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Wednesday September 27, 2017

It's called the 'Pao effect' — Asian women in tech are fighting deep-rooted discrimination

Jessica Guynn, USA TODAY

SAN FRANCISCO — Sysamone Phaphon felt lucky when, after quitting her job in health care to start a tech company, she was approached by an investor at a pitch competition.

It was only after the investor lured her on a business trip to New York that she realized the offer to help her raise money was a ruse to sleep with her. 

Phaphon says it's an all too common experience for Asian women to get sexually harassed in the tech industry, part of routine discrimination that hampers their careers.

"I wasn’t the only woman at the pitch competition," says Phaphon, founder of FilmHero, a Web app for independent filmmakers. "I was the one he hit on because I was Asian."

By most measures, Asians and Asian Americans are well represented in tech, with 41% of jobs in Silicon Valley's top companies. Though Asian women hold fewer of those jobs than Asian men, they're employed in far greater numbers than other women of color, leading some to assume they do not face the same levels of discrimination as African Americans and Latinas.

Yet research from Joan C. Williams, a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law, shows that Asian women report experiencing as much bias, and sometimes more, than other women do. And Asian women are the demographic group that is the least represented in the executive suite relative to their percentage in the workforce, according to a study of major San Francisco Bay Area tech companies by the nonprofit Ascend Foundation.

"Asian women face a double whammy of racial and gender discrimination,” says Bo Ren, who worked as a product manager at Facebook and Tumblr.

Fighting to crack that leadened combination of glass ceiling and bamboo ceiling is the subject of Ellen Pao's new tell-all memoir out Tuesday. 

Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change details the legal battle against her former venture capital firm that captivated Silicon Valley and brought attention to discrimination against women, in particular Asian women. Pao accused Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers of not promoting her because of her gender and retaliating against her for complaining. She lost on all counts.

In Reset, Pao recalls going to work for Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers' John Doerr as his chief of staff. He picked her, she says, because he liked the idea of a "Tiger Mom-raised" woman. He had two chiefs of staff, the other one a man who focused mostly on investing, while she was asked to help with email, speeches, even babysitting his daughter and other "less desirable work." "There are certain things I am just more comfortable asking a woman to do," Pao recalls Doerr telling her.

"Some of us lose and some of us win," Pao writes to women in Reset. "What's important is that we're telling our stories and standing up for ourselves and for each other."

That's what some women have been doing since Pao filed her lawsuit in 2012, putting their careers on the line to call out companies and individuals that engaged in discrimination — and got away with it. In Silicon Valley, it's called the "Pao effect."

Software engineer Tracy Chou pressured some of technology’s most powerful companies to release annual demographic reports on their workforces, revealing just how few women and people of color they employ.

Female entrepreneurs, many of them Asian, stepped forward to expose the predatory behavior of tech investors who sexually harassed women, leading to those investors’ resignations and promises from the tech industry to reform. 

Phaphon says the example set by Pao and others gave her the courage to tell her story. "Only if we are willing to speak up will we be able to change the stereotypes," Phaphon says.

Typecast as meek, compliant and domestic, Asian women working in the tech industry say they are frequently pressured into traditionally feminine roles. They get stuck with office housework such as organizing team lunches and with grunt work such as fixing software bugs. 

With fewer "stretch" assignments that advance their careers, they say they encounter more bias on performance reviews and get overlooked for promotions and pay raises. When they assert or promote themselves, they say they're penalized. 

It's not just in big tech companies that Asian women face challenges. When pitching investors, Asian women entrepreneurs say they're told they speak too softly or that they should bring on a male co-founder. They are mistaken for other Asian women. And, they say, they get propositioned all the time.

Beatrice Kim sued her former employer BetterWorks and its then chief executive officer Kris Duggan in July, claiming he assaulted her in a sexually suggestive manner during a company retreat and permitted a hostile work environment in which vulgar remarks were made about women. After the lawsuit was filed, Duggan said he would step down as CEO to take the role of president.

In 2015, Chia Hong, a Taiwanese product manager, sued Facebook, saying her opinions were belittled or ignored in meetings, she was told she looked differently and talked differently than other team members and her boss had her organize parties and serve drinks to male colleagues. Hong dropped her case.

A former software engineer at Twitter, Tina Huang says when she complained the promotion process at the social media company was stacked against women, she was placed on administrative leave. Huang, ‎who's co-founder and chief technology officer of venture-funded tech startup Transposit, sued Twitter and in November is seeking class action status for the other female engineers she says were passed over.

"The story we tell ourselves is that Asian Americans are hardworking and industrious, meek and great at math, conforming, apolitical and, thus, upwardly mobile — but only up to a point," says Tina Lee, founder and CEO of, which trains women with kids for tech jobs. "We make great worker bees but we're not leadership material. This is doubly true for API (Asian-Pacific Islander) women."

Lee is the assertive and plain-spoken founder of a tech nonprofit. She says people often comment that she's "unconventional."

"People expect me to be a certain way and I show up another way. I am no more extroverted and loud than many white women I know, but I'm perceived as being unconventional because I'm not the meek Hello Kitty or the cold dragon lady they expect," she says.

Asian and Asian American women tend to get lumped into one highly educated, over-achieving, upwardly mobile category, obscuring the wide range of experiences in the Asian and Asian-American populations, from those who grow up economically disadvantaged to immigrant workers from a variety of different cultures.

From all appearances, entrepreneur and investor Susan Wu is your typical successful, Ivy League-educated Asian-American woman who has advised a who's who of tech companies, including Medium, Twitter and Square. 

What people don't know is that she had an abusive childhood marred by poverty and was shuttled to be with relatives when her mentally ill parents couldn't care for her, she says. 

"As an Asian American woman, I'm either a caricature object of sexual interest, a nerdy engineer, a newly arrived immigrant, a tiger mom or an aggressive dragon lady," Wu says.

Earlier this year, Wu spoke out about sexual harassment in the industry, saying that she was propositioned by Binary Capital investor Justin Caldbeck while she was fundraising in 2010. Many of the women who went public with allegations that they were sexually harassed by Caldbeck were Asian, too.

"I've been working in tech for 25 years and I'm still waiting to be treated as a whole human being as a default, not as an exception," she says.

Even with so many constraints, Asian women are making their mark in tech, from holding management jobs in major tech companies to running their own start-ups and venture funds. And that's lighting the way for others.

Every time Gladys Kong attends a tech conference, someone walks up to her and asks her a marketing or sales question while her male colleagues fields technical questions.

“I either have to wear a sign that I am an engineer or I have to show them I know what I am talking about," says Kong. “Yet I am the one behind building the product.”

Not only that, she's the one leading the company. Kong is CEO of mobile location and data company UberMedia and she's working to crack the stereotypical mold of what qualifies someone to be a leader in tech.

Kong didn't speak much English when she immigrated to the U.S. in high school. She focused on math and science, as she did in Hong Kong, and fell in love with programming. She worked at business incubator Idealab, started her own company and then in 2012 joined UberMedia.

Still not the first one to pipe up in a meeting, Kong says she prefers instead to listen to all ideas before sharing her opinion. But she is spending more time on the speaking circuit, determined to show young Asian women that there's room in the tech world for them, including at the top.

“Looking around you don’t see a lot of Asian women role models,” Kong says. “If I can inspire somebody to step up and do what they want to do, that is awesome to me.”

See original article here.

The views expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Asian Diversity.

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