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A new report outlines some of the barriers facing Asian women in tech

The authors of the UC-Hastings law school report explain how diversity initiatives too often exclude Asian women.

A new report outlines some of the barriers facing Asian women in tech
[Source illustrations: DimTik/Getty Images; iNueng/Getty Images]

Asians are not underrepresented in tech, and some diversity initiatives don’t include them. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still massive barriers to overcome. In our new report on women of color in tech, we found that Asian women reported worse outcomes than white women, often by a wide margin. In fact, Asian women’s experience was far closer to that of other women of color than to that of white women.

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East Asian women (e.g. Chinese) were 66% less likely than white women to report seeing a long-term future for themselves at their companies—and, of course, prior research shows that white women are far less likely than white men to do so. East Asian women also reported lower levels of engagement and career satisfaction than white women, and were up to 42% more likely to report being demeaned and disrespected, stereotyped, left out of the loop, and treated like they were invisible—experiences much closer to those of Black than white women. East Asian women also reported other patterns related to lack of advancement: They were 47% more likely to have had their competence and commitment questioned after they had children, and 38% more likely to have had difficulty getting administrative support. All this fits in with emerging research that East Asians are highly underrepresented in leadership positions, although South Asians are not.

Yet, the happy finding that South Asians (e.g. Indians) are increasingly represented in leadership positions may well be limited to South Asian men. In our study, South Asian women were 60% less likely than white women to report seeing a long-term future for themselves at their companies. No wonder: These women were 54% more likely than white women to report being given low-level work below their skill set. They also reported the xenophobic “forever foreigner” stereotype at extremely high levels, including surprise at their English skills (“I grew up in Philadelphia, I should speak good English,” said one woman). South Asian women also reported high levels of intergroup conflict. They were up to 54% more likely than white women to report that it was politically savvy to distance themselves from others like them.

Southeast Asian women (e.g. Vietnamese) said they had left a job due to its workplace culture at a level 29% higher than white women. Intriguingly, Southeast Asian women were 57% more likely than white women to report performing more emotion work—things like comforting someone who is upset—than their colleagues, which fits in with recent research showing that one group of Southeast Asian women (Filipinos) were stereotyped as the friendliest among all Asian subgroups. Southeast Asians were also 51% more likely than white women to report being policed into traditionally feminine roles, 45% more likely to be seen as a team player rather than a leader, and 43% more likely to report being expected to be a worker bee. And they were 65% more likely to be asked the classic forever foreigner question, “Where are you really from?”

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An important point is that these data were collected between December 2019 and May 2020, a period during which former President Trump was whipping up hostility toward Asians by characterizing COVID as “the China virus.” Perhaps levels of bias have receded since then, although given the persistence of antiAsian hate crimes, I would not count on that.

Studies persistently showed bias against Asian Americans even for 2020, notably that European Americans penalize Asian Americans who display dominance, in much the same way that men penalize women who behave in authoritative and ambitious ways.

Where does this leave us? The most concrete takeaway is that tech companies should not misinterpret the increasing prevalence of South Asian men in leadership to conclude that no bias exists against Asians and Asian Americans at their companies. The landscape may be doubly confusing for tech companies because many employees of Asian descent feel uncomfortable focusing on bias. Survey after survey shows this, and our data confirm it: East Asian women were 47% less likely than white women to report discomfort, followed closely by Southeast Asian women. But discomfort should not lead to silence: Our report strongly suggests that bias persists against Asians in tech, and it is ill-advised to leave Asian employees out of DEI efforts.

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Joan C. Williams is author of Bias Interrupted: Creating Inclusion for Real and for Good and coauthor, with Rachel Korn and Asma Ghani, of the new report,Pinning Down the Jellyfish: the Workplace Experiences of Women of Color in Tech.” Rachel Korn is the research director for the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California–Hastings College of the Law, where Asma Ghani is a research associate.

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