By day she negotiates huge contracts and smashes her targets. By night….she makes roti, doesn’t make eye contact and sits in the kitchen with the other ladies while the men all eat together. This is the life- and split personality of many Asian women at work.
My final post in this series continues to explore the comments that I gathered from hosting a Twitter chat with a fab group of women, the Asian Women Mean Business network.
“It’s tough for Asian women in the workplace. Values we are taught at home and in our communities don’t always hold well in the workplace, such as modesty & submissiveness. At work you have to blow your own trumpet!”
“Being dominant in the workplace but then being expected to be subservient in the home is a challenge.”
“Self-promotion at work doesn’t come naturally to us Asian women due to our upbringing & culture”
How do we balance the demands of the work place with the culture and behaviour we are taught at home, both of which are often at odds with each other?
The Western world tells us we need to ‘lean in’ but South Asian culture tells us quite the opposite, particularly when men are in the room. Proper desi female behaviour is polite and respectful, never bolshy, opinionated and assertive.
What’s even more challenging and frustrating, according to my AWMB Twitter chat, is slipping into the alter-ego at home of the submissive wife and daughter-in-law. Unfortunately some women still have to juggle both roles.
I worked for almost ten years in sales. Being a naturally chatty person, communication has always been my thing. But I always struggled to display that dominant, self- assured sales persona that is required to succeed in a fairly tough industry. Fortunately I never had to do the dual-personality thing with my husband; but certainly being ‘assertive’- a much needed quality in this industry, was considered by my South Asian family (even my own mother) as brash, rude and frankly undesirable behaviour.
For me the only way to resolve the tension between family expectation and workplace culture has been to keep the two worlds separate, and slip in and out of the two roles. Yes that’s frustrating: it’s a disappointing by-product of a culture that oppresses us, in my opinion.
But there’s no need to give up on ambition and achievement just because this family/work dichotomy exists. As British Asian women we can have both! In fact, as my AWMB peers have shown me, many women are bucking the trend by balancing successful careers with marriage and family life. Yes it’s tough to slip in and out of roles; but if career is important then it’s a case of managing both worlds. And perhaps it always will be a juggling act for our generation. But look at this way: we’re blazing a trail that our mothers only glimpsed at. There are now more British Asian women than ever in prominent roles in politics, business, entertainment and the media, science and technology. If these women had shied away from career progression because of cultural expectation they wouldn’t be where they are today.
So let’s not give up. Stand your ground against male counterparts or extended family who say South Asian women shouldn’t be assertive or successful. And perhaps our generation can change cultural attitudes so that our daughters won’t have to play a dual role at home and at work.
Asian Women Mean Business meet every Wednesday night on Twitter between 7-8pm. Just tag your comments with #asianwomenmeanbiz to join the discussion