‘Illusion of Asian Success’ Study Underscores Silicon Valley’s Race Problem

‘Illusion of Asian Success’ Study Underscores Silicon Valley’s Race Problem

The Ascend Foundation, a non-profit Pan-Asian career lifecycle organization, published a report this week on racial inequality in the US tech sector. Analyzing EEO-1 data for 2015-2017 from hundreds of San Francisco Bay Area tech companies, the study concluded that “diversity in technology leadership roles has generally stagnated over the last decade,” while race is “an increasingly more significant impediment than gender to climbing the management ladder, with Asian women and Hispanic women most affected.” Other key findings include:

  • Asians are the least likely to be promoted to managerial or executive positions, in spite of being the largest minority group of professionals and the most likely to be hired. In particular, Asian women are the least represented group as executives, at 66% underrepresentation.
  • White men and women are twice as likely as Asians to become executives and hold almost three times the number of executive jobs.
  • Even though white women are now substantially more successful in reaching the executive level than ALL minority men or women, white men are still 47% more likely than white women to be executives.
  • Both Blacks and Hispanics have declined in their percentage share of the professional workforce despite efforts to hire more underrepresented minorities.

“When we used the Executive Parity Index to compare the numbers of minorities as executives to their numbers in the workforce, it was clear that that efforts to promote more Asians, Blacks, and Hispanics have made no meaningful impact to the minority glass ceiling,” said Buck Gee, a former vice president and general manager at Cisco Systems who is an Ascend executive advisor and a study co-author. “That said, we saw progress made by white women, so we know tech companies can change. Now it’s time to do the same for minority men and women.”

This report represents a major contribution to the literature on racial diversity and discrimination in the tech sector, particularly in dismantling the myth that Asian-Americans are unaffected by bias or even unfairly advantaged. What Ascend found was that while Asian employees are not overtly discriminated against in policies or practices, they observed “a pattern of cultural traits among some Asians that did not align with leadership expectations in Western corporate culture, such as risk-taking and being confrontational,” Gee tells Wired’s Nitasha Tiku:

Gee gave the example of an executive who started the first Asian affinity group at Intel decades ago. He noticed that Chinese engineers were unhappy and not succeeding in Intel’s culture of “constructive conflict,” which involved heated debates during meetings. “Some people call it unconscious bias. For Asians, it’s actually a very conscious bias,” says Gee. Studies show that assumptions that Asians are good at math, science, and technology make it easier for them to get in the door, but the same bias is reversed when it comes to leadership roles, he says.

Our diversity and inclusion research at CEB, now Gartner, confirms that race is increasingly perceived as a more significant factor than gender in pay inequity, not only in the tech industry. In the latest issue of CEB’s HRBP Quarterly, Practice Leader Monique McCloud-Manley and Research Consultant Meg Zolner note that the role-to-role race pay gap is perceived to be twice as large as the perceived role-to-role gender pay gap. (CEB Corporate Leadership Council members can read the article in full here.)

Furthermore, our global labor market survey data show that employees care about real or perceived unfairness in pay: If employees perceive a pay gap, the effect on their intent to stay with their organization is 50 percent greater than that of a pay freeze. Importantly, while Ascend’s report focuses on the leadership gap among Asians, it also shows that progress is stagnating for black and Hispanic employees and illustrates the double-bind minority women face.

Ultimately, what the report uncovers looks like a leadership pipeline problem that requires changes not only to hiring, but also the way these employees are developed, managed, and promoted. Our survey data also show that retention may play a role in getting racially/ethnically diverse employees into the leadership pipeline: Employees from minority racial and ethnic groups are 17 percent less likely to stay at their organization than white employees. Without conscious efforts to retain diverse workforces and close these gaps in career progression, diversity and inclusion initiatives may falter despite companies’ best intentions.