The Bamboo Ceiling in the Tech Sector Is a Story About Race

Recent reports indicating a lack of racial and gender diversity at major tech companies like Google, Apple, and Yahoo, among others, have rekindled discussion among Asian Americans about a phenomenon known as the bamboo ceiling. The bamboo ceiling is the Asian equivalent of the glass ceiling, that invisible yet all too consequential barrier that prevents women from rising to executive positions in public and private sector employment.

The reason for all the talk is that, while African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans are underrepresented in tech sector employment, Asian Americans aren’t. In fact, we’re over-represented.

Asian Americans are 23 percent of the work force at Apple, 34 percent at Google, 41 percent at Facebook, and 57 percent at Yahoo. These are stunning numbers considering Asian Americans are only 5.3 percent of the general U.S. population.

However, our representation at the highest levels of these same companies is far less robust. We’re generally under-represented in management relative to the demographics of the tech workforce being managed. In other words, we’re much more likely to be hired than other people of color, but once hired, we tend to stay stuck in technical positions, basically gloried tradespersons, while white males dominate at the top. Worse, according to the researchers at the American Institute for Economic Research, Asian American tech-sector workers labor under a wage gap.

In 2012, Asians on average made $8,146 less per year than whites in the tech sector, $3,656 less than Blacks, and $6,907 less than those who identified as “other.” So, the story goes, the tech sector is full of Asians, but those Asians still suffer wage inequities and seem to be missing in action at or near the top of these companies, and this in spite of making up such a large percentage of the overall workforce.

It seems that, in general, whether we are laying the tracks for the transcontinental railroad or laying down code for the information superhighway, race continues to function as class for Asians in America.

I know some will argue that Asians enjoy relative privilege in the tech sector, and I agree. We do better than other people of color, and Asian American men certainly do better than women as a group who are both grossly under-represented in the sector and, additionally, earn $6,358 less per year than men. And if you add the relatively low rates of short-term unemployment of Asians, we, at least on the surface, appear to do very well indeed, at least as an aggregate, by which I mean as long as we’re lumped together across ethnic differences and immigration status, geography, language, culture, gender, and class as “Asian.”

But, privileged or not, the story of Asians in the tech sector and in the U.S. is a story about race to which we should be paying special attention. Why? Because from its inception as a justification for native genocide and slavery, race has always functioned as class in America. And today, what we are witnessing in the way of disparities in wealth, education, employment, and lack of social mobility across race is the contemporary legacy of that history.

Race was invented to serve as a form of labor classification in the U.S., the perpetuation of which required the legal exclusion of people of color from public life. In the case of Blacks, it required a general consensus that it was acceptable to class them as commodities. Segregation and historic bans against voting faced by Asians, Blacks, and other people of color in U.S. history weren’t just acts of racial hatred. They were politically necessary to perpetuate race as class in a hierarchy that we now know as white supremacy.

The stereotypes that were invented about us served this hierarchy. They were created or adopted in order to justify white racial dominance, but not just in order for whites to feel superior. White racial dominance allowed elite whites to profit from the exploitation of people of color.

For Asian Americans, the stereotype that justified the way we were treated in the past was the perpetual foreigner trope. As perpetual foreigners, we might be useful workers, but we would never make acceptable citizens worthy of ordinary civil rights. And that meant we could be super-exploited in the American workforce, or excluded any time we were perceived to be threats to white labor.

Today we’ve evolved into the model minority – compliant, stoical, hard working followers; really ideal workers. The trope was popularized order to serve U.S. foreign policy interests in the WWII and Cold War eras, and then was adopted as a foil against Black demands for racial equality during the years of the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of Black Power.

Being the model minority might explain why we are so over-represented in the tech sector. The Asian model minority is assumed to be good at math and technically adept. We’re supposed to value hard work for its own sake, which leads to the belief that we produce a lot, presumably with precision but without complaint. And if we live up to these characteristics, we become profit centers in the companies that hire us without threatening the security of those at the top.

Profit, by the way, is how exploitation is measured. When measuring degrees of exploitation at work, we must always ask, how much benefit does a worker receive, usually in the form of wages, relative to the value to the company of his/her productivity? 

In the case of major tech companies, it’s a fair guess based on the racial demographics of their workforces that Asian Americans are highly desirable workers. Yet, in spite of how much it appears they wish to hire us, we make less than others. In order words, we appear to be a privileged racial class, but at the price of being contained by race as class in a manner that we should all find troubling, not just because of what it means about the exploitation of Asian American tech workers, but because of what this may say about the enduring legacy of the white supremacist racial class system in America fifty-years after the banning of racial codes and legalized segregation.


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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

7 replies on “The Bamboo Ceiling in the Tech Sector Is a Story About Race”

It wasn’t obvious to me and many other readers. Why do you automatically assume it’s up to Asians to do something? What are you going to do about it, William?

I appreciate the clear demonstration of the problem of the bamboo ceiling, but I’m led to the question of how and why the ceiling was constructed in the first place. Is it that people are (consciously or sub-consciously) indifferent to exploiting Asians? Is there a perception that Asians don’t make good leaders (and if so, why)? I’m not saying the assertion that Asians make good workers who won’t threaten the jobs of higher-ups is completely wrong, but I’m not entirely convinced by it either. I think these are the questions we need to explore to know what needs to be changed.

What’s happening at these companies is shameful. yahoo was founded by Jerry Yang so it would seem they’d be more open to giving Asians management positions at the company. But oh, Yang isn’t the CEO anymore so I guess the fact that the company was co-founded by an Asian American isn’t all that important.

Google is bent on making everything on the internet monetizable to Google.

Facebook is bar far the worst. Mark Zuckerberg has been linked to racism in the past and allegedly even
made racists comments about how hot Asian women are ala their attraction to Jewish guys.

He also has been accused of stealing the idea for Facebook from some Harvard students who asked him to develop code for a website that was intended to connect Harvard students and alumni. From there he cut Saverin – Facebook’s first co-founder – out of the company so he could go forward with his own plans.

Facebook has problems with racism and bigotry because its founder allows it.

Zuckerberg’s Asian fetish:

Links to racism:

lawsuits involving ownership of Facebook and intellectual property:

In light of the discrimination lawsuits filed against tech companies in Silicon Valley, other data points to the stench of racial bias that pervades these companies. Here’s a link to an infographic that highlights the Jim Crow mentality of the predominately white venture capitalists who fund the start ups in tech rich California. Pay special attention to the red versus yellow badges at Google.

Bringing the subject back to the recent lawsuits, I believe that Pao lost because she wouldn’t sue for racial discrimination. I don’t know he reasons for this but perhaps she didn’t see herself as a racial minority just a woman? As for Chia Hong, suing Facebook for racial harassment, gender harassment and sexual harassment is the right way to go.

This link points out how racially biased Facebook is regarding its hiring practices:

Perhaps Chia’s lawsuit will be successful, other PoC should also sue these companies – blacks and Hispanics in particular for often being prevented from even getting in the front door:

and particularly damning is this article that discusses pattern matching that is used to prevent black and Hispanic start ups from receiving funding:

But we also have to remember that while Asians are often prevented from rising to top managerial positions, many still fare better than blacks and Hispanics when it comes to being hired by the tech industry.

Even worse, some Asian American entrepreneurs espouse the same bigoted vitriol targeted against the poor that the white venture capitalists of Silicon Valley are known for:

Why don’t affluent PoC sponsor each other? Surely black, Hispanic and Asian American entertainers can fund start ups, but why don’t they? Hammer is interested in putting his money in the IT industry, has he considered backing companies started by PoC?

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