A couple weeks ago I attended a panel discussion of Asian and Pacific Islander (API) women leaders from various professions. When I arrived I was greeted by a social work student, who I recognized as a friend. “Hey! What’s up!?” I shouted with a big, goofy look on my face. I threw my arms up for a side hug before realizing that we had never met before. Embarrassed, I stared at the ground to avoid direct eye contact and quietly mumbled, “I’m here for the women’s leadership panel” while simultaneously thinking “Please don’t uppercut me.”
There were 50 people in attendance; the room was packed! I was one of five men. You might be thinking, “Those are great odds!” And if this were an Asian Singles Mixer or one of those high school dances where the girls ask out the guys, you’d be right. In truth, I was humbled by the presence of so many inspiring leaders, both on the panel and in the audience.
The panelists took turns describing their experiences as API women and the challenges they have had to overcome in their personal lives and professional careers. One prominent leader, an Executive Director, shared a story about how she was mocked by a man for not being fluent in English. She later confronted him and — in a moment that would dwarf Richard Sherman — said “You don’t ever talk to me like that!” He never did it again. The audience applauded her courage.
Another leader, who is active in politics, was asked what advice she would give to her 20-year-old-self. “Don’t have children,” she answered—to the surprise of everyone in the room. “I love my two kids, but my heart and passion has always pulled me toward activism and social change.” It was a raw and honest answer, and shattered the illusion that women have to become mothers in order to be happy and successful.
The obstacles facing API women are well-documented, but are either poorly understood or simply trivialized. The Center for American Progress cites some of the disparities that negatively impact API women.
Salary and pay: In 2010, Asian American women who held a bachelor’s degree made about $10,840 less than their Asian American male counterparts ($11,354 less when compared to White males).
Healthcare: About 21% of API women are uninsured. “This is particularly harmful for Asian American women since, as a group, they have one of the highest risks of cancer.”
Leadership and management: Only 21 API women are officers of large corporations. “This represents 0.3 percent of the total number of officers of large corporations. Men hold close to 85 percent of all board seats. Although Asian American women currently make up 57 percent of the labor force, [API] women leaders are significantly underrepresented in the four major employment sectors—corporate, government, nonprofit, and education.”
These statistics are startling, especially when we consider that men and women want the exact same things: a rewarding career, loving friendships, vibrant families, and strong communities. Ok, maybe not the exact same things. Occasionally, we men love to have pillow fights when no one is looking. Oh wait, that’s just me? Oops.
As men, it’s not enough to passively say we “support” women, or that we “respect” women’s right. We need to step up and fight for it too. Just like the early civil rights movement was multiracial, and the current gay rights movement is multi-uh…..sexu-al-orie-ntation-nal… (um, someone who knows better help me out here); so too must men share the burden of standing alongside women for their equal rights and protections. At the end of the day, we all just want to find happiness in life, and right now women (along with many other minorities) do not have the same opportunities to achieve that dream. It’s on all of us to ensure that that all people can live freely and with dignity.
After the panel discussion ended, I sought out the student who greeted me and apologized for screaming in her face. I wanted to clear up any potential misunderstandings and let her know that I wasn’t trying to heckle her. “Oh no worries,” she said. “So are you a student here?” I guess looking like a clueless teenager makes people more forgiving. Then I uppercutted her for insulting my age.
Coming soon: 5 ways men can support API women. Subscribe to my blog for updates.