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Leon Kaye headshot

Asians and Working in Big Tech: It’s Complicated

By Leon Kaye
Big Tech

(Image: Cupertino, California, home to the headquarters of the most celebrated companies in Big Tech.)

If you’ve recently visited Cupertino, or any of the nearby Silicon Valley towns in California’s Santa Clara County, you’d be hard pressed to believe that not long ago, much of it was blue-collar with far different demographics. Families of Portuguese, Italian, Mexican, and Japanese descent lived in subdivisions of ranch houses quickly built during the 1950s and 1960s, often separated by orchards. A few decades back, Big Tech meant the likes of Fairchild and HP, which provided good jobs, joined by the likes of defense contractors in entering the area. Nevertheless, hourly wage earners could also afford a middle-class lifestyle.

Fast forward to today, and the demographics and landscape of Cupertino are vastly different — most obviously in the cost of living, which has priced many longtime residents out. Whites now make up a slim majority across Santa Clara County, with Asians approaching 40 percent. Today, the area is slathered with prosperity. Judging by the storefronts seen in Cupertino, the preponderance of high-end Chinese eateries, boba tea shops and after-school tutoring centers — with Teslas carting locals back and forth between these locations — the town appears to be a post-racial, albeit very expensive, paradise.

Several months of reporting by Bloomberg, however, reveals a more complicated reality for Asians and Pacific Islanders working in Big Tech in Silicon Valley.

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Months of interviews reveal another side of what to many outsiders appears as a glamorous life in Big Tech of six-figure jobs performed in T-shirts and hoodies. To start, there are the microaggressions that Asians constantly deal with, particularly made toward women, which range from the annoying (as in astonishment over coding skills) to the outright creepy (comments that sexualize and fetishize Asian women).

When it comes to funding, entrepreneurs told Bloomberg reporters time and again that having an accent was a barrier to securing capital for startups or was used as an excuse to deny any opportunities for career development, as in the case of one young woman whose accent was actually more Canadian than Cantonese. 

What to some at first may appear to be little more than daily slights adds up to one of the largest failures of Big Tech: Companies in Silicon Valley have a promotion problem. Additional Bloomberg research has concluded that while Asians may have a huge presence at some of the region’s most celebrated companies, the percentage of Asians drops significantly at the director-level or above within these firms.

The result perpetuates what the author Jane Hyun wrote about in 2005: There’s a “bamboo ceiling” hovering above many Asian workers within Big Tech and other industries. Hyun found, and Bloomberg’s reporters have yet again confirmed, that while it may at first be easy for Asians to start their careers in tech, climbing the corporate ladder is rife with barriers. That’s especially true for women, as summed up by Ellen Pao, whose fight against sexism in the workplace, as it so turns out, was also very much about racial discrimination. “I look back, and there are so many things that happened to me because of my race that I didn’t process,” Pao told Bloomberg.

Whether any progress can be made through legal cases is unclear; so far, the results of some of the most publicized lawsuits taking on discrimination against Asians in the workplace is a mixed bag. The bottom line is that racism against Asians has long been entrenched within the workplace, and overall, companies aren’t addressing it. In one survey led by the IBM Institute for Business Value, for example, 8 in 10 Asian-American professionals said they’ve faced some form of discrimination. On top of that, 60 percent said they feel they must work harder than their colleagues due to their identity.

For companies that insist they want to show they are aware of this problem and want to take it on, a deeper understanding of this community is a start. Asians are hardly a monolith, as is the case with people who are Black, Hispanic or Middle Eastern. Writing for Politico, Jeff Le recently suggested that targeted investments for Asians and Pacific Islanders, especially for women, could help –—many women in this community have had to put their career plans on hold during the pandemic as they coped with child care, day care and elder care.

Further, the murder of several Asian women in the Atlanta area earlier this year is still very raw, not to mention the increased violence against this community during the pandemic. An acknowledgement of this tragedy and a clear policy of “confronting the trauma” can help, as Jennifer Liu wrote for CNBC earlier this year.

“…The external environment - from societal discrimination to hate crimes - adds additional pressure that restrains empowerment and limits potential achievement,” concluded IBM’s report as it suggested a plan on how to address this problem. “Debunking stereotypes in media, education, and anywhere else they appear will help establish a more equal footing across corporate functions and in the leadership pipeline.”

Image credit: Carles Rabada/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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