Thursday, May 28, 2009

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.