Being a model minority is a double-edged sword in Silicon Valley

Gender discrimination is everyone’s problem.
Gender discrimination is everyone’s problem.
Image: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File
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Three years ago, Ellen Pao—former junior partner of Silicon Valley venture capital group Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers—filed a lawsuit against her former employers, citing a culture of gender bias and sexual harassment targeting female employees. Earlier last week, lawyers in her suit against Kleiner completed their closing statements with a plea for greater efforts to address gender equality in the tech industry. And on Mar. 27, a jury failed to find Kleiner Perkins liable in Pao’s lawsuit.

Throughout the trial, Pao has endured the usual victim-blaming, character assassination and mudslinging used to dismiss, invalidate, and insubstantiate the experiences of women who speak out against gender discrimination. She has been tone policed. She has been slut-shamed. She has been labeled a gold digger. She has been accused of being untalented, amateurish, and unprofessional. The message Kleiner’s lawyers are trying to communicate is clear: Ellen Pao is a lone voice trying to capitalize off an imagined gender problem in Silicon Valley.

The problem for Silicon Valley is that Ellen Pao is not alone.

Ellen Pao and attorney Therese Lawless leave the courtroom after losing in Pao’s high profile gender discrimination lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers.
Ellen Pao and attorney Therese Lawless leave the courtroom after losing in Pao’s high profile gender discrimination lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers.
Image: Reuters/Beck Diefenbach

Earlier this month, Chia “Chloe” Hong filed a civil suit against Facebook for gender discrimination. Days later, software engineer Tina Huang filed a civil suit against Twitter, also alleging gender discrimination in the company’s failure to promote women to management positions. All three of these high-profile gender bias lawsuits have been filed by Asian American women. So why is the greater Asian American community still privileging discussions anti-Asian racism while ignoring gender discrimination?

Geek bro culture

The tech industry’s “gender problem” has been a topic of conversation for several years, and is representative of the larger “geek bro” cultural phenomenon within such traditionally nerdy spaces as comic books, video games and—yes—the tech industry. As with comic books and video games, the growing visibility of women in communities stereotypically male-dominated has prompted broad—and inflammatory—gendered backlash. Within the video game industry, for example, feminist programmers and culture critics face a daily barrage of sexual harassment and death threats. Among comic book fans, feminists are disparagingly labelled as bullies while they field death threats of their own for questioning the medium’s reinforcement of sexism and rape culture.

Arthur Chu— who has developed a strong portfolio of feminist writing as it intersects with geek culture—suggests that within these communities, nerdy men reap the benefits of male privilege while they are disadvantaged by conventional ideals of masculinity. This simultaneous dissonance leaves nerds with a deep-seated entitlement complex over women, creating a gendered hierarchy—with all its inherent male privilege—to help men achieve a limited “alpha male” status denied them by the broader world’s toxic masculinity. Thus, these become spaces not only hostile to women, but in many ways dependent upon their hostility to women.

It would be naive to suggest that within these spaces—as within the larger mainstream—race is not a factor in manifestations of sexism.

Racialized misogyny

Traditionally, we have applied a “one size fits all” approach to our understanding of misogyny, yet increasingly we have come to recognize how race intersects with and nuances manifestations of sexism and misogyny. For Asian American women, too, misogyny takes on a distinct flavor.

A recent report on the gender bias faced by women of color in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) reveals the distinct stereotypes that form the foundation of gender discrimination in the workplace, and how intersections of race matter therein. In brief, women of color in STEM describe how their experiences with workplace gender discrimination—and the tactics they use to these roadblocks—varies substantially by race.

Consistent with society’s larger treatment of Asian American women, Asian American women in STEM are stereotypically relegated to the role of the submissive, the demure, and the unassuming. Frequently, we are positioned as the “wedge female”—more feminine, well-mannered, and eager-to-please than our non-Asian female counterparts. We are expected to model “acceptably feminine behavior” for the “uppity” non-Asian woman. We, as Asian American women, are stereotyped as knowing our place.

Paradoxically, the STEM profession values assertiveness and forthrightness. Thus, Asian American women describe how in STEM, we are simultaneously upheld as the “model female,” while we are also frequently professionally punished for it. Like many Asian American women, Tina Huang says she was passed over for promotion at Twitter despite her demonstrated talent. Like many Asian American women, Chia Hong describes how male colleagues at Facebook belittled her for not being a stay-at-home mom while demanding she play the gendered role of den mother for the office. Like many Asian American women, Ellen Pao describes how she was expected to be sexually available for her male colleagues, and faced frequent unwanted sexual advances while working at Kleiner.

In STEM, as in the wider world, racialized anti-Asian misogyny combines the logic of sexism and Orientalism to reinforce white male control and deny Asian American woman respect as intellectual peers. This institutionalized gender bias has quantifiable consequences: in STEM, Asian American women face systemic barriers by virtue of both race and gender—a “bamboo glass ceiling”—that delays upward mobility and causes large numbers of Asian American women to exit the workforce. Those who remain are paid 79 cents to the dollar paid to an Asian American man (the largest gender pay gap within an ethnicity, albeit the smallest gap when compared with white male averages.)

Asian Americans and male privilege in tech

While the tech industry is absurdly male-dominated—on average 12% of tech company employees are women—prejudice is no longer simply a white issue. In 2010, reports showed that for the first time, more than half of the Bay Area’s tech employees were Asian American. Indeed, many of the male partners cited by Ellen Pao as contributing to the culture of sexual harassment at Kleiner are Asian American.

Let me be clear: in no way am I saying that the tech industry is sexist solely because of Asian American men. Orientalism dates to 12th century European assertions of its own colonialist and militaristic supremacy over the Middle East and Eastern Asia. But as the recent spate of lawsuits prove, in order to create a truly equal workplace, Asian American programmers must enthusiastically challenge white supremacy as well as its inherently sexist parallel logic.

That said, so long as we witness—and our brothers derive benefits from—a culture that harasses women while shrugging our shoulders and saying, “it’s not my problem,” we are failing Asian American women while undermining our own larger race advocacy efforts.

For too long, the Asian American community has been resistant to talking about gender discrimination, even as it privileges Asian American men and disadvantages Asian American women. Some of us actively discourage the framing of Asian American men as simultaneously disenfranchised by race while privileged by gender, or go so far as to delegitimize the Asian American feminist for her feminism.

Conversations about male privilege do not undermine equally legitimate conversations about anti-Asian American racism. When we act as if they do, we imply that the plight of the Asian American woman should take a backseat to that of Asian American men. Once again, Asian American women are reminded they should be playing the role of the submissive, expected to accomplish the impossible task of divorcing our race politic from our gender politic—as if the two can be distinguished.

Women cannot be expected to dismantle the tech industry’s culture of racialized misogyny alone.

By virtue of our privilege, Asian American programmers are in the room in a way that other programmers of color are not, wielding a numerical majority in Silicon Valley even while excluded from leadership roles. By virtue of their privilege, Asian American male programmers are in the room in a way that Asian American female programmers are not. We as a community must unite to take a strong political stand against both racial and gender discrimination in the tech industry—as it disadvantages both the male and female Asian American programmer and any other programmer of color.

But we have to first recognize gender equality as an Asian American issue, too.