Japanese-American Women Discuss Ways To Break Through, Advance In Silicon Valley

By Jacqueline Lee
Palo Alto Daily News, Calif.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Research shows that women in technology management positions are likely to be viewed as less competent than male peers. And, women leave the industry because women don’t get professional development or visibility.

Palo Alto Daily News, Calif.

Japanese-American women workers in Silicon Valley will discuss innovative strategies to improve the inclusion and advancement of women in technology companies at a conference next week hosted by the U.S.-Japan Council.

The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit educational group, which works to strengthen relations between the two countries, will have its annual conference in Santa Clara on Monday and Tuesday.

Among the various panels on collaboration and investments between Japan and the United States are panels about improving opportunities for women in the workplace and politics. Former Palo Alto Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto, the city’s first Asian mayor, will be part of the latter panel.

The panels reflect Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s goal to improve the economic vitality of Japan through goals of evolving the technology sector, which he spoke about during a visit to Stanford last year, and tapping into Japan’s pool of highly educated women, which he dubbed “womenomics.”

Lori Nishiura Mackenzie, director of Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, says that “the numbers are not moving forward in favor of increasing women’s participation in technology” in the United States.

In 2008, women earned only 18 percent of all computer science degrees, a drop from 1985, when women’s share was at about 37 percent. And, advancing into the workplace, women make up fewer than 24 percent of all computing-related occupations, she said.

In tech firms like Apple, Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Twitter, women hold a fifth to a third of leadership and technical positions, according to Exponential Talent, which tracks women in tech through diversity disclosures. Women’s roles in the companies tend to reside in non-technical positions.

Nishiura Mackenzie will talk about innovative strategies to improve the advancement of women in the workplace as a panelist on the topic at the U.S.-Japan Council conference.

Research shows that women in technology management positions are likely to be viewed as less competent than male peers. And, women leave the industry because women don’t get professional development or visibility.

“The work we’re doing is to try to get at how decisions are made about people, who gets promoted and who gets placed on the best assignments,” Nishiura Mackenzie said. “If a woman enters an organization and she’s not placed on the best projects, which makes her visible to senior leaders, then she’s probably not on a trajectory to get promoted.”

Nishiura Mackenzie said the good news is that companies more intentional about addressing bias tend to be less biased. And,
she said tech companies could be motivated by efficiency and innovation to include women since there are studies that show innovation is improved when there is diversity.

“I’m very encouraged that a lot of the best practices coming out of the study of innovation are very inclusive,” she said. “How do we keep refining and harnessing this so they see inclusion as crucial to innovation?”

The U.S.-Japan Council has helped women here as well as in Japan to navigate their careers, including monthly networking and mentoring events.

One of those mentors is Mana Nakagawa, a women’s diversity program manager at Facebook, the first to hold that role in the company.

Nakagawa coaches new mothers balancing work and parenting, young women deciding whether to continue pursuing their career goals in male-dominated spheres and experienced professionals who can’t seem to break into leadership ranks.

Nakagawa says women continue to face traditional forms of discrimination, such as ideas of what a tech worker looks like and whether mothers can be as committed to work.

“Often I’m surprised I’m still having these conversations with these incredibly motivated women, who say, ‘I’d want to stay home with my kids if I get married and have kids so I don’t know if this is the right career decision for me,'” Nakagawa noted.

Women also face performance bias, where men are evaluated on their potential to be good at something, but women and minorities are evaluated on actual performance and productivity, Nakagawa said.

Then, there’s also a layer of cultural challenges affecting East Asian women, Nakagawa added. Whether born in the United States or emigrating here from Japan, Japanese women address balancing their values of humility and teamwork against American ideas of leadership characteristics that center on being aggressive, independent and impact oriented.

To successfully advance in Silicon Valley, Nakagawa has mastered code switching between asserting herself and her accomplishments to appear confident in American circles and then scaling back in Japanese circles, where it’s impolite to brag.

Though a generation older, Atsuko Jenks says she also has an internal battle about modesty.

“Somewhere in my value system, speaking up and being aggressive is not a desirable thing,” Jenks said. “In America, you start out emails with a thank you. In Japan, you start with an apology. It’s a very different style of communication. I do not wish that value system to go away but gradually we have to be more assertive. I try to be myself and be respectful and clear.”

Jenks came to the United States in the 1980s to attend Stanford’s Graduate School of Business as a way to escape the insufferable gender discrimination in her home country: At the time it was still legal to have a different pay scale and promotion schedule for women.

She said the number of women mentors and networks has grown in Silicon Valley in the past decades, but she doesn’t really see Japanese women role models in leadership positions in Silicon Valley.

Nakagawa agrees. She says one thing that groups like the U.S.-Japan Council offers women is a chance to have women to look up to.

“We all have our big Hillary Clintons of the world who we can certainly look up to, but we need real role models, people we can see ourselves becoming in the future,” Nakagawa said. “I have very few of those real models outside the U.S. Japan Council.”

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