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3 Barriers Asian Women Overcome to Become Leaders

By Jessica Leong

International News, May 2022

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It’s tough climbing the corporate ladder as an Asian woman in the United States. In my journey, I wish I had a mentor to share their experience, clarify what I was facing, reassure me that I was not alone and guide me.

That’s why I’m sharing my experience managing three cultural norms that I found most challenging professionally:

  1. Obey your elders.
  2. Pass exams and focus on technical skills.
  3. Do not rock the boat or want too much.

By overcoming these three challenges, I became the first Asian president of the Casualty Actuarial Society and achieved leadership roles at work.

Let’s dive into why these cultural norms pose career challenges and what to do about them.

Obey Your Elders

I once heard a 30-year-old Chinese woman say that she did not buy a handbag because her mother told her not to. As an Asian, you know that your family will continue to give you unsolicited advice well into your 30s, 40s and beyond. During my whole life, I was conditioned to obey my elders.

Why is Being Deferential a Problem?

Firstly, it can be annoying. In the past, I annoyed senior leaders by being intimidated and, as a result, overly deferential. Needless to say, annoying senior leaders is not good for your career.

Secondly, senior leaders want their team members to be leaders. For example, I tell my team not to politely wait for me to kick off a meeting with other senior stakeholders. Thirdly, challenging ideas from leadership will lead to better outcomes.

I heard someone describe work conversations as either being adult-to-adult or adult-to-child conversations. Being too deferential to senior leaders encourages adult-to-child conversations. You want to elevate yourself and have adult-to-adult conversations.

How Do You Have Adult-to-Adult Conversations with Senior Leaders?

I’ve put a fair amount of effort into becoming a better communicator and continue working on it. Here’s what has worked for me:

  • Having good managers who have encouraged me to step up into leadership roles, which gave me the exposure and the opportunity to practice having conversations with senior leaders.
  • Preparing for meetings with senior leaders and rehearsing with friends and family.
  • Hiring and working with an executive coach to learn how to prepare for and conduct effective conversations.

Some people are naturally good at engaging with senior leaders. If you’re not, you can learn and improve the skill.

Pass Exams and Focus on Technical Skills

Studying hard to pass exams is a big part of Asian culture. When I saw that the actuarial profession allowed me to get promoted at work by passing exams, I thought, “Yes, this is the job for me!”

Why is focusing on Exams and Technical Skills a Problem?

Successfully passing actuarial exams early in your career is good advice. But exams can only take you so far.

Be thoughtful about the technical skills you focus on. I first realized this while at my first job at Willis Towers Watson in London. I distinctly remember debating with one of my colleagues about the merits of getting good at Visual Basic for Applications (VBA). He said, “You don’t see the partners knowing how to do VBA.” This comment really stuck with me. It was fun to learn VBA and it helped me get my work done faster. But knowing VBA would not help me become a partner.

Instead, to become a leader, focus on providing more value to your organization for the long term. That means solving business problems, communicating effectively, taking the initiative and understanding the business.

How Do You Know What Skills Are Important and How Do You Build Them?

Here are four things that helped me:

  • I put myself in an environment with exceptional peers. In my first job, I started with a group of friends who went on to achieve great things. By watching them work, I identified my skill and knowledge gaps.
  • Once I identified the skills I needed, I took courses. For example, I took a class on public speaking at New York University that took my presentations from very, very bad (people asked if I was OK after my presentations) to good. When it was time to present, half the class had already dropped out! The hardest part is just showing up.
  • I also took advantage of volunteer opportunities at the Casualty Actuarial Society. If you put your hand up and are willing to do the work, you can usually work into leadership positions and build your leadership skills.
  • Lastly, I committed to filling my knowledge gaps. For example, to learn more about the business of insurance, I moved from consulting to working at an insurance company to truly see and understand the business from the inside.

Do Not Rock the Boat or Want Too Much

Asian cultures value the community over the individual. There is a concept of not rocking the boat or wanting too much for yourself. I remember when I was in high school and did not make the 4x100 meter relay team. I was easily among the 4th fastest, so I thought it was unfair. I complained to my parents, but they told me to keep my head down and not to cause a fuss. I was furious at the time, and I should have gotten over this by now (sorry mum and dad).

For Asian women, there is also the traditional expectation to put their family before themselves. With both the family and community being priorities, doing things for themselves becomes a distant third priority. For example, women studying actuarial science have told me that their mothers were not sure if was a good profession because the exam process is so long and rigorous that it would interfere with having a family.

Ideally, Asian women, like all women, should feel free to make their own choices. If you want to do more with your career, then others shouldn’t hold you back. If you would rather be focused on your children and family, that is also a great choice. And if you want to do both, that’s great too.

Conclusion

There are many Asian female actuaries, but not many in leadership roles. If you’re an Asian woman, consider challenging the Asian cultural norms. Instead of obeying your elders, challenge your senior leaders. Rather than passing exams and focusing on technical skills, pass your exams and learn the insurance business. Instead of not wanting too much for yourself, go ahead and wish for your wildest dreams, and go after them! 


Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries, the editors, or the respective authors’ employers.


Jessica Leong, FCAS, is the chair of the Casualty Actuarial Society and sits on the Board of Abacus Actuaries, an organization that empowers Asian actuaries to succeed in their careers. Jessica is the CEO of Octagram.