Asian women in the tech industry face an entirely different set of difficulties at work than their white peers, a new study finds. East, Southeast and South Asian women reported issues like feeling discriminated against because of accents or being forced to fill more administrative roles.
While Asian women are better represented in the industry than other women of color, that doesn’t protect them from facing challenges, Joan Williams, a feminist scholar and professor at the University of California, Hastings School of the Law, told NBC Asian America.
“Asian American women reported many of the worst experiences,” she said. “Asian Americans aren’t underrepresented [in tech]. They’re stuck. And they’re underrepresented in leadership positions.”
“Pinning Down the Jellyfish: The Workplace Experiences of Women of Color in Tech,” co-written by Williams, surveyed over 200 women in tech across racial demographics from 2019 to 2020. The women shared anecdotes about the bias they often experienced and how it affects the way they move in their work environment.
East Asian women, for example, were 42 percent more likely than white women to report being demeaned and disrespected, stereotyped, left out of the loop and treated like they were invisible. South Asian women reported they were pitted against one another in the workplace and encountered the “forever foreigner” stereotype, where their competency and language skills were questioned.
“I had to make sure that when I spoke my spoken English, each sentence I made, that it was grammatically right and not colloquial because I knew that it was important, at that time, because I was being judged,” one Indian woman said in the report.
Southeast Asian women were 57 percent more likely than white women to report feeling forced to be a provider of emotional support in the workplace in instances when other colleagues are upset, for example. They also said they felt policed into traditionally feminine roles, like administrative tasks or even physical housekeeping.
South Asian women reported diminished perceptions of their competence and commitment post-children at a level of 17 percentage points higher than white women, according to the study. Many participants said coworkers expressed concerns that they would one day have too many children to work.
“South Asian women from India and Pakistan super interestingly dealt with the assumption that they will have too many children,” Williams said. Those numbers were more salient with Latina women in previous studies she has worked on.
On the whole, women of color in tech have their work called into question more often than white women, and survey respondents felt they often had to work harder than their peers.
“They literally have to be better because their successes are discounted and their mistakes are interpreted as a lack of talent,” Williams said. “Whereas white men’s mistakes are much more likely to be written off as just a fluke.”
These feelings lead Asian women in the workplace to take on extra work, Williams said, including managing company diversity initiatives that are beyond their job descriptions. Many forms of additional labor taken on by women of color in tech go unpaid and unrecognized, and sometimes it’s even expected to be done as volunteer work.
“Some were even handed all of DEI [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion] without additional compensation” Williams said.
Too often, workplace inclusivity efforts aren’t holistic or concrete, she said, but rather come in the form of conversations or meetings.
“Sincere conversations are really great for the soul, but they’re not an effective organizational change tool,” she said. “They need to look at the data, and unfortunately, that data has a tale to tell.”
White executives seeking to understand the experience of women of color in their businesses need to look more closely at the demographics of who is getting hired, promoted and assigned career-enhancing work, according to Williams.
“We ended up finding that the experiences of women of color tended to cluster together, and kind of far away from white women,” she said. “And white women are far away from white men, so that’s a pretty strong statement.