The Ongoing Journey of AAPI Representation in Tech
May 28, 2021By Peter Wang
This year’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month comes at a pivotal time for the community. On the one hand, there has never been more public dialogue about diversity and inclusion, including those issues affecting the AAPI community. Yet, we have also seen a troubling rise in violence and prejudice against Asian Americans in recent months. While there are no simple solutions to these challenges, AAPI Heritage month provides an opportunity to uplift AAPI voices and encourage Asian Americans to share their stories. As a first-generation Chinese American and co-founder of Anaconda, I believe I am responsible for sharing my perspective, particularly about the Asian American experience in the technology field.
When I arrived in the U.S. at seven years old, there were very few Chinese Americans where I lived. I didn’t experience many instances of outright discrimination, but I was constantly aware of my status as an immigrant. At the time, I was simply grateful for the opportunities to which I had access, viewing inevitable setbacks as just another challenge to meet. However, I later realized that this optimistic perspective is a privilege that not everyone enjoys.
When I entered the workforce, my understanding of bias sharpened. As my career progressed, I saw the Asian glass ceiling effect—subtle stereotypes and structures that can prevent AAPI professionals from reaching the top ranks of their organizations. And nowhere are these obstacles more present than in the tech field. That observation might at first seem strange; how can this be the case, considering the many East and South Asians in the industry?
The rosy perception of AAPI representation in tech may be part of the problem. Sheer numbers do not make up for the fact that very few AAPI candidates make it to boardroom-level positions. There is a common expression among East Asian tech networks that the only way to get promoted to the C-suite is to start your own company. Unfortunately, data supports this view; research shows that while Asian Americans are hired into tech jobs more than any other racial group, we are the least likely to advance to senior management levels.
Why are there so few CEOs of Asian descent? For one, many tech companies exclude “overrepresented” AAPI identities from their diversity and inclusion initiatives. Organizations trot out data on their high numbers of Asian American employees when they need to prove their commitment to diversity, only for these groups to be rendered invisible most other times. This is often illustrated with the pervasive stereotype of the “quiet Asian nerd,” considered a talented worker but not a leader.
As a Chinese American, I also know firsthand the experience of many Asian Americans growing up in cultural contexts that don’t always encourage boldly raising your voice and sharing your perspective in a professional setting. But we need more Asian voices in conversations around diversity and inclusion. As a student, young professional, or a seasoned professional in a new environment, it is vital to be observant and understand the nuanced context of your particular situation. But once you’ve done that, it’s also essential to form your own opinions and be vocal about them when needed. This will encourage others to do the same and strengthen our collective voice. Being a respectful colleague, dedicated employee, and hard worker is not incongruous with sharing your perspective and advocating for change.
In addition, AAPI leaders who have broken through barriers must also let down the ladders behind them. It is incumbent upon those with visibility to drive nuanced conversations with their peers on race, prejudice, and class. To be successful, efforts to develop AAPI talent must have buy-in from the very top. This also includes C-suite leaders outside of the AAPI community, who must commit to making AAPI inclusion more than a box-checking exercise. Leaders must summon the strength to show vulnerability and an openness to learning to enact real change.
At Anaconda, we are invested in diverse talent and programs to support individuals of all races, beliefs, and backgrounds, and we’re shaping a culture of inclusivity. We continue to prioritize diversity initiatives from our D&I committee, virtual employee resource groups, and community outreach initiatives like volunteering with Girls Who Code and Breaking the Glass. We know there is still work to do. As we continue to evolve, we are organizing additional ways to give back and support Asian American and Pacific Islanders, and many other underrepresented populations.
After a challenging year for the AAPI community, there is hope for a brighter future. Marginalized voices across racial, ethnic, and gender lines are making themselves heard in boardrooms, at the polls, and on the streets, and this trend can and should continue within our community, too. Conversations about race are just the beginning. I encourage everyone in the tech industry to participate in these conversations and work together to enact change where needed.