Why do AAPI women lag behind men in tech leadership positions?

AAPI AAPI discrimination DEI DEI strategy diversity in tech Guest viewpoints shared women in leadership women in tech

With the recent decision on affirmative action by the United States Supreme Court, and the way Asian-Americans were used as a wedge to further marginalize other minorities, it’s clear: Despite decades of work, the many equity issues confronting the dynamic Asian American community are hardly behind us.

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While the SCOTUS decision may affect college campuses the most, it’s fair to say corporate America is already feeling the impact as well. This will mean even more structural and cultural impediments that prevent AAPI individuals, and women in particular, from ascending to leadership roles in any industry—especially in tech. As an Asian American executive recruiter focused on transparent, inclusive hiring, I see these challenges from my client firms’ perspective and through the lens of the professionals I speak with every day.

‘There are already enough Asians in tech’

All too often, tech industry clients tell us they don’t consider Asian Americans to be “diverse” for DEI purposes.  This is the model minority myth in action. Due to the relatively robust percentage of AAPIs in tech, as opposed to other minority groups, Asian Americans are no longer seen as in need of assistance to overcome bias.

Of course, this myth ignores the great diversity within the AAPI community, which groups people from more than 75 countries into a cohort that is anything but monolithic. In actuality, Asian American groups in this country have varied education and income levels. For example, 79% of those from India are college graduates, but less than a quarter of Cambodians or Laotians have degrees. And while immigrants comprise a significant portion of the AAPI community, millions more were born in the U.S., according to research by New American Economy.

The relative success AAPIs (notably, Chinese, Indians and Koreans) have found in tech obscures a “bamboo ceiling” that limits upward growth. While Asians are lauded for technical skills, corporate power brokers too often tell them that further advancement isn’t in the cards due to a lack of “executive presence,” an “assertive communication style” and other vague characteristics, which, candidly speaking, are simply weasel words.

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Those select few AAPI leaders in high-profile Silicon Valley roles reveal these issues by their rarity. And they spotlight the most glaring omission: AAPI women, who are woefully underrepresented in tech C-suites and boardrooms.

Indeed, a report titled Pinning Down the Jellyfish: The Workplace Experiences of Women of Color in Tech confirmed that AAPI women are underrepresented in tech leadership. But why? 

Breaking through the ‘bamboo ceiling’ and Asian stereotypes

To better understand these complex issues by delving into lived experiences, I spoke recently with two AAPI women who have broken through the” bamboo ceiling” to become trailblazers in their community: Elle Ramel, the Chicago director at GET Cities, and Phyllis Lee, partner & SVP, marketing for Manifold Group, both of whom agree that there are a lot of dynamics at play, including some that have nothing to do with institutional bias. In short, Asian women face bias not only in the workplace but also in their families. So, what are some of these dynamics?

Culture’s influence on professional preferences

One factor is that immigrants and first-generation AAPIs tend to focus on work ethic as the catalyst for advancement rather than navigating the corporate and political labyrinth toward leadership, according to Lee. From her perspective, Ramel notes that Asian cultures (some more than others) value STEM pathways in education—coding and engineering disciplines—but do not emphasize leadership or the MBA track similarly. A narrow focus on technical expertise at the expense of gaining broader experience plays into the myth that AAPI professionals lack the leadership skillset, let alone mindset. Additionally, says Ramel, “tech entrepreneurship is not a culturally supported pathway for immigrant families who prefer the more reliable and established paths to success—doctor, lawyer, engineer.”

Gender bias against AAPI women

At the risk of stating the obvious: Asian American women face the added complexity of gender dynamics in tech, just as in every other industry. Gender bias multiplies AAPI women’s challenges when seeking access, representation and sponsorship.

Women of color as a cohort often face harsher conditions than white women, and they leave tech companies—even the industry itself—because they feel overworked, underutilized and undervalued, as the Pinning Down the Jellyfish report found. Ramel at GET Cities states, “The ‘submissive woman’ stereotype prevents Asian women from being considered viable candidates for leadership or management positions.”

No mentors, no pathway

Compounding these obstacles is the fact that women generally lack mentors and role models, and as a result, two out of three women fail to see a clear pathway to a leadership role, according to a study commissioned at GET Cities on tech intersectionality. The study also found that across industries in the U.S., women are rarely found in CEO or CTO roles.

“So, not only do AAPI women suffer from lack of mentorship,” notes Lee, “they do not see other AAPI women entering the industry, and they also don’t see models of success and leadership from the few who do.”

From WHY to HOW for AAPI women

To change this status quo, the AAPI community must reflect on both access and representation, two sides of the same coin. Without access, there can’t be representation, and vice versa. It is also not enough to discuss these issues and simply raise awareness of the scarcity of AAPI women at the forefront of the tech industry. The WHY is important, but figuring out HOW to change this reality is essential.

Ramel says, “A good place to start is for leaders to purposefully sponsor, not simply mentor, an AAPI individual on their team. Leaders also need to speak up for fellow AAPI individuals even if they feel distanced from other AAPI cultures (e.g., someone of Korean descent may not have much in common with someone from India). Still, the more we can do to create a more unified AAPI identity, the better it is for the community as a whole.”

Lee stresses the importance of using an individual’s platform to increase the visibility of AAPI women within organizations. “We should help connect each other to other spheres of influence in and out of the organization and, of course, highlight these issues among peers.”

Ramel and Lee are right. The benefits of unifying and supporting each other across national/ethnic lines are tremendous, and those efforts will have lasting impacts. With 26.7 million AAPI individuals in the United States—the country’s fastest-growing group—we have the power to push for change from within. We need to stop allowing others to use us to advance a false narrative that to get ahead we must put others down, and recognize that pulling the ladder up behind us is not how we get ahead.

Ultimately, across diverse sectors, be it tech or any field, it is imperative for proactive HR executives and professionals to champion, endorse and amplify the presence of women leaders from the AAPI community within their organizations. HR leaders should not only extend support and guidance but also play a pivotal role in cultivating a workplace culture that nurtures and fosters these transformative changes.

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