It’s time for Asian American men to stop being the “Model Minority” in tech.
We all know tech is excluding most people from participating. But one group is actually over represented. And we’ve been conspicuously silent.
The major tech companies finally gave in and published their statistics confirming the stark reality that the technology industry excludes workers who are African American, Latino, Native American and especially those who are women of any ethnic or racial background.
For example, California’s Hispanic population now stands at 39%. But though most tech companies are headquartered in California, their average percentage of employees who identify as Hispanic is less than 5%. Take Google, whose headquarters are located in Mountain View, CA, where Hispanics make up 21% of the population —its staff is only 3% Hispanic. The statistics are just as stark when it comes to gender exclusion: The industry average is that only 1/3 of employees are women.
Obviously, some will quibble about the correct basis for a proportional comparison, and whether we should compare to a state or a municipality or the whole country, and how to correct for factors like education. The statisticians are presumably busy with these concerns already.
But there’s one conclusion that is inescapable: Asian American men who work in tech are benefitting from tech’s systematic exclusion of women and non-Asian minorities.
At companies like Yahoo, LinkedIn and Pinterest, Asians represent nearly forty percent of the employee base. At LinkedIn, for example, Asian Americans are 38% of a workforce that’s based in California, where Asian Americans make up only 14% of the population. It’s impossible to determine from the outside whether the gender makeup of the Asian American subset of workers at these companies exactly parallels that of the overall workforce, but there’s no question that men are wildly overrepresented.
So: where are the Asian American men in tech talking about our complicity in denying opportunity to our fellow people of color? Where are tech’s Asian American men advocating in a meaningful way for women?
You can’t spell “brown” without “bro”
One of the most destructive tropes about Asian Americans is the pervasive myth of the “model minority”. Grounded in detestably anti-Black, anti-Latino stereotypes that pit one minority against another, the “model minority” construct presents Asian Americans as being educated without demanding power or control, able without being uppity. And this myth is all too often embraced within Asian American communities, making us complicit in systems of exclusion, even though we know what it’s like to be on the wrong side of those same systems.
For example, even as a proud Indian American, I know firsthand the Indian American community’s many faults — from pervasive anti-Black racist attitudes to a domestic violence rate that has some studies have put at over 40%. Yet even when we see prominent examples of that ugliness, as in former RadiumOne CEO Gurbaksh Chahal’s history of domestic violence that got so much attention earlier this year, Indian American men overall are able to avoid being stereotyped as “thugs” due to the poisonous “model minority” myth.
Adobe’s David Wadhwani, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, and Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayan onstage on October 6, 2014
Weaponizing the “Model Minority”
The model minority myth also exacts costs on Asian American workers as well, of course. Though Asian men are so overrepresented in the overall workforce of tech companies, that disproportionate presence predictably undergoes a precipitous drop when we look at the statistics for the executives in charge of leading these companies.
At Yahoo, where 39% of the staff is Asian American, the company’s leadership is only 17% Asian American, suddenly back in line with a number that’s nearly proportional to California’s overall population. Facebook’s 34% Asian American staff plunges to only 19% of its executive staff. It is in these contrasts that we again see the toxicity of the “model minority” myth, as it’s used to placate workers who are worthy of being at the bottom of the org chart, but whose “model” status suddenly evaporates when it comes to handing out actual power and pay increases.
And yet, despite these dynamics, there are inarguably successes. At Adobe’s flagship “Max’ conference this year, the climax of the event featured three Indian American men, two of whom were the CEOs of Microsoft and Adobe, both born in India. It was a dramatic moment, and an improbable triumph for an immigrant community that has had barely half a century to truly establish itself in American culture.
Of course, even that success is fraught. Nadella’s ascension at Microsoft may well be seen as a classic example of the “glass cliff” — the scenario where underrepresented communities only get a chance to be leaders once an organization is in dire straits. Just as Yahoo had to be on the brink of irrelevance for Marissa Mayer to get the CEO job, Microsoft had to be struggling to fill the position that Vanity Fair just said “may still be the toughest job in business” before Nadella got a shot.
Once Nadella got that shot, though, how did he address Microsoft’s abysmal record of having only 28% of its staff be women? With an abysmal, rambling response that included the advice that women shouldn’t ask for raises, despite this being one of the few tactics that’s known to help mitigate pay disparity for women. Worse, this was a response that was about including women in technology, where Nadella knew what the topic of discussion would be, and his response indicated a lack of even basic familiarity with the core issues. It’s as if Microsoft’s cloud services failed to run web apps a quarter of the time and the CEO had advocated prayerful meditation as a method for improving uptime.
Later, Nadella walked back the statement and offered some clarifications, but contrast his nearly-illiterate initial comments on the issue to the fluency of some in academia who have truly reflected on privilege and power in tech. Philip Guo articulated the issue succinctly:
Here’s a thought experiment: For every white or Asian male expert programmer you know, imagine a parallel universe where they were of another ethnicity and/or gender but had the exact same initial interest and aptitude levels. Would they still have been willing to devote the over ten thousand hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery in the face of dozens or hundreds of instances of implicit discouragement they will inevitably encounter over the years? Sure, some super-resilient outliers would, but many wouldn’t. Many of us would quit, even though we had the potential and interest to thrive in this field.
What Must Asian American Men Do?
What will it take for Asian American men who have reached these new plateaus of power and success to see common cause with other minority communities and with other people of color? When will we commit to addressing the exclusion of women from opportunity in the tech industry? And what about those of us who aren’t CEOs of big tech companies? What can we do?
There are a few starting points:
Listen and believe. Talk to your coworkers who belong to underrepresented groups. Listen to their stories and experiences. Don’t be defensive, just listen. And then when they’re done, believe what they’re saying. Don’t explain it away, don’t play devil’s advocate. Believe that they know just as much as you, are as smart and capable as you, and have had experiences that you don’t know about.
Stop ignoring the issue. Specifically, we should acknowledge that we haven’t said enough about anti-Black and anti-Latin attitudes, and that we have not articulated our complicity in industry sexism and misogyny. Indeed, we have often helped build these systems of exclusion, not merely remained silent while they were enforced. We must understand that trying to pass under the umbrella of whiteness will not save us from discrimination. Indeed, the statistics show that Asians make $8,146 less than white workers at tech companies—not as underpaid as other minorities, but certainly an enormous disparity that makes clear why solidarity between underrepresented communities is essential.
Use the power we have. I am very sensitive to the fact that a large percentage of Asian American workers are at tech companies on work visas or under other working conditions that make activism or criticism of employers untenable. I don’t suggest that vulnerable workers can reasonably be asked to risk their jobs or residency. But the rest of us, those of us born in the United States, or who are citizens, have an obligation to act. The tech industry cannot function without the work of Asian American men. This is a truth, a powerful truth, that should be the basis for our collective action on behalf of fellow marginalized communities. Tell your boss you want your company to commit to real, measurable improvements in inclusion, and to stop pushing women and minorities out of the industry.
Spend our money with purpose. As a community, we have extraordinary and powerful economic privilege, even as we acknowledge the many Asian Americans who struggle financially. However, there is a history of crowdfunding entrepreneurship and opportunity in Asian American communities that stretches back more than a century. When Chinese Americans opened up Chinese restaurants in small towns, it was often through community funding from friends and relatives. When Indian Americans bought a motel in a new city, it was that same mechanism in action. Nearly every immigrant community knows the power and importance of supporting and nurturing businesses built by fellow immigrants, and we can update those traditions in a new context by directing our spending and investment toward our fellow people of color, who face the same challenges from the financial systems that our parents did, and that many of us still do. One simple action: Look at the “about” page for apps, sites, and crowdfunding campaigns where you spend your money, and make sure to let people know when something is made by a community that tech currently excludes.
Honor your parents. Our parents and grandparents didn’t get on planes and ships, spend years and decades enduring indignities, and sacrifice everything for our educations in order for us to be humble, heads-down workers content to trudge along at the bottom of an organization, thankful that at least we aren’t the “wrong” kind of minorities. And they sure as hell didn’t make the trip so that we could ignore how hard our mothers worked, and disrespect how hard our sisters and wives and daughters are working. I don’t have to recite the litany of ways in which Asian American men have been disrespected in American culture, but the truth is that we have also been afforded an incredible amount of privilege as well. So it’s well past time that we do justice to that and work together for those who haven’t been given the shot that we’ve had.
When we do this work, we make our community better, and we make our industry better. We can do justice to our peers and coworkers who are working in an unfair system, bringing them closer to the level playing field they deserve. And we make things better for ourselves, because we open up to new opportunities and make it easier to exchange ideas.
But it only happens if we do the work. Let’s hold each other accountable.