As a Korean-born woman who began working in corporate America in the 1990s, I’ve experienced some situations that made me feel like I was different, and as a result, felt like I did not belong. Being Asian, a woman, short, and looking young for my age, I have heard many statements that upset me over the years, and at times, those words prevented me from feeling included and inhibited my ability to excel in my work environment.
Here’s the caveat: in the past several years, I’ve worked in forward-thinking companies and have not come across the examples cited in this article. However, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that women of color, particularly Asian women, continue to experience these frustrations at the workplace.
Here are three things women of color are sick of hearing at work.
1. “You speak English so well! You don’t even have an accent.”
I’ve heard this in many instances at the workplace. Sadly, I’ve also heard from people, “You’re Korean? You don’t sound Korean!” The problem with these statements is that they are sweeping generalizations about Asians, pointing to an inaccurate perception that we look like foreigners, and therefore we should have accents. When I used to hear these statements, my initial reaction was confusion, followed by feelings of exclusion. It was a glaring reminder that I was different from my peers and that I was surrounded by people with biases.
As a rule, one shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that all people of color will sound the same. There may be commonalities among groups of people, but each person is unique, so it’s important to make an effort to get to know what’s unique about a person and not to generalize.
2. “Are you an intern?”
When I was 30 years old, a man came into the break room at my office where I was pouring myself a cup of coffee. He asked me if I was an intern. Some may take it as a compliment if someone thinks they're younger than they are. But this assumption also might have meant that the man assumed I was young, and therefore assumed that I didn't have as much experience as I did. In this situation, I thought the latter was true.
As an Asian woman in corporate environments with many older, white male colleagues, I’ve had to exert a lot of energy to show that I have a depth of professional experience. In the past, I have often felt like because of my appearance, I have had to prove my experience whenever I walked into meetings with senior-level people. Having to prove myself repeatedly was exhausting, and at times, counter-productive to my ability to add value to the environment. I ask that people don’t make judgments about someone’s experience level by mistaking their youthful appearance for inexperience or incompetence.
3. “Be more assertive.”
In some work environments, being loud or speaking up equates to confidence. Yet depending on a person’s upbringing, experience, culture, and personality, her overall style of interacting with others at work will vary. With that said, just because an Asian woman may not speak up in a meeting, it does not mean she’s not engaged in the conversation. It may very well be that she’s: 1) processing the information, 2) coming up with a solution to the issue at hand, or 3) does not currently have anything to contribute to the conversation. Making judgments about someone because of how much or how little she speaks in meetings or other work settings is unfair.
When I’ve been exposed to negative sentiments in the workplace, I've found solace by connecting with other women of color. Without their understanding, support, and friendship, I would not have found a sense of belonging in the workplace. Now, as I think back on my experiences, I am sympathetic to others who may not have the benefit of connecting with colleagues and feeling a sense of belonging. I hope that each one of us will make an effort to avoid making general statements about people of color, and instead, appreciate and respect each person’s individuality.
Yon Na is a leadership and organization development professional with 20 years of corporate experience. She has worked with some of the most admired companies on the planet: Warner Bros. Entertainment, The New York Times, Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson. As a leadership development professional, Yon has helped hundreds of individuals fine-tune their unique talents through coaching and facilitating workshops. To learn more, please visit https://yonnaphd.com