How racism in Silicon Valley stops many Asian-Americans achieving their potential
Anti-Asian racism
  • Many Asian-Americans in tech face subtle but constant discrimination. The industry claims to be ‘post-race’, but ‘there’s a wall you hit’, says one insider

Silicon Valley executives sometimes seem to believe they are proprietors of a post-racial paradise. The industry’s corporate campuses abound with immigrants, its investors say they like to bet on underdogs and its biggest companies preach the gospel of workplace inclusivity.

“Diversity is a foundational value for us,” Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google’s parent company Alphabet, said last year. “We probably have more resources invested in diversity now than at any point in our history as a company.”

The demographics of Alphabet and its peers, of course, tell a different story: big tech companies employ few black or Hispanic workers, and almost none in technical or executive roles. On the other hand, there is some basis to see Silicon Valley (a tech hub in the United States) as a beacon of progress in the representation of Asian-Americans, who account for a quarter of the population in the San Francisco Bay Area of California.

Alphabet, DoorDash and Zoom all have Asian-American CEOs. Pichai, originally from India, leads a company where more than 40 per cent of the United States workforce is Asian. At Facebook, the figure is even higher, and Asian employees slightly outnumber white ones.
Sundar Pichai of Alphabet leads a company where more than 40 per cent of the United States workforce is Asian. Photo: Getty Images

And yet, even here – among workers who seem to have found significant success in the tech industry – the story is more complicated, and discouraging. Many Asian-Americans in tech, especially women, face subtle yet ever-present discrimination. It takes many forms: sexualised comments, assumptions based on stereotypes (“You must be great at programming!”), or performance reviews that seem to be more about identity than actual performance.

The racism starts at the earliest stages of their careers and builds as they break into middle management. It can be hard to escape, even for those who become executives.

Making things more maddening for those who experience it is that anti-Asian racism is barely acknowledged. The message from tech companies is “we’re post-race”, says Eric Bahn, a partner at venture capital firm Hustle Fund.

But Bahn, born in the US state of Michigan to parents from South Korea, says that is an incomplete story. “It looks awesome in the beginning,” he says. “But then there’s a wall you hit. It’s a bait and switch.”

Behind the myth of Asian-American success lies institutional racism

Part of what makes it tricky for Asian-Americans to put their finger on racism in tech is the identity itself feels hard to pin down. Some Asian-American families have been in Silicon Valley for generations – even before the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese immigrants and was not repealed until 1943. Many more rode a wave of immigration after quotas were lifted in 1965. Others followed after the creation of the H-1B programme in 1990, which set aside visas for tech workers.
The differences in how various groups arrived in the US, and their education levels, partly explain why income inequality is greater among Asian-Americans than any other racial or ethnic group, and why more than 30 per cent of Asian-Americans voted for the re-election of former US president Donald Trump last year, even after he referred to Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus” and “ kung flu”.

The Bay Area is home to Asian billionaires as well as Asian residents who collect recyclables on the street. And in the tech industry, the economic opportunities for Asian workers can vary greatly – particularly among immigrants who can be trapped in low-mobility, lower-wage jobs while on H-1B visas.

Over the course of several months of reporting on this issue, and drawing on more than a decade of experience as Asian-American reporters covering Silicon Valley, we heard some common themes from Asian-American tech workers. What follows is a taxonomy of their experiences, from brand-new interns to those lucky enough to have made it to the Silicon Valley C-suite.

It shows how far Asian-Americans are from achieving full equality, and perhaps why equality for even less privileged groups has proved so elusive.

The entrance of the headquarters of Facebook in Silicon Valley, California. Some Asian-American families have been in Silicon Valley for generations. Photo: Getty Images

Philippa Chen was first drawn to the tech industry in college. Originally from Southeast Asia, she had come to the US to attend a liberal arts school in Massachusetts. She had never been particularly interested in computers, but a lot of her friends were taking computer science classes, so she signed up. She loved it, jumping into caffeine-flooded, sleep-deprived hackathons where she tried to build apps from scratch.

Tech companies would often send people to these events to mentor students, and Chen, a pseudonym, was invariably impressed. In Silicon Valley, entry-level employees earned six-figure salaries and went to work in T-shirts. “There was this whole spirit of creativity,” she says. “I just need my laptop and an internet connection. I can build whatever I want.”

At first, working in the tech industry felt like a dream for Chen, now employed by Facebook and speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. During her first internship, at Apple, she began attending industry meet-ups and almost immediately heard racist comments. “You’re so lucky to be Asian,” a man at one meet-up told her. “White men here will love to date you.”

Chen heard this offhand remark so often and from so many people that she cannot remember who said it first. The offenders were often white, but sometimes they were Asian, too, which made the scenario all the more disappointing. “I wanted to make friends,” she says. “Stuff like this would come up for no reason.”

There’s a stereotype around the obedient, subservient Asian woman who wasn’t ever viewed as a leader
Ellen Pao, former Reddit interim CEO
In a subsequent job at a start-up, a colleague told her she was given opportunities to succeed only because “someone in leadership has an Asian fetish”. In a one-on-one meeting, a colleague complained that her accent was difficult to understand – even though she does not have a discernible accent and is often mistaken for a Canadian. She did not speak up in meetings for weeks.

Chen, in her mid-20s, has done well since. Her Facebook job is a plum gig – she makes about US$125,000 a year – and she hopes it will be a springboard to something even better. She wants to build on her leadership and public-speaking skills, but she has already encountered scepticism.

During performance reviews and other meetings, managers and colleagues have suggested she lacks “executive presence”, which seems like an odd thing to say to a junior employee who has never managed anyone. Chen cannot help but wonder if it is about who she is and how she looks, which then could become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

“If I don’t have the opportunity to present ideas that our team works on, how can I gain public-speaking experience?” she says. “Am I forever doomed to be in a position where people think I’m bad at public speaking?”

Chen is right to worry about her chances. Two recent studies show that Asian-Americans are the least likely of all racial groups to break into leadership in tech companies, despite being strongly represented in the overall workforce. At Facebook, where 46 per cent of US workers are Asian, only 26 per cent are director-level or higher, though that number is up from 21 per cent five years ago.

Bo Ren has worked as a product manager at Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr. Photo: Bloomberg Businessweek / Jingyu Lin

“We take any allegations of discrimination or bias seriously and investigate every case,” says Sona Iliffe-Moon, a Facebook spokeswoman. “We have made steady progress on our ambitious goals to increase representation in our workforce, including those in leadership positions, and recognise that we still have a ways to go.”

A core element of the tech mythology is that young, junior engineers can suddenly vault themselves into upper management by building something worthy – and that is true to some extent in start-ups. But the big tech companies offer a different mode of professional development.

Employees at Amazon, Facebook and Google are issued a numbered level – starting at one and going to 12 or so – that corresponds to a pay range and set of responsibilities, and the track upwards is highly regimented. Twice a year, employees undergo a competitive review process that ends with a few of them moving up a level; the rest stay put.
Although the process has a sheen of objectivity, the reviews themselves are unavoidably subjective, says Bo Ren, who has worked as a product manager at Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr. Product managers, especially at larger companies, make substantial salaries and are often groomed for executive roles – if their reviews go well. But at Facebook, during the twice-yearly promotion cycle, Ren received vague feedback that seemed to be focused on her identity.

“You’re not winning the respect of your engineers,” a manager told her on one occasion in a one-on-one meeting.

I realised there is a bamboo ceiling, and I’d have to work 100 times harder
Bo Ren, product manager

He asked whether she could be viewed as credible, which seemed like an odd question because she did have the technical experience for the job. In addition to years of experience and a degree from the University of Southern California, where she received a full scholarship, she had taught herself how to code. None of that seemed to matter: “We don’t think you fit the profile of a product manager,” the manager told her.

Ren could never figure out what that meant. She was already a product manager, and she could think of only one thing that made her different from most of her peers: she is an Asian woman. Eventually, she chose to leave Facebook. On her way out, she asked her likely successor, a white man, if he needed help navigating the company. She says he told her: “I don’t really need to prepare that hard – the manager has my back.”.

Ren was floored. She had spent more than 100 hours preparing for the same interviews so she could prove she deserved the spot. Being white, she says, is “like having a skip pass at Disney World. I realised there is a bamboo ceiling, and I’d have to work 100 times harder”.

The term “ bamboo ceiling”, popularised in a 2005 book by career coach Jane Hyun, may feel outdated and even racist – why, exactly, is the ceiling bamboo? – but it describes a real phenomenon. Asian-Americans have a relatively easy time starting a career. But studies show that somewhere along the climb up the corporate ladder, they slip.

The bamboo ceiling does not affect all Asian-Americans the same way. Asian women seem to have it far worse than men, and Americans of East Asian descent seem at a greater disadvantage than those of South Asian descent.

Ellen Pao was referred to as “Chairman Pao” on Reddit where she was interim CEO, with racist memes styled to look like Maoist propaganda. Photo: Bloomberg Businessweek / Simrah Farrukh
Academics have tried to figure out why, but it is hard to pinpoint something so intangible. One study from 2020 blamed a cultural mismatch in which East Asian values of humility and non-assertiveness were inaccurately interpreted by bosses as a lack of motivation or conviction.

The cruel twist is that the stereotypes that make entry-level Asian-American workers attractive to hiring managers may be the same ones that block them from becoming leaders. Bahn, the early-stage investor, says that after arriving in Silicon Valley it was easy to forget about his racial identity. “You’re part of an even more welcomed, privileged class here,” he says. Now he sees how that can become a complacency trap.

“The story that Silicon Valley tells is really clean: we don’t care what you look like, we care about your ideas – and to some degree, for Asians that’s true. But it feels like a rule is being set: what’s the bare minimum to keep us happy? A reasonable salary? The ability to buy a nice house in a good school district in Mountain View or Fremont? I see a big chunk of people in that range, and a lot fewer Asian leaders who break through and make it to the top.”

When those grasping at the top ranks have spoken up, it has sometimes made things worse. In 2012, Ellen Pao sued her bosses at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins for gender discrimination. At the time, her lawyers advised her to sue for just gender discrimination, not racial, as a legal strategy. “I look back, and there are so many things that happened to me because of my race that I didn’t process,” she says now.

She lost the case in 2015. That year, she also resigned from Reddit, where she was interim CEO, and where users had revolted against her leadership, referring to her as “Chairman Pao”, with racist memes styled to look like Maoist propaganda.
Satya Nadella is the chief executive officer of Microsoft. Photo: Getty Images

“There’s a stereotype around the obedient, subservient Asian woman who wasn’t ever viewed as a leader,” she continues. “It’s hard to unpack how much of that is gender-related and race-related, because it’s really a combination of both.”

Pao says she asked Reddit’s board if she could keep the CEO title without “interim” tacked on. She thought having the top job without caveats added to her title would make it easier to get buy-in from her employees. When she was turned down, she did not dwell on it much. But looking back, she says that nagging feeling is still there: was there another reason?

Some Asian-Americans do make it to the top and stay there – including Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, Zoom’s Eric Yuan and Google’s Pichai. But expectations for those who become CEO are still coloured by the biases that affected them earlier in their careers, says Justin Zhu, co-founder of Iterable, a marketing firm valued at about US$2 billion. Zhu was born in Shanghai and immigrated to Toronto, Canada, when he was eight years old. He moved to the US for high school.
The Silicon Valley start-up world is famously dressed down. Mark Zuckerberg wore slide sandals in the early years of Facebook, and Google co-founder Sergey Brin went to meetings on Rollerblades. But after Zhu wore a T-shirt and shorts to a meeting with potential investors – essentially the start-up founder uniform – he was told by an existing backer that the firm had passed because of his casual attire.

He had come to the meeting with his chief operating officer, a white man in a dress shirt. The investors complained that the COO looked more like a CEO than Zhu. “I felt rage, internally,” says Zhu. He had just shown the investors a presentation filled with the logos of Iterable’s customers. His appearance seemed to matter more than that.

Justin Zhu is the co-founder of Iterable. Photo: Bloomberg Businessweek / Simrah Farrukh
Zhu served as CEO of Iterable until April, when he was fired by his board, which cited an incident in 2019 when Zhu had taken a small amount of LSD before a meeting. Zhu notes that many of his white peers were openly using psychedelic drugs – and had been celebrated for doing so.

He suspects the real reason for his firing was that he had become vocal about his identity. Earlier that spring, after a gut-wrenching stream of violence against Asian-Americans, he told his board he was talking to a reporter about his experience as an Asian-American CEO. He was fired just a few weeks later.

Zhu and his peers have been trading anecdotes. Venture capitalists, they have observed, seem to write fewer cheques to founders with accents. Bahn says he has noticed the same pattern among the CEOs he backs. “My founders who have even any form of an accent have a far harder time fundraising than their Asian colleagues who don’t,” he says.

Margaret Chin, a sociology professor who studies the issue at Hunter College, in New York, says Asian-Americans in executive jobs at major companies often attribute their success to cultivating “trust”.

To her, that suggests these executives are fighting what she calls the “forever foreigner” stereotype – the notion that Asian-Americans have split loyalties to the US and their ancestral home, the same thinking that drove the US to force Japanese-Americans into internment camps, or that makes people ask American-born Asian people where they are “really” from.

“Even if you’re born here, or after so many generations, you still seem like an outsider,” says Chin.

We are tired of being treated as less than American, subject to harassment and now, every day, we read about another member of our community being physically attacked – simply for being Asian
A letter in The Wall Street Journal

In recent years, activists and policymakers have tried to address the inequities that Chin and others have identified, but even talking about the issue can be challenging. Julie Zhang, an investor at Betaworks Ventures who moved from China to Vancouver with her parents at the age of four, says she was working with a tech industry group focused on diversity and inclusion and was shocked to learn that the group didn’t consider Asians under-represented.

“I was like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know I was not considered a minority’,” says Zhang. “I certainly feel like it in every other way.”

Government investigations into the question of whether tech companies discriminate against Asian-Americans have led to divergent outcomes. In 2016, the US Department of Labour found that Palantir Technologies, the defence contractor and data mining firm, received more than 130 applications for a quality assurance engineer job.

About 73 per cent were from Asian people, yet the company hired just four Asian applicants and 17 non-Asian. The department filed suit, alleging discrimination. “The likelihood that this result occurred according to chance is approximately one in a billion,” a complaint read.

A year later, Palantir agreed to pay a US$1.66 million settlement but did not admit any liability. In February, Google paid US$3.8 million to settle a Labour Department lawsuit that in part alleged it had discriminated against Asian applicants for software engineering jobs. But last year, Oracle prevailed in a similar suit.

Jerry Yang is the co-founder and former CEO of Yahoo. Photo: Getty Images
Meanwhile, people have been attacking Asian-Americans on the street. In March, a month or so before he was fired, Zhu helped start Stand With Asian Americans, a coalition of Asian-American executives, and helped write a letter condemning the violence, which ran in The Wall Street Journal as a full-page ad. Prominent Asian-American leaders, including Zoom’s Yuan and Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, signed it.

“We, the Asian-American business leaders of America, are tired, angry and afraid – and not for the first time,” it read. “We are tired of being treated as less than American, subject to harassment and now, every day, we read about another member of our community being physically attacked – simply for being Asian.”

Money is flowing in: a group that includes Yang and Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai (vice-chairman of Alibaba Group, which owns the South China Morning Post) pledged US$250 million in May to the new Asian American Foundation, which will advocate for changes in policy and school curricula to support Asian-Americans. It will be the biggest philanthropic gift devoted to Asian-Americans, but still may not address the deeper issue.

Focusing on one racial group at a time can divide people further. “It’s an old wedge of white supremacy to have groups compete with each other,” says Pao, a founder of Project Include, an organisation that promotes inclusion in the tech industry.

Pao says the idea that diverse candidates are all in competition with one another hurts progress for all minorities. In recent months, she says she has seen a promising development: different minority groups speaking out more vocally in support of Asian-Americans.

“Systemic racism is preventing everybody from getting their fair chances to succeed,” she says. “There are more and more people realising, if we are fighting for crumbs at the table, nobody wins.”