“You don’t need to show her that – it’s too technical – it will hurt her head.”
This is how the CTO of a tech vendor responded when I asked his product manager in-depth questions about their platform. The product manager froze midway through pivoting his laptop toward me, looking back at his CTO awkwardly.
I smiled to cover my shock and proceeded to other topics, while doing my best to hold my composure under a continued tone of condescension.
I wish I could say that this was an isolated incident, but that would be far from the truth. For my entire career, I’ve often walked into a room expecting a respectful discussion, only to find that I’ve already been dismissed by some upon sight. For these people, I am invisible – a helpful genie who appears when someone needs a water or a few extra chairs, otherwise voiceless.
These people do not see the person that helped build a NASA robot while in high school; the person who won a National Merit Scholarship, held prestigious science internships and was always top of her class.
They do not see the person who transformed business data management from a grueling, manual slog to an automated enterprise database at multiple companies. They do not see the person who repeatedly built hyper-efficient teams with inclusive and enthusiastic cultures. They do not see the person who worked with clients to bring the rigor of scientific measurement to marketing.
For them, I am an empty chair.
Imagine waking up every day knowing that in at least one meeting, someone with far less expertise in your field will not hesitate to question your knowledge or experience. Every day, someone will decide that you are less credible or qualified than a white man with much less proficiency. Every day, someone will decide that despite having a strong track record of team building, you are not “mature” enough to lead.
Imagine being simultaneously labeled as a “Dragon Lady” and “just some agency kid.” Imagine knowing that for some people, you are not a real human with real emotions and intelligence trying their best to navigate a corporate world built on unfamiliar European etiquettes.
My immigrant parents tried to instill in me very traditional principles: work hard, be generous to others and be reserved in my opinions. Worried that I’ve been pampered by the relative ease of life in America, they often warned me that in life I must be able to “吃苦”. This Chinese phrase, meaning “to endure hardship,” directly translates to “eating bitterness.” It is an apt description of what it feels like to repeatedly and willingly walk into situations involving emotional pain and know that you must politely smile through it to do your job.
While I am proud of my heritage and its values, I grew up in America – and in my country, we believe in fairness, justice and equality. In my country, when you are ignored, you try harder and shout louder.
Life is a constant turmoil of conflicting philosophies from my heritage and my country. So, while I smile and pretend to be deaf to the insults on my intelligence, I work harder and ask more complex questions to emphasize that I am not inferior on the basis of my gender or race.
Despite all of this, I am extremely lucky.
I have worked with several leaders and mentors in my career who were able to really see and guide me. Today, I work at a company with diverse leadership and an Asian American leader who experienced much of the same hardship in his career. For the first time, I feel more solidarity and less alone knowing that someone else experiences the world the same way I do.
This, more than anything else, has shown me just how powerful female and AAPI representation in leadership truly is, and how worthwhile it is for us to stop just smiling politely.
As American society continues to ruminate on how it defines fairness, justice and equality for all of its diverse citizens, we must raise our voices and bring all of our perspectives to the great debate.
By Lucy Zheng is VP, Group Partner, Analytics at UM