Why is there a lack of female Asian leaders in tech?

Different leadership styles and cultural values may contribute to less female Asian leadership in tech.

It’s no secret that the tech industry suffers from a diversity problem.

But to say that Asians are an under-represented demographic in this sector would be largely deceptive.

According to data from Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, Asians make up at least a third of each company’s workforce. At Facebook, Asians have actually become the majority racial group, making up 52 percent of its workforce. On the other hand, Black and Latinx workers continue to represent a small, and often minuscule percentage of these big tech companies.

Despite their strong overall presence in the industry, Asians, and especially Asian women, are significantly under-represented in the executive and management levels of tech.

According to a 2017 report by Ascend, Asians are the least likely racial group to be promoted into leadership ranks in the Bay Area tech sector. Asian women are the least likely to become executives.

A Lack of Female Asian Leaders

The lack of female Asian leaders in tech may seem surprising, as Asian Americans are often seen as the “model minority,” embodying traits that lead to success and advancements in their career. But after listening to the experiences of some Asian women employed at big tech companies, I was able to get a better sense of why this demographic faces a particularly large gap between the number of professionals and the number of leaders. 

Before we move on, a necessary disclosure...

I want to acknowledge that the category of “Asian women” is very broad, and the qualities and experiences discussed in this article are definitely not representative of and relatable to all Asian women. But hopefully they will provide some insight into why there aren’t more female Asian leaders in tech, and how we can change that.

“Promotable” Traits

At many tech companies, including Amazon and Google, you have to recommend yourself in order to get promoted.

This self-initiated process definitely caters toward certain personality types. For instance, an employee who is overconfident in their abilities will benefit. Their bravado and outspoken nature will help them rise through the ranks faster. On the other hand, someone who underestimates themselves or has impostor syndrome will be less likely to initiate the process.

A software engineer at Apple says that since Asian women are stereotypically soft-spoken, it could be harder for them to move up at a company where you have to pitch yourself for a promotion. At Apple, the promotion process is initiated by the manager rather than the employee, so when she got promoted, she was not even expecting it.

“I definitely would not have asked to get promoted myself,” she says.

But even at Apple, she thinks that employees can rise through the ranks faster if they are pushier with their managers. When these “promotable” traits are not natural to an employee’s culture or values, it can be more difficult for them to advance in their career.

Communication Style

In a male-dominated field, having a loud, confident, and even confrontational communication style is usually appreciated in the workplace.

"At Google, employees who are more comfortable interrupting others, or more confident in speaking up even when they are not sure will tend to dominate the conversation and be seen as a potential leader," says a product manager at Google.

This PM often feels that her communication style does not align with what typically succeeds in her organization.

“How Asian women tend to act in my culture is part of it, and the other part is that I had a lot of impostor syndrome as the only woman and only person of colour on my team,” she says.

A senior software engineer at Microsoft also identifies communication style as a key factor in rising to the top.

“As you go up in management, you have to have a certain type of personality—firm, assertive, more dominant,” she says.

This means that employees who are more quiet, less confrontational, and afraid to be wrong will likely be seen as unfit for leadership. Especially for Asian immigrants who are not yet fluent in English, communication style could drag them down, even if they have the attributes to be a good manager.

Role Models

Having people to look up to and relate to was a common desire among the women I spoke with.

“What we value is very different from the people in charge right now,” says the product manager at Google. “Leaders in tech are usually brash, overconfident, action-oriented, and okay if people don’t like them. There’s not many empathetic leaders out there who care more about diversity and inclusion than being right and getting growth metrics to go up."

For many young Asian women in tech, there are very few role models (or none at all) to look up to on their team.

During her rotation program right out of college, the software engineer at Apple only had one female manager out of the six teams she worked with. Even after two years at Apple, she still does not know any Asian women at the senior level.

As for the senior software engineer at Microsoft, she feels very lucky to have had an Asian woman, who is now the general manager, on her team from the start of her career.

“If you have at least one person in a position of power who you can semi-relate to, that in itself is very empowering,” she says. “You start to think: If she can do it, why can’t I.”

Having leaders with diverse backgrounds often causes a trickle-down effect, bringing in more diverse employees in terms of gender, race, socioeconomic status, and more. It stems from the fact that people gravitate toward those who they can relate to, and teams in which they will feel more comfortable.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about how hard it is to find good role models of strong, successful Asian women leaders in tech companies, but I’ve realized you can’t let that discourage you,” says the product manager at Google. “Once you are in those positions, you can have a lot of impact on the downstream process. A lot of people who try to get there may not succeed, but each step is a step closer, and it can only get better, even if it’s hard.”

When there’s an environment with a few, it will foster more.

And when you have to be the first, it will always be the hardest. However, your presence is important: it's creating a space for more people like you. So in the meantime, it’s up to those currently in the workforce to carve out a path to the top. They have the power to create a new image of all the different ways a leader in tech can look.

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