The lack of Asian leadership in tech sheds
The lack of Asian leadership in tech sheds light on a larger issue: Asians are excluded from the idea of diversity
Years ago… they used to think you were Fu Manchu or Charlie Chan. Then they thought you must own a laundry or restaurant. Now they think all we know how to do is sit in front of a computer.
It was 1987 when Virginia Kee, then a 55-year-old a high school teacher in New York’s Chinatown, said the above words. She was one of several Asian-Americans who discussed the perception of their race for TIME’s cover story, “Those Asian-American Whiz Kids.” The cover story would elicit small-scale Asian boycotts of the magazine from those who found offensive the portrait of textbook-clutching, big-glasses brainiacs. To them, the images codified hurtful beliefs that Asians and Asian-Americans were one-dimensional: that they were robots of success, worshippers of the alphabet’s first letter, study mules branded with their signature eyes.
Today, Kee is 82. It has been nearly 70 years since the days when she avoided the public restroom “because it was white or colored”; nearly 20 years since she co-founded the Chinese-American Planning Council, then an unlikely social service for Asian-Americans, who were perceived to be sufficiently independent not to need it. And yet Kee, who still recalls the words she told TIME nearly 30 years ago, maintains that not much has changed.
“If you try to navigate the human part of it, we are seeing, as yellow people, our stereotypes still existing in the heads of many people. We don’t get the chance to really go through and break the glass ceiling,” Kee says. “We are putting limitations on our people.”
The longevity of the idea that “all [Asian Americans] know how to do is sit in front of a computer” was highlighted recently when several top technology firms released their first-ever diversity reports. Those reports and media discussion of their findings centered on the obvious, important problem: an under-representation of women, blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans. Very little was said of the discrepancy between the high percentage of Asian tech employees and the disproportionately low percentage of Asian leaders. The fact that Asians’ presence charted in bars more than a few pixels tall, it seemed, disqualified them from scrutiny.
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“There is an important conversation to be had in terms of who actually has full access to education and economic opportunities,” says Mary Lui, a professor of American and Asian-American Studies at Yale University. “But at the same time, think about what [not talking about Asian representation] might be saying in terms of Asian-Americans in the U.S.”
What it says is this: Asians and Asian-Americans are smart and successful, so hiring or promoting them does not count as encouraging diversity. It says: there is no such thing as underrepresentation of Asians and Asian-Americans. The problem with this belief, historians and advocates assert, is that it not only obscures the sheer range of experiences within Asian and Asian-American populations, but also excludes them from conversations about diversity and inclusion in leadership and non-tech sectors.
Not that this exclusion is a new phenomenon. Historians agree that diversity has turned a blind eye to Asians and Asian-Americans ever since the 1965 Immigration Act. With the conclusion of World War II, many ex-colonial Asian countries like the Philippines, South Korea and India had emphasized technical education to modernize and industrialize their new national economies. The Immigration Act permitted the migration of those highly educated Asians as a means of recruiting science, technology or engineering experts to the U.S. during the Cold War era.
For over half a century, the growth of the Asian-American population in the U.S. had been stunted, first by racially-motivated exclusionary laws that banned Asian immigration and later by annual quotas. But within years of the 1965 act, that population boomed. By the 1970s and 1980s, the image of Asian-Americans was no longer of the alien invaders washing ashore in California during the Gold Rush, the faceless bachelors laying the cold steel of the Transcontinental Railroad, or the land-grabbing and job-stealing migrants. The new Asian-Americans were scientists, doctors, programmers and engineers. They were thriving.
By the mid- to late-1980s, the notion of Asian-Americans as universally successful was everywhere. Major news organizations lauded them as the “model minority” — a term first coined in 1966 when first the New York Times and then U.S. News and World Report published stories that suggested Asian-Americans, through their steely work ethic and quiet perseverance, were uniformly triumphant despite prejudice. The idea elicited criticism, particularly from Asian-American groups whose problems were made invisible behind the guise of universal success: the displaced Laotian and Cambodian refugees of the Vietnam War, or the elderly Filipinos fighting to save their low-cost I-Hotel housing complex from urban renewal.
TIME was not immune to the model minority craze. In 1985, two years before its controversial cover story, TIME published an article called “To America With Skills: A Wave of Arrivals From the Far East Enriches the Country’s Talent Pool.” The piece documented the flood of Asian-Americans into high-paying careers and elite universities with decidedly less focus on marginalized groups like poor Chinese launderers, unassisted Vietnamese refugees or underpaid South Asian cab drivers: