The Dynamics of Invisibility

Ruttantip (Dang) Chonwerawong, PhD | AAG Consultant

May is  Asian American Heritage month—a month of reflecting on what it means to be Asian and American. I became an Asian when I arrived in America as an international student. Prior to that point, I was just me, a Chinese-Thai woman, a daughter of Chinese immigrants, living in a homogenous country among friends from similar cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. After I married an American man, I fully became an immigrant and a green card holder. Throughout the different changes in statuses my cultural identity, race, class, and gender among other things intersected in various ways. Most importantly, I learned about the complexities of being an Asian and an American.

I have drifted in and out of visibility throughout my 30 years in this country. Most of the times, everything about me is visible from my physical appearance, my strong accent, and my presence when diversity is needed.  In college, I learned for the first time about stereotype traits about Asians and model minorities. People asked me to tutor them in math. I was not that great in math, but I was told over and over about how I should be. When I was an international student, most of my peers assumed I was “one of those rich Asians.”  Interestingly, when I began to work as a professional, my colleagues and others with whom I met often asked, “How did you get your visa?”  That was when I realized that I was slowly crossing from being a rich foreigner to becoming part of the American’s racial hierarchy. This is when I was no longer perceived as a rich international student but an immigrant hoping to cash in on the American dream.

Despite the obvious visible characteristics people can see and hear from me, I feel invisible or treated as “an invisible” in spaces I least expected—higher education. At several institutions where I worked and was among one of a few Asian women in leadership positions, my accent and imperfect English signal incompetency. It also  implies that as I am a forever foreigner who could never fully understand the racial dynamics in America. I have been dismissed for my ability to write despite having written an over 500 page dissertation that was nominated for an award. In meetings, people talk over me. Despite my educational training and work experiences, I am not asked to contribute or consulted in projects relating to my expertise.

In higher education spaces it is uncommon to meet other Asian women in high-ranking positions, to find a mentor, or an ally. My point is I wish I had only one month to drift in and out of being visible instead of a lifetime. At work as I was puzzling about how I am not being taken seriously, a colleague mentioned the other day, “people talk over you because you are a woman, Asian, and funny, “ all of the which are true and what I love about being me.

What I am trying to get across here is that being invisible is not monolithic. Identity is complex and multifaceted. Sometimes these facets intersect and other times they get socially constructed as a dichotomy, like being an Asian, a woman, and an American. Stereotypes affect us even when we laugh it off. We internalize those incidents and they turn into messages that shape who we are and how we see ourselves, and how we walk the world. Most importantly, they fatigue us by forcing us to focus most of our energy solving an unsolvable equation of “X” being the things we cannot change and “Y” being the recipients of biases imposed on us leading to unpredictable possibilities of outcomes, often not within our control.

The dynamics of invisibility/visibility are a double-edged sword for Asian American women in the workplace. Leaders need to notice the contributions that may be lost.

Lesbians in the Workplace: We’re Here, We’re Queer—Are you used to us?

Colleen R. Logan, PhD  |  Senior Consultant, AAG

This question seems like a “no-brainer”, yet it is relevant to raise. Why? There is an assumption that women in leadership  are  tough, rigid, and harsh in their demeanor. Moreover, if you buy into the rampant stereotype that any woman who is an executive or position of authority is a man-hater and/or butch/manly then all female administrators must be lesbian. Right? Yes, this is as ludicrous as it sounds but this is indeed the context that women in leadership must contend with daily. For women who do not identify as lesbian this is a stereotype that is easier to dismiss and/or ignore. For women who do identify as lesbian this can be not only challenging but it is indeed stifling and just plain exhausting.

For many lesbians, the ongoing internal dialogues go something like this: Should I come out/live out in terms of who I am and who I love, or will this have a detrimental effect on my career trajectory? We all know that prejudice still exists, and a woman could lose her job, be passed over, or simply ignored. Alternatively, one asks herself: Do I come out/live out and risk not being taken seriously because if I identify as lesbian then I will be reduced solely to a sexual being, fodder for titillating jokes, innuendos, and certainly never taken seriously. To be honest, to most lesbians, neither path sounds palatable.

And where are our role models?  It is hard to believe but it has only been four short years since Beth Ford became the first openly CEO to run the Fortune 500 company, Land of Lakes. Though the event was newsworthy, this reality alone is stunning and disheartening. Not surprisingly, there are very few openly LGBTQ University presidents. In 2010, Dr. Charlita Shelton, President of the University of Rockies— at the time, she was one of only twenty-five openly gay or lesbian university presidents. This lack of representation is not limited to the United States. Inga Beale is the first openly bisexual business leaders at her level in the United Kingdom. In 2014 she became the first woman CEO in Lloyd’s of London’s 327-year history. And in 2017, the Queen named her Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her service to the economy and activism supporting women and the LGBTQ+ community.

So, here is the choice: stay in the closet, hide who you are, who you love and climb the corporate ladder. Disclaimer: you will still face the stereotypes faced by women in leadership that you are probably a man-hater, , aggressive, and ruthless. Or, come out, be who you are, share your life with whom you love, and risk marginalization, discrimination, and harassment. Quite frankly, again, both options are exhausting and serve to dissuade women from bringing their authentic selves to work impacting the bottom line—productivity and performance.

What is the answer? Women empowering women, women accepting women, inclusivity, women building each other up rather than breaking each other down. Who we love and who we are impacts how we work not only in terms of how we are seen and valued, but whether we really belong.

Celebrating International Women’s Day Everyday

Family Freedom Fighters—Women in Ukraine and Globally

On this annual International Women’s Day my focus is on women from around the world who give voice and action to hope, freedom, peace, and family. When it comes to natural disasters, fleeing from terror through dangerous journeys with children, escaping governmental oppression, and war, as we are seeing in Ukraine, women are at the forefront. There are many examples but I will share only three.

Madres de la Plaza de Mayo/Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Since 1977 mothers began their march around the plaza to demand information about children “disappeared” during Argentina’s last military dictatorship. Now grandmothers, they continue to march around the square every Thursday at 3:30 pm. They persist with resilience and valor.

Mothers of the Movement. This unity began after the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2013 and the acquittal of his killer. They represent mothers whose African American children were killed by the police or by gun violence. They present at community events to share their experiences of loss and to advocate for political change against violence and the flow of arms.

Ukrainian Women Today. The realities in Ukraine are televised globally and through many social media platforms. Here we see images and hear voices of women exerting leadership. In this country of 44 million, 54% are women. It is reported that 33,000 are in the military defending their country. Mothers and grandmothers are consoling and protecting children in subway bunkers and other spaces for safety. Babies are being born to terrified mothers in makeshift underground hospitals. But the images of terror also express resolve.

Ukraine is a country that has advanced gender equity. Oksana Markarova is Ukraine ambassador to the U.S. and since 2019, women have assumed more roles in Parliament and the President’s cabinet. A 74 year old woman reportedly was learning how to use weapons so that she could defend her community in the invasion of her country.

Women are freedom fighters. Their leadership globally demonstrates hope, love for family, and love for truth and freedom. Celebrating International Women’s Day Everyday.

Women Leaders Maintaining Their Authority

For decades, at least since the 1970s, as a result of EEO legislation, employers have championed women to assume leadership roles and responsibilities. Indeed, women are in senior administrative positions and mid-level managers or directors in finance, healthcare, universities, and other industries. More women on average earn a bachelors’ degree compared to men. These visible successes belie the realities of challenges to their authority and microaggressions many women leaders experience.

As an executive coach to women-in-general and women of color, I hear far too many examples of how women leaders are questioned, circumvented, and undermined by their direct reports, often other women. The questioning of their authority is surprising, they tell me.

Serena, an AVP for finance was questioned by the office manager about the position description for a new hire that all of the department members had approved. The office manager thought she had to bring it up since she would be supporting the new person and thought s/he had would have “too much responsibility”.

Erica became Director of HR for a small nonprofit during COVID, thus not meeting her direct reports until a year later. She was repeatedly questioned about changes in departmental protocols and told that the previous boss had allowed them to do things their way.

Nancy was heralded as a breakthrough leader, the first woman of color to lead an engineering department. Her direct reports, primarily men, found ways to joke, asking her if she was going to feminize the department. Though these queries had no basis in reality, they were raised far too often.

Subtle, direct, and provocative describe the nuanced comments that question and undermine women’s authority. Is this behavior prevalent because women’s authority is feared? Because people prefer to report to men?

The women leaders I coach have been successful in different work settings because they do take a stance. That is, they assert their power with grace.  Women of color face another dilemma. The majority of white employees have never reported to a person of color. Here again, these leaders pull on their confidence and previous success experiences. They continue to lead with authority.

An Attitude of Optimism to Continue Forward

At the end of 2020, there was a collective sigh of relief among many about the return to a “new normal”. A sense of optimism was in the air because it seemed as though we had turned the corner on COVID-19. Yes, like others, I saw the horizon ahead as bright and hopeful—travel to meet with clients, conference attendance, and of course, family visits. During 2021, the “new normal” was short lived.

Here we are, embarking on the year 2022, as a country, and as a global society, and we are still off-balance; disequilibrium continues. There is an aura of pessimism in many sectors because the sense of predictability, continuity, and forecasting for the future seems to be out of reach.

There are times in my life when a sense of pessimism crept in, principally because my career was on the precipice of change. I have always appreciated the advice from a graduate school mentor. When I told her that the leadership position I had hoped for was not mine, she quickly quipped, “Don’t worry. Something else will come your way.” Her counsel was to keep moving and not look back and to look at the glass as half-full and not half-empty. Other opportunities were around the corner.

In this continuing period of uncertainty, optimism is a necessary attitude. It involves a sense of hope and confidence about the future. And because it is a mental attitude, it is within our control. Does it require effort to be optimistic? The answer is yes.

I share another career example. When I learned that I was not “tenurable” in my first university position, I had several options. The first was to continue on an annual contract, and the second was to leave. To keep moving forward, I attended a career workshop. Here I learned about visualization, a process to imagine and look ahead. In the workshop, I also gained the inspiration I needed to acknowledge that I had transferable skills. More career opportunities appeared and I continued forward.

Each person reading this blog likely has a story about how optimism was an asset in challenging times. I invite you to share your experience in the Comment section. What made a difference for you may also benefit someone else.

Individuals of Latinx Heritage Cannot Be Put in a Box

As a senior woman of Mexican heritage, born in Lorain, Ohio, with a 40-year career in higher education and leadership and DEI consulting, I continue to unpack my personal and professional identity and what it means to me and communicates to others. There is an adage that states that one is a little like others, somewhat like others, and also a unique being. Although categorizations based on presumed shared identities may seem like a shortcut to “know” someone, these can also lead to mistaken assumptions. These leads me to write about in this month’s blog about the need to avoid putting individuals of Latinx heritage in one box.

In mid-September, Hispanic/Latinx Heritage month officially kicks off, inviting special speakers, events, and award ceremonies for Latinx individuals who are making a difference in society and the workplace. There is much to write about specific to the increasingly diverse Latinx population in the US. Intersecting identities are the norm, not one singular identity concept of Latinx heritage can be applied. Latinx-heritage individuals may also be LGBTQ+, an individual with an invisible disability, Puerto Rican from Orlando versus New Jersey, an Ivy League graduate, Jewish, and single woman professional without children.  The diversity among the label “Latinx” is expansive. Consider the following from recent Census reports and the implications for your higher education institution and workforce:

  • Latinxs are among the youngest racial or ethnic group in the U.S., with a median age of 30.
  • Latinx identified individuals may have roots in one of 22 Spanish-speaking countries.
  • Marriages between Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites make up more than 40% of recent interracial marriages.
  • 23 percentage of Latinx children are under 18 and in 18 states & the District of Columbia, Latino children accounted for at least 20% of public-school kindergarten students.
  • On the Census, the majority of Latinx, self-report they are white Hispanics.
  • Skin color variability privileges certain Latinx over others; Colorism is a part of one’s Latinx identity.
  • Latinx adults in the US tend to be married more often than not; in 2017, 46% of Latinx in the US were married, 16% divorced, 38% never married
  • 59% have graduated from high school.
  • 16% have graduated with a bachelor’s degree and have majored primarily in business, communications, and education.
  • Depending on the part of the country, there will likely be different Latinx heritage individuals born there and of multiple generation families. California and states in the Southwest are examples.

Take-aways

Increasing representation of Latinx -heritage individuals in your employee and leadership ranks requires knowledge about the whole person, not just an ascribed category based on presumed ethic heritage. The percentage of Latinx immigrants continues to decrease, meaning that more individuals are born in the U.S. and may be monolingual English speakers. Employers and university administrators are encouraged to know about the history of Latinx communities in their cities and state and apply that knowledge as they plan for the future of their organizations. The map below can be a tool to consider.

 

References:
Arredondo, P. (Ed.). (2018). Latinx immigrants: Transcending acculturation and xenophobia.
Switzerland: Springer International Publishing AG.

 

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