in their career.

  • After unofficially managing a full-time team at a computer software company for six months, Cheng said they were denied a promotion to manager even though the six white men who started with Cheng all got bumped to management.

  • Even in the last few years serving in executive roles, they say they're often infantilized. "I have been second-guessed as a default, until I've proven beyond a very high bar that not only do I know what I'm talking about, but I'm the expert in the room," they told Axios.

Every level of work is saturated with these biases, whether based on Asians’ accents or names, cultural differences, a perception of their foreignness or racial stereotypes that pigeonhole Asians as submissive or robotic.

  • Asian women face additional barriers and burdens, as reflected in the flurry of gender and race discrimination lawsuits in the tech industry that were triggered by Pao's.

  • Case in point: A former employer once told Pao he only wanted to have Asian women work for him because they "work so hard and don't complain," she said.

The backstory: Asian Americans have made up a good chunk of the tech industry since the 1960s, when the U.S. repealed laws largely excluding Asians from entering the country.

  • At the time, the government prioritized entry for Asians with educational backgrounds or occupational specialties — primarily from East and South Asia.

  • Their status in America was largely conditional, however — dependent on the work they produced and their willingness to assimilate.

  • They were also easily exploited by white employers who saw them as "good work horses" but not leaders, as engineer David K. Lam told the New York Times in a 1992 article.

The big picture: According to scholar Claire Kim's racial triangulation theory, America's race hierarchy places Asians between superior and inferior but solidly labels them foreign.

  • That foreignness is a constant shadow, yet for decades, Asian Americans heard the same refrain: "You should be grateful."

  • The industry’s discussions around diversity have typically excluded its prominent Asian worker population, a move that implies they face no adversity since they seemingly have a foot in the door, said Association for Asian American Studies president-elect Pawan Dhingra.

  • Yet 44% of Asians in STEM jobs report experiencing discrimination at work, according to a 2018 report from Pew Research Center.

What they’re saying: "There's a huge problem around pitting groups against each other instead of trying to fix the system," Pao told Axios.

  • When Cheng has tried to raise concerns about anti-Asian racism, their colleagues have told them they're "distracting from [Black Lives Matter]."

The bottom line: Pao, who launched the nonprofit Project Include to help companies improve on equity, said that amid a rise in anti-Asian hate and U.S.-China tensions, "we're at this unique point where we have an opportunity to push back on racism or allow it to continue to fester."

  • "We're definitely having people understand what's going on better," she added. "The hard part is getting people to actually act on it."

Editor's note: We've updated the identification of Yeong Cheng in this story.

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