Growing up in Japan, my grandparents always told me to be more “woman-like.”
That meant being quiet, passive, not talking back, looking nice, dressing “properly,” smiling…the list went on. I tried my best, but I wasn’t great at being woman-like — especially after living abroad during elementary school.
When I had an opportunity to study abroad for college, I didn’t hesitate. My mother, who had lived in Japan all of her life was one of a handful of women to graduate from the University of Tokyo (the most prestigious university in Japan), encouraged me to go. She pointed to herself and said, “Even if you go to the University of Tokyo, you will become a housewife in Japan. That’s not a bad life, but it’s not a life for you.”
I knew even in high school that my career opportunities in Japan would be limited as a woman. The United States seemed great on TV — wasn’t all college life like Beverly Hills 90210?
The reality was not as rosy as I had imagined.
As an Asian woman in the United States, I found I was fighting against the same pressure to be “woman-like.” There was an engrained stereotype that Asian women were quiet, submissive and obedient. I was sought after by men who clearly had a fetish for Asian women, because they thought I fit that stereotype. Those men would, of course, be disappointed, because that’s not who I was. I would receive comments like, “you are not very Japanese,” when that was all I knew myself to be.
There were other stereotypes that I didn’t even realize existed until I came to the U.S. I was told that I was good at math because I’m Asian, when in fact, my strongest subject was creative writing. The only reason I was “better” at math in the U.S. was because English was my second language. The stereotype that all Asians are good at math was so confusing, since I had many friends in Japan who struggled with math. How can an entire race be good at one subject?
As I graduated from college and entered the workforce, these stereotypes impacted my trajectory. Asian women were smart and hardworking, so I was always given the hardest, most complicated assignments. Asian women never complained and never asked for raises, so I was consistently overworked and underpaid. Everyone expected me to quit my job after having kids, because that was what Asian women did. And of course, I was still good at math and therefore not creative — as if those two characteristics couldn’t co-exist in one person.
Yet, I continued to defy all of these stereotypes. Ultimately, I didn’t really fit the mold.
Over time, people shifted their views of who I was. They realized that Asian women can be bold, assertive and creative. They saw that I continued to focus on my career while I raised my kids. They saw me win new business pitches, grow companies and manage a diverse team. They saw those Asian women stereotypes for what they were: stereotypes.
Because of who I am, people around me shifted their views on Asian women and what they could achieve. Younger Asian (and non-Asian) women told me that I was an inspiration. Men would seek my advice and mentorship. I began to finally embrace my differences and appreciate my “unwomanly” nature, because I realized that being different meant I could break stereotypes that continue to put Asian women at a disadvantage.
However, as I look around, I see that I am only a handful of Asian women in leadership roles. According to a study by Ascend, Asian women are the least likely to become executives across all genders and races. The combination of bamboo and glass ceiling make it incredibly difficult to climb to the top.
As I continue my career, I hope to help change the stereotypes of Asian women everywhere. I have been supported by so many great mentors who have pulled me up when I needed help. I owe it to the next generation of Asian women to make it a little bit easier to be perceived as a leader.
That, to me, is the most woman-like thing I can do.
Nami Soejima is SVP of strategy at UM.