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Asians hit a glass ceiling in Silicon Valley

A new analysis of Silicon Valley companies, including LinkedIn, found that there were few Asians in the executive ranks. A new analysis of Silicon Valley companies, including LinkedIn, found that there were few Asians in the executive ranks.
A new analysis of Silicon Valley companies, including LinkedIn, found that there were few Asians in the executive ranks.

Diversity in Silicon Valley has become a big issue in the last few years, although the problem itself goes back decades. In 1999, during the dotcom boom, Fortune pointed out that race wasn’t even on corporate agendas.

Things have changed in some ways, at least in terms of attention. Some industry giants have published diversity data. Fortune has ranked some tech companies on diversity. But the focus primarily has been on engineers and programmers.

In general, Asian-Americans have made progress in representation up to a point, according to a new report from Ascend, a Pan-Asian organization for business professionals. While they have some strength in technical roles, the progress hasn’t extended to the upper ranks.

“If you step in the cafeteria of any of these five companies, you will see plenty of Asian talent around,” Denise Peck, a study co-author and former Cisco Systems executive, told Associated Press. “It’s only when you walk into the executive suites at these companies that you might see a problem.”

The authors crunched previously unavailable EEOC data for 2013 released by Google, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, LinkedIn, and Yahoo, which includes data for 139,370 professionals. They found that whites were overrepresented in management (72.2%) and executive (80.3%) roles compared to the 62.2% of professional technical staff they represented. And, they found that Asians were 27.2% of professionals, 18.8% of managers, and 13.9% of executives.

Blacks, Hispanics, and individuals of other races were 10.7% of professionals, 7.3% of managers, and 5.8% of executives.

The report also broke out representation by race and gender and then created an Executive Parity Index. The authors took each group and divided the percentage of professional workers they represented into their percentage of executives. The result would be 1 if the percentages were equal, greater than 1 if the percentage of executives was higher than the percentage of professionals, and less than 1 if the percentage of executives was lower. The lower the EPI, the less likely it was that someone would make it to the top.



Executives were far more likely to be white men than technical professionals were.

Asian women, in particular, faced a “double whammy” of racial and sexual discrimination, according to the report. The study found there is only one Asian female executive for every 287 Asian women professional jobs at the five companies. By comparison, there was one white female executive for every 123 white women in professional jobs, Ascend said. The ratio for white men was one executive for every 87 professional jobs.

The analysis focused primarily on Asian representation, at least in part because the total small executive representation of black and Hispanic men and women made an analysis of executive positions “highly sensitive to small changes.”

The definition of parity can be misleading. For example, women are generally underrepresented in technology companies. Executive parity only means that they are in roughly the same percentage of executive roles as in technical roles. So, Asians aren’t at executive parity because the 13.9% in executive roles and 18.8% in management roles aren’t equal to the 27.2% in the professional workforce in these five companies.

However, Asians make up only 5.3% of the total population, according to the Census Bureau, so in respect to the general population, they are overrepresented. Whites, who make up 77.7% of the general population, are 62.2% of the professional workforce, 72.7% of managers, and 80.3 percent of executives, according to the Ascend analysis.

According to the authors, who note their lack of experience in social sciences, many Asians they have mentored or coached tend to “underappreciate the importance of personal and organizational leadership skills as requisites for higher management roles” and saw the root causes as “gaps in awareness and expectation rather than a failure of meritocracy.” At the same time, many non-Asian managers have an “implicit and often misguided expectation … that most Asians, by demonstrating technical excellence, prefer technical roles and do not aspire to leadership levels.”

To be sure, there are Asians who have scaled the top of Silicon Valley companies, including Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO, Shantanu Narayen, Adobe’s CEO, and Lisa T. Su, AMD’s CEO.

Fortune asked each of the five companies for an interview or statement. Here are their responses:

  • Google: Referred to a blog post from yesterday addressing some steps it was taking to increase diversity. A company spokesperson also told Fortune “that we’re committing $150 Million to diversity in 2015” but that “money alone won’t make the difference – it’s the strategy and plan that makes all the difference.”
  • Hewlett-Packard: Did not respond.
  • Intel: Sent a statement that said, in part, “Intel is committed to diversity and inclusion throughout our entire workforce” and that the company created a “$300 million diversity in technology fund” to help increase the number of under-represented minorities and women by the year 2020.
  • LinkedIn: A company statement called “[w]orkforce diversity and inclusion … a critically important issue for LinkedIn.” The company said it was making progress and that, while not having released its most recent diversity numbers yet, has “seen improvement specifically in the Asian leadership category.”
  • Yahoo: The company referred to its Workforce Diversity at Yahoo webpage.