Asian American Women in Tech: Lawsuits and Lived Experiences

Evidence that Asian American women haven't been fully included in technology is found not only in recent lawsuits, but in the lack of Asian American women in tech leadership.

by Michelle Lee on November 2nd, 2015

Asian American women in tech have become increasingly visible due to a string of high profile lawsuits against Facebook, Twitter, and venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins – all filed by female Asian American tech workers. As an Asian American woman working at a startup, I think this moment is so exciting because it sets the stage to talk about issues specific to Asian American women in tech. How could leadership and HR have so spectacularly failed these Asian American women that they chose to sue their former employers? Are other Asian American women in tech having a similar experience?

While there has been a lot of focus on both women in tech, and diversity in tech more broadly, there has been little discussion about the everyday lived realities of Asian American women in the field. The lawsuits, especially Ellen Pao’s against Kleiner Perkins, have often been sensationalized by the press and read like modern-day Great Gatsby narratives.

I talked to four women who identify as Chinese American, Indian American, Vietnamese Canadian, and Vietnamese. They work as open source project managers, software engineers, and front end developers at tech companies. While many of the women I interviewed couldn’t relate to the privilege of being able to risk it all or wanting to sue an employer, parts of their lived experiences were certainly relatable. So I sought to tell their stories.

The Invisibility Conferred by the Model Minority Myth

Time-lapse shot of a hand waving in the air, appearing almost transparent.

Photo CC-BY Soffie Hicks, filtered.

Asian American women occupy spaces of privilege within the tech community: Asian American women are more represented in tech than Latina, Indigenous/Native, and Black women in tech. Take Facebook’s workforce: it is 34% Asian, but only 4% Hispanic and 2% Black.

Although privileged in the tech industry over many other women of color, Asian American women in tech still often lack representation in diversity discussions, missing out on self-reflective dialogue, resources, and opportunities which come as a result of coalition building. According to an article on the recent lawsuits brought by Asian American women, “the slew of lawsuits has shone a light on what appears to be a blind spot in the debates surrounding Silicon Valley’s diversity problem: how Asian women often fall through the cracks.”

This piece is about intersectionality and lived experiences, but it is also about invisibility. When it comes to diversity initiatives, Asian American women are often not seen as marginalized people but as the “model minority.” This leads many to overlook the racialized sexism facing Asian American women in this field, as well as how they are multiply-marginalized by race and gender as women of color in tech.

So many of the women I talked to recognized the influence of the model minority stereotype in their careers. Simply put, many of us can “pass” in spaces of mostly white men and women who are highly educated. Being a model minority can grant privileges, like the ability to feel you belong in the tech world. Many of us benefit from having already navigated mostly white male STEM environments in college, having educational privilege, and from being perceived as more technically adept than other groups of women. However, being a model minority can also make the problems facing us invisible.

Representation Does Not Mean Inclusion

Evidence that Asian American women haven’t been fully included in technology is found not only in recent lawsuits, but in the lack of Asian American women in tech leadership. In a study of major tech companies, researchers found that race, more so than gender, accounts for differences in promotions, and that white women have an advantage in being promoted compared to Asian American women. Looking at five major Silicon Valley companies, one of their key findings was that: “Asian women are the least represented as executives, relative to their percentage in the workforce.”

Describing why having Asian American women in tech leadership is important, Sumana Harihareswara, an Indian American open source project manager, said: “The more that a role model is like you in ways that you consider relevant, the more confident you will be that you can be successful.” Julia Nguyen, a CS student at Waterloo, told me that even though she has worked as an intern developer, simply being in that role hasn’t spared her from “brogrammer” culture. “Representation does not mean inclusion,” she said.

Sitting at the Intersection

Aerial shot of a crossroads.

Photo CC-BY ben britten, filtered.

In response to those who believe that being Asian effectively “cancels out” any biases that women may experience in the workplace, intersectionality is more of a layered and situational effect. When Asian American women were primed on their racial identity before taking a math test, they did better than the control group with no priming, receiving a stereotype boost; however, Asian American women who were primed with their female identity did worse, showing that stereotype threat changes with different situations. Having a racial identity associated with being good at math doesn’t necessarily protect Asian American women from dealing with stereotype threat associated with being a woman.

While the women I spoke to identify in many different ways, there are common threads they identified as specific to Asian American women. Daphne Kao, who works at a tech/data analytics startup in Chicago, said: “Women tend to feel bad about asking for more: more support, space, money, respect, responsibility, whatever. So do Asian people. What happens when you sit in the intersection?” Julia and I discussed how Asians often internalize issues that they face, and are taught not to question the status quo. Sumana discussed how many Asian American women are taught to excel at academic assessments and tasks with clear paths for success, but are often unprepared for the less-structured work environment.

Identities at Work

Being Asian American can span a wide variety of countries of origin and language: one person’s experience isn’t generalizable to all Asian Americans. Like myself, many of the women I interviewed were young and had grown up in the US or Canada. The struggles that we face are different from those of Asian American women who have mostly immigrated to the US as adults and are more likely to speak a second language at home. Asian American women in this group reported lower quality relationships with managers, as well as feeling that they have to change to fit into the office culture. As most startups skew towards hiring younger, more Americanized employees, possibly because of ageist biases and biases against specific foreign accents, many of the Asian American women who immigrated as adults are likely already excluded from the startup environment.

In talking to my interview subjects about their multiple gendered and racial identities, many expressed feeling their female identity more in tech spaces. Anh-Thu Huynh, a front end developer, told me that she felt more of her identity as a woman and a queer person rather than her identity as an Asian American. “I feel my femaleness and queerness more on a day-to-day basis because my coworkers don’t typically talk about race at work, but they do talk about dating and relationships,” she said. Perhaps she did not feel her Asian American identity as acutely because of the privileges afforded by the model minority stereotypes, and the representation at large tech companies.

The Narrower Tightrope

Woman walking on a railroad track as if it were a tightrope.

Photo CC-BY Mike Fernwood, filtered.

Researchers have found that Asian American women in STEM report more pressure to play stereotypically feminine roles in the office, and experience more backlash when they are more assertive, which is seen as masculine. According to the study, because Asians are seen as more feminine, they walk a narrower tightrope between being seen as too feminine (not competent) and too masculine (not likable). In the court documents for Ellen Pao’s case, the defense painted Pao as being off of the tightrope on both sides: she is described as “quiet ” and unable “to hold a room,” as well as “competitive.” Although these descriptions are at odds with one another, the defense used both to portray Pao as an unsuccessful leader.

Anh-Thu talked about how she felt she was rewarded at work for fitting a more feminine stereotype: “I felt that male engineers and designers were rude to my assertive female coworker, but worked well with me. I’m younger, smaller, and often read as more feminine, and I come across as more agreeable. In dealing with ego-driven men in tech, I find that it’s more effective to nudge them towards your idea, and I don’t mind doing so because it fits my personality. However, if I didn’t, I would find it very frustrating. I don’t think that anyone should have to moderate how they communicate because of their gender.”

For women who are not femme, non-binary Asian Americans, and others with gender identities and presentations outside of coercive gender norms, backlash may be harsher because of the extra level of femininity that is expected. In connection to #GiveYourMoneyToWomen, the work of walking a narrow tightrope and being properly feminine can be exhausting, and is ultimately uncompensated. In fact, there’s possible loss of compensation in being less assertive and less self-promoting, by missing out on credit or higher pay.

Anh-Thu told me that she traded the greater potential of being at a startup to work at a larger and more established company where she felt safer from harassment. She won’t be compensated for the trade-off she chose, yet if she were a white man she probably would not have had to make that choice.

Microaggressions at Work

Asian American women face many racialized and sexualized microaggressions at work. For example, a small microaggression I’ve experienced is that people have mistaken me for another Asian American woman who looks very different from me. Julia said that she had experienced the same thing, and that it contributes towards the stereotype that “all Asians look the same.” One Asian American woman I talked to remarked on the double consciousness that she experienced when someone remarked on “how smooth her skin [was].” She didn’t know if it came from a racist and/or sexist place or if she was being too sensitive.

Another problem that can come from being a model minority and sharing space with white male groups is imagined closeness on their part. Perhaps white men eagerly divulge racist or sexist comments to an Asian American friend because they feel that it won’t be taken as offensively. Chia Hong sued Facebook alleging that: “she was asked why she didn’t just stay home to take care of her children; ordered to organize parties and serve drinks to male colleagues; belittled or ignored at group meetings; and told she was not integrated into the team because she looks and talks differently.” In discussing the situation with Daphne, she said, “The thing is, I’ll bet money that many of those questions were asked as jokes, and the unreasonable requests were probably off-hand and second nature rather than premeditated.”

Gaslighting at Work

Gaslight illuminating an alley.

Photo CC-BY Roman Boed, filtered.

Sumana introduced me to the concept of gaslighting, used to describe an unhealthy dynamic where an abuser makes the victim doubt their own memory and perception. For example, Tina Huang filed a lawsuit against Twitter for gender discrimination, which states: “She was overlooked for a promotion to Senior Staff Engineer without good reason, that the company’s promotion practices favor men, and that when she complained she was put on administrative leave and ultimately forced to leave.” However, according to Twitter: “Ms. Huang resigned voluntarily from Twitter, after our leadership tried to persuade her to stay. She was not fired.”

While I don’t know all the facts of the situation, it’s typical for large tech companies to deny the lived experiences of women of color, particularly in workplace disputes. Sumana also brainstormed three different ways in which Asian American women are more susceptible to gaslighting in tech. One reason is that because there aren’t many Asian American women in the workplace, there are fewer allies who can confirm the wrongs that are taking place. For example, in a mostly male engineering group, perhaps few of Huang’s coworkers would understand her complaints about gender bias in promotions. Another reason ties into preconception that engineers are naturally truthful, so that it’s difficult to believe that they could engage in this type of truth-twisting. A third is that many Asian American women grow up being gaslit by our parents, even those who aren’t tiger moms. About her own upbringing, Sumana said: “I didn’t feel that my own truth was something I could share and feel power in.” Gaslighting is a real risk for Asian American women in the workplace.

Moving Forward: What Can Be Done?

Just acknowledging some of the issues is really just a start. Understanding the model minority myth and listening to our lived experiences can help make the experiences of Asian American women more visible; I’m really digging this article on being a Chinese-American woman. Startup culture is casual in so many ways; perhaps people need to be reminded that while they can wear their cargo shorts and t-shirts to work, they should leave their racist and sexist jokes at home. Managers, HR, and other tech workers need to educate themselves, and companies should include unconscious bias training.

How can we combat some of the issues mentioned here? We need to invite marginalized groups specifically, for example, organizing a diversity hackathon or publishing an issue of a technical publication written entirely by female authors. “We need to say to people, yes you, we really mean you,” Sumana said. Without this specific push, marginalized groups often assume that “everyone” does not include them. Asian American women should seek inclusion to and be invited to participate in the women-in-tech diversity discussion, as well as in tech management and leadership roles.

In addition, Sumana talked about the need for backchannels, that is, “spaces for marginalized people to share information to empower themselves that the dominant group would prefer them not to share.” An example of this is sharing salaries to try to negotiate for better pay. Backchannels can be great for combating gaslighting and also for creating a safe space where women feel like they can learn actively through making mistakes without being penalized. Communication needs to flow in both directions. Asian Americans should more openly share their experiences in tech, and men and people who aren’t Asian should actively reach out to women and Asians to backchannel with them.

And just like everyone else, Asian American women must also check our privileges. A great article on the role of Asian American men in tech advocating for diversity starkly states: “Asian American men who work in tech are benefitting from tech’s systematic exclusion of women and non-Asian minorities.” In regards to being more privileged than Latina, Black, and Native American women in the tech world, we should remember that privilege and coalition-building comes with a responsibility to continue working towards a more diverse and inclusive environment for all.