A Response to Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg on Bloomberg last month

Last month, Facebook Chief Operating Officer and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg spoke out against sexism and misogyny in the workplace. Responding to a sexism lawsuit against a fellow female Silicon Valley senior exec, she said:

 “What’s happening is we have systematic stereotypes of women, and systematic biases of women.

 “For men, likeability and success is correlated. As they get more successful, more powerful, they’re better liked. For women, success and likability are negatively correlated. As a woman gets more successful, more powerful – she is less liked.”

It’s great to have women at the top of some of the biggest companies in the world like Facebook and Yahoo. And it’s even better when they speak out about gender discrimination in the workplace.

But what about the discrimination that women of colour face; and those of us who are discriminated against because of culture and cultural stereotypes?

Not taken seriously

Female entrepreneurial group Asian Women MEAN Business (AWMB) found that a massive 74% of British Asian women felt their culture held them back from starting a business, while 44% had experienced race discrimination at work. Last year I hosted Twitter chat on behalf AWMB discussing British Asian women’s experiences in the workplace. A lot of the comments echoed that research.

This week I’m making a guest appearance at Asian Women MEAN Business. To read the rest of the article, click here.

Join the Twitter chat every Wednesday at 7pm GMT. Just use the hashtag #asianwomenmeanbiz

The tinted glass ceiling: Asian women at work part 1

The Need for Mentors

Last Wednesday I had the privilege of hosting a Twitter chat for a networking group for South Asian women called Asian Women Mean Business (AWMB). Our topic was the experiences of Asian women in the workplace. Social networking can sometimes feel a bit meaningless, so it was really refreshing to connect with this group of like-minded women; and it was wonderful to find empathy in the challenges we face as Desi women. It was clear from the comments that for British Asian women today, the glass ceiling is definitely tinted: that both our gender AND our ethnicity act as barriers to career progression.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting a series of blogs highlighting both the challenges that British Asian women face in the workplace as well as discussing solutions to some of those issues. I’m dedicating the series to the founders and members of AWMB.

This is a group of intelligent, hard-working, talented women who inspire me; not just to forge on in my own career and ambitions, but to be a cheerleader to the next generation of British Asian women. While Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg urged us to “lean in” and take hold of our ambitions and opportunities, Labour MP Yvette Cooper pointed out that we should really “lean out” to take the hand of younger women coming up behind us as they start to climb the career ladder. And the need for mentors amongst British Asian women was made obvious in the discussion at Wednesday night’s Twitter chat, and from tweets that ensued in the next few days.

Comments like “Asian women can be so competitive towards each other” and “unfortunately, Asian women don’t help other Asian women” make it so clear that we have a problem with an unhealthy type of competitiveness. But what really brought it home to me was this comment from one young British Asian woman:

“From my experience…I find that most Asian girls in my generation aren’t brave enough to follow their ambitions. It’s even harder when so many women don’t support those who want to go off and do their own thing.”

Wow. Her comment was a real eye-opener that’s got me thinking about the whole area of mentoring.

I guess I’ve always been lucky enough to have had a couple of mentors around me, both personal and professional. When I failed my driving test for the millionath time, there was the one who encouraged me not to give up despite my many failed attempts. When my first freelance writing job was cut after just three months, a writer friend of mine (who also did the same role and subsequently also lost her job) sent me idea after idea to pitch to magazine editors she knew and even passed over to me an article she was asked to write. I didn’t realise it back then, but these people helped me not to give up on myself.

However confident, independent and successful you are, I believe that we all need those people who pick us up, give us new ideas and generally cheer us on in the rat race of life and especially work- which really is a rat race, as we all know.

Frankly, as British Asian women we face so much prejudice and disadvantage in every arena. And how true this is in the world of work partly because this is not an area that our culture and communities expect to excel at. Comments that came from Wednesday night’s chat echoed this sentiment, with many women telling of how their families only want them to succeed  to a certain level and no further; that husbands are not supportive of an entrepreneurial spirit; and as we’ve just seen, that other women in the community are unsupportive and often jealous of each other.

But then one woman pointed out that, “we need to highlight the achievements of others so that the next generation can see them.”

Let me just repeat that last bit: “so the next generation can see them.” So not just to inspire and applaud each other although this is important too, but for the sake of inspiring and being role models to the next generation.

Why don’t Asian women support each other more? Perhaps it’s down to an innate female competitiveness, I don’t know. But with the odds stacked against as South Asian women due to our gender, our culture, our race, even from husbands sometimes, what is very clear is that as women we need to put aside any petty rivalries and support each other. We need to be the first ones that help a younger Asian woman get a project off the ground or share industry contacts; or simply cheer her on when she’s had a bad day by telling her not to give up on herself.

It’s up to our generation to empower and inspire the next one. I’ve talked before about role models for the Asian community, but until now I didn’t realise that I can actually be one of those role models.

Read the rest of the series: part 2 “Racism in the Workplace” and part 3 “Balancing Culture and Success”

Asian Women Mean Business meet every Wednesday night on Twitter between 7-8pm. Just tag your comments with #asianwomenmeanbiz to join the discussion