Last year, I organized a highly productive trade mission to China for Montgomery County (notice I am bragging here), and when the photos from the trip were posted on the County Web site, I got an email from a colleague asking why I wasn’t in one particular photo. Well, I was busy arranging the right lineup of people for the photo so I could capture that important moment with my cell phone and didn’t think about putting myself there. No, my colleague insisted. You’re the lead for the project and you belong in front of the camera, not behind it! After all that you have done, take credit and be part of that moment!
I am lucky to have encouraging and enlightened colleagues like that, which is few and far between. In most places, Asians, both women and men, are still largely perceived and used as smart, diligent worker bees. Very few people, including top leaders, either know how to encourage self advocacy or put them at the right times and places to shine.
A recent issue of the WP (Washington Post) magazine featured a new novel, “The Partner Track,” by lawyer Helen Wan, who told the story of an Asian American woman’s struggles with the bamboo ceiling on her way to partnership in a law firm where felt that she needed to understand “the unwritten rules of survival here.”
The unwritten rules are called cultures–behavioral norms and underlying values we don’t get to learn through formal education but are critical to our success and happiness. And if being Asian and woman is a “two-fer,” as Wan’s book asserts, then for most Asian women in this region, life is a “three-fer,” if you may call it that, or a triple whammy, with the extra burden of being an immigrant. The unwritten rules may come as naturally to the locals as the air they breathe, but as immigrants, we have to learn the hard way, by making mistakes and paying hefty prices in ways of derailed or stagnating careers.
One such unwritten rule I have struggled with over the years is treading the delicate water of advocating for my worth and opportunities without alienating others who may expect an Asian woman to be content as a quiet, hard worker. It’s a hard balance because not only are these unwritten rules at odds with our heritage cultural values, but they often contradict one another as well. On the one hand, the popular American culture encourages and rewards assertiveness and speaking for yourself. On the other hand, it values self-deprecation, humility, and not putting yourself in the center of attention. It’s all a matter of degree and balance.
I have erred on the side of humility many times over, especially earlier in my career, including not negotiating my salaries for the first couple of jobs for fear of leaving a bad impression or coming across as greedy. One employer told me after I started my job that he was expecting me to ask for more pay but since I didn’t, he figured I was content. Talking about leaving money on the table!
It’s safer and easier to let others take the credit or get the opportunities because we want to be liked, respected, and perceived as good team players. It’s safer to let our work speak for itself rather than seeking recognition, raise, or promotion. Unfortunately, work often doesn’t speak for itself unless you speak about it, or have champions that speak for you. If minority, especially women, are ever going to be taken more seriously and used appropriately for what we are truly worth, then we need to get over the fear of being perceived as bragging, demanding, or whining, and get comfortable talking about our success, needs, wants, as well as passions and ideas that we believe can add value to what we care about.
By not putting myself in that photo, I was contributing to the age-old phenomenon of “girls do the work, boys take the credit (and photos).” But I am learning and getting better at my games. After years of building a program and making it the envy of other jurisdictions, I finally applied for a national award at the encouragement of one of my colleagues. We, a team of about a dozen, got the “Best in Category” recognition by the National Association of Counties, and more importantly, Montgomery County got the honor as a national best practice leader. It felt great, and right.