Is There a Glass Ceiling for Asians in Silicon Valley?

A new study by a pair of retired Cisco and IBM execs (covered in this PE Hub piece) argues that Asians are disproportionately underrepresented at the senior management level. After surveying the 25 largest companies in the valley, they found that just 6% of board members and 10% of officers were of Asian descent.

In contrast, Asians make up 30% of the population of Silicon Valley (and far more in enclaves such as Milpitas and Cupertino).

My first reaction to the piece was that there was nothing sinister about the statistic. After all, most senior managers are older, and my parents’ generation of immigrants (who came over in the 60s and 70s) while enormously talented, were extremely technically focused (most came over to get their Engineering PhDs) and hampered by being non-native English speakers. They achieved great success and prosperity, but it’s generally difficult to ascend to the executive suite via the technical track, and without great English communications skills.

While I have certainly experienced discrimination (I have often commented that supermarket checkers are far more likely to change their receipt paper rolls when my turn arrives–it has happened to me dozens of times in my life), I have never experienced any racism in my professional life.

However, I’ve spent my entire career in the startup field, where there’s no resources to spare for luxuries such as racism. After all, when you’re watching every penny and desperately trying to find good people, worrying about the color of their skin is stark raving madness.

The same is not true in large companies, whose interiors are insulated from market forces.

What really changed my mind were the comments on the PE Hub post. Check out this doozy:

“As a board member who is a white male, I think it is a matter of maintaining a certain kind of fluidity and comfort level within the board. By having a more homogeneous group, although there may be differing opinions, debates and discussions are not misinterpreted to be cultural in any way. Perhaps it could be viewed as maintaining a white hegemony, and there is some degree of truth to this I think. Recalling the book The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, in which at the paint factory, in order to obtain the most white paint, a hint of black was required to maintain and perhaps preserve structural hierarchy. This probably applies to Asian men in the corporate world – hence the ceiling. As for Asian women, we will take as many of them as we can – who are competent of course. Generally they listen well and very adept and supportive.”

I sincerely hope that this comment was written as sarcasm, but I have a sinking feeling that this reflects sincere beliefs. It is certainly more convenient and comfortable to surround oneself with similar people, but it is certainly not the best way to succeed as a business.

8 thoughts on “Is There a Glass Ceiling for Asians in Silicon Valley?

  1. I’ve also spent my career in startups, and while there’s no obvious “racism”, there’s definitely a network of “people you know”. In my case, it happens that my network includes lots of Indians and East Asians, so when I’m hiring people in a startup, they get called.

    Startups can’t afford massive resume crawls, especially early on, and place great value on team cohesion, since you’re basically going into battle with these people. So, every startup I’ve worked at collect resumes first from people that the founders know and presumably get along well with.

    “Difficult” people, people with “attitude”, or people who don’t socialize much outside their immediate circle do more poorly than those who are reasonably social.

    As for bigger companies, one thing I’ve learned is the culture of a company is determined at a very early phase, and once set, is hard to change. If it startus up as a clubby culture of white guys who randomly chat about golf – or even a bunch of Eastern European hard-chargers – it will likely stay that way. For that matter, if it is an “Indian” or “Chinese” company, it’ll probably stay that way.

  2. Wait – by “Asian” do you mean Chinese, Japanese, Corean, Singaporean, et al, but not those from the Indian subcontinent? Just curious. (In the UK, “Asian” always refers to people from the Indian subcontinent.) I wonder how the stats would shape up depending on which Asian peoples are included.

  3. Wow. That comment is the most idiotic thing I’ve read in a long time. The last such thing was gender-based taxes.

    “Half the taxpayers are women–men commit the most crime. Many women pay for male crime with their lives, but all women taxpayers pay for male crime with their tax dollars. Men are expensive. Ninety-four percent of all prisoners are male. Whether it is robbery, burglary, white-collar crime, crime against children, crime against women, drug dealing, drunk driving, murder, crime in government, or gang violence; Crime and Violence is a masculine statement.

    If we could convince men that crime is a male statement for which they should pay more tax dollars, there’s a possibility they might “clean up their act.” Millions of men beat their wives, creating the need for battered women’s shelters. The fastest growing crime, rape, terrifies half the population of this country. Hate crimes are encouraged by male organizations, such as the skinheads and the KKK. Yet where is the outrage at all this male crime?”

  4. Anonymous

    I feel sorry for the company this jerk is a Board Member of (if he really is).

  5. So this guy thinks that:
    1. non-white people are paranoid & always complaining about nonexistent "racism" ("cultural" stuff),
    2. the ceiling exists to protect white people from being turned too dark, which is perfectly reasonable,
    3. non-white people are only let into white circles because it helps white people define themselves/feel better,
    4. Asian women are all submissive babes whose goal is to please all white men.

    It seems more like a joke the more you think about it, but that's true of all racism- because it's so stupid & immoral.

  6. How many African-Americans are executives in Silicon Valley?

  7. I had the good fortune, over a six year period, to watch a major consumer products firm move from all white males in the exec ranks to a much more diverse group,including African Americans and women. The team went from 100%
    white male, to approximately 35% women and African Americans. It took place because of marketing strategy input from McKinsey and my own input and experience from Minnesota which tends to be a bit more enlightened about such issues. It was largely driven by the COO and CFO (the CEO was more hands-off, but, as a marketing person, recognized the value of a diverse leadership team). Fortunately, there were a number of strong blacks and women available.

    That experience points to the necessity of senior officers leading such decisions. (HR largely went along for the ride).

  8. When I look around at society, people of the same race or culture tend to gravitate towards each other. Just look at high school: the asian kids hang out with the asian kids and the white kids hang out with the white kids. Sure, there are exceptions, but for the most part, this is how it naturally is.

    I’m not too surprised to see the investor/board member talk that way. It’s all about comfort, familiarity, and being with someone of the same race (or is similar to you) is comfortable.

    I’m going up north today (Cupertino area) and speaking at the YPulse Conference. I am an entrepreneur and it would be amazing to sit down this week over a cup of tea and chat about startups. My contact is me[at]

    Just stumbled and submitted your site to Viralogy. Hope you get some great traffic from it.

    – Jun

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