By J.R. Tharpe
Bustle, May 22, 2019.
Asians Americans in science, tech, engineering, and math (STEM) fields are in a unique position: While Asian American workers are often overrepresented, women in the community are typically underrepresented in these industries. And sexist bias, coupled with the harmful “model minority” myth, can be enormously damaging.
A survey of 3,000 Asian American STEM workers conducted by The Atlantic in 2018 found that they felt that they had to prove themselves more than their colleagues of other ethnicities, and women, in particular, felt heightened pressure to defy racial stereotypes and excel.
“The advancement of Asian female scientists and engineers in STEM careers lags behind not only men but also white women and women of other underrepresented groups,” Lilian Wu and Wei Jing wrote in a study of Asian American women in STEM in Issues In Science & Technology in 2011.
Bustle asked 14 Asian American women in various areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — from geological surveys and coding to sex toy innovation — what being an Asian American woman in STEM means to them, and we received many complex answers.
These groundbreaking scientists and innovators tell Bustle their stories of discrimination, pride, community, family pressures, the double bind of being a woman of color, and what it means to go it alone.
Jennifer Phu, IT specialist at the United States Geological Survey
“When it comes to my career, I love every bit of it — the good, the bad and the ugly. I can talk about how fulfilled I feel when I finally set up and built my first set of servers, or when I first developed my first virus, and mastered various programming languages. But I always meet the same issue: No one sees me as an IT specialist or as someone moving to the cybersecurity field. They see a woman, and an Asian woman at that.
“Due to this, I become of value not for my work or my years of experience, but for my sex and my race. I am advertised as a solid investment by recruiters because of a company’s diversity requirement. I am talked about like my work and experience is second to my appearance. And as a result, that’s all I’m seen as.
“Although it’s rare to have my story unaltered and be regarded as both an Asian American woman and a passionate participant in STEM, the silver lining in all of this is the opportunity to change this perspective of purely being one or the other. It’s the chance to show the world that we exist beyond our complexion, but down to our very core where our knowledge and passion burns and walk confidently as role models for those who want fairness in treatment and opportunity to grow.
“In short, being an Asian American woman in STEM means that you’re invisible, but visible at the same time. But to me, this title represents me in its entirety. It tells everyone my story in five words.”
Dr. Tessa Lau, PhD, founder of Dusty Robotics
“There aren’t very many women in the construction industry, even fewer Asian American women, and almost none at the CEO level. Like many with my traditional background, I was raised to not take any risks, and play it safe. People say that starting a company is a very risky thing to do. But I believe that whether or not the company makes it, I am acquiring such incredible experience that companies will be fighting to hire me afterwards. I’ve been able to reframe the situation and eliminate the risk just by redefining the outcome. Plus, I’m just having so much fun!”
Sarah Wright, PhD candidate in chemistry at the Dovichi Lab at the University of Notre Dame
“Success in any field, particularly STEM, requires a strong network of mentors and peers who will support, encourage and challenge you to achieve your goals. As an Asian American woman researcher in an analytical chemistry laboratory, my network includes women and men from a variety of disciplines, ages, and ethnicities whom I have proactively sought advice, feedback, mentorship, and collaboration from. I believe that breaking down gender and ethnic barriers requires patience and determination as individuals build bridges by working together with clear communication and copious amounts of grace.
“I’ve been in many situations where minorities were overlooked or their needs disregarded, not purposefully out of spite, but from a lack of understanding or education. Being able to confidently speak out in a respectful and calm manner, and offering the benefit of the doubt that offense was not intended, has allowed me to gain allies in the field who are equally committed to advancing STEM research and education through the power of teamwork and diversity.”
Dr. Shengxi Huang, PhD, associate professor of electrical engineering at Pennsylvania State University
“Being an Asian American woman in STEM is a unique identity: I have experienced different cultures and academic journeys. This also offers me unique perspectives towards the things I am studying and the way I look at the world. It also means you are interacting with different groups of people: Asian, women, people in STEM fields, which truly expands your vision.”
Navya Prakash, lead instructor at programming school Coding Dojo
“Being an Asian American woman in the STEM space is an interesting intersection of demographics. On one hand, women are definitely a minority in all STEM fields, and definitely in my field of computer science. But there is also (at least in terms of population ratios) an over-representation of Asians and Asian Americans in the same field. For me, a lot of this came from cultural pressures from my parents to participate in STEM fields, which they perceived as more lucrative or valuable.
“Because of this, I largely bypassed the imbalance of exposure to STEM that happens between young boys and girls, leading ultimately to the imbalance we see in higher education and in the industry. I strongly believe that this forced exposure was key to my pursuit of a career in tech. I have now dedicated myself to providing computer science education to others because I believe that exposure through education can be the great equalizer, regardless of background.”
Vivian Chen, founder of Rise, a startup that connects women with project opportunities
“Being an Asian American woman in STEM today means we have to not be afraid to do things differently. How can we make STEM work for us instead of just another field that we work in? STEM is leading the way for technological innovations. As Asian American women, how can we lead STEM to create a more empowered future for all? I hope to change the narrative on the future of work, not only for Asian Americans but for all who want to go further, faster, on their own terms.”
Professor Enyue Lu, Mathematics & Computer Science, Salisbury University
“I know of many Asian American women working in STEM today and I don’t think of myself as special for this. As a computer science professor, I do realize, though, that not many girls choose to study computer science (CS). As a director for an NSF funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) site, I have first-hand experience with how difficult it is to recruit female students to do research in computer science. In our Math and CS department, we have four female international CS professors and three of them are Asian. I hope we can attract more female students majoring in computer science and make their future careers more successful.”
Nicole Yap, a Girls4Tech mentor and Senior Analyst at Mastercard
“Being an Asian American female in a STEM career means having my voice heard and my ideas put forward to create change. Having these in-demand skills has opened up many doors for me; for instance, at Mastercard, I’ve been able to drive new technologies and innovations in the payments space that truly make an impact for others across the globe. And through the work I do as a mentor for Girls4Tech, Mastercard’s STEM education program for middle school girls, I am able to introduce important topics, such as AI and cybersecurity, in a fun and interesting way that hopefully motivates these students to become our future leaders who will generate meaningful change.”
Dr. Grace Gu, PhD, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at University of California, Berkeley
“Growing up, I was very fortunate to be exposed to the joys of engineering and science in my Asian American upbringing. As a child, I never felt like STEM was out of reach for me. As I grew older, however, barriers started to emerge, from the feeling of not fitting in as one of the only Asians in my middle school to being one of the few women in my mechanical engineering classes.
“Nevertheless, I was fortunate enough to be given encouragement from others to pursue a career in STEM. Having seen first-hand the many challenges faced by minorities and women, especially in STEM, and knowing the powerful influence a mentor can have, I look forward to dedicating my career to encouraging and empowering the next generation of female scientists and engineers.”
Anna Lee, founder, Lioness, a sex toy startup
“I may not be the best at any one thing, but I’ve recently realized the incredible superpower in the intersection of being an Asian American, a woman, and in STEM. It means I can see problems in a new light and with the savviness learned from my immigrant parents who came with nothing, the strength in women raising each other, and technical tools I’ve learned as a mechanical engineer, I can help build the solutions that shake up the existing perspectives. There’s so much power to be harnessed in our unique intersections.
“When we started Lioness, I realized the sex toy industry was incredibly male-dominated and outdated. However, growing up with understanding the taboo of sex in Asian culture, being a woman who can actually use the products and know what does and doesn’t work, and working as a mechanical engineer, it gave me the confidence to know I could help change how we saw sexual pleasure.”
Susan Choe, founder, Katalyst Ventures
“As an enabler of STEM entrepreneurs via investments and connections, I personally don’t think of myself as that unique. But just by doing what I do daily, I am often positioned as a trailblazer, which is something that doesn’t cross my mind until other women of color in tech usually point this out to me.
“In my prior role as CEO and founder of the game publishing platform company Outspark, I ignored the presence of bias against women in gaming, media, tech, and start-up industries, and still do to this day. Thinking too much of those who wish to see you fail purely based on your gender, color or socio-economic background is not fuel for mental focus to drive success. In order to thrive in this industry, you have to define success in a holistic manner — family, friends, and self-growth are integral.”
Donna Dillenberger, fellow at IBM Watson Research Center
“I am extremely proud to be Asian American and a researcher. Making discoveries and using science and math to make the world better is a privilege for the people who go into STEM.
“Growing up Asian, with immigrant parents, one gets immersed in a culture of incredible self-discipline, hard work, perseverance, sacrifice and heroic individuals every day. And the USA provides so many opportunities in terms of wonderful collaborations with interesting companies, talented people, a dynamic business environment, and universities. It’s a perfect cauldron for invention. It’s magical.
“My obstacles were internal. As an Asian American female, I was immersed in a culture to respect seniority (Asian), to be quiet, likable and emphasize one’s appearance (American). However, the benefits of growing up in two cultures helped because they contradicted each other. Growing up, I took the parts of my different cultures that worked well for me.
“You have to be assertive if you are an immigrant female in the USA, otherwise you get crushed by your environment. Americans celebrate individuality and unique thinking, but the part of western culture that emphasizes a person’s appearance exacerbates gender relationships.
“My parents and older siblings encouraged me in STEM from when I was an infant. They spoke about STEM with awe, reverence and admiration. I was surrounded by respectful, encouraging uncles, brothers, and my father. They didn’t say, “How pretty you are,” growing up. They said, “How smart and intelligent you are. What a great mathematician or scientist you’re going to be one day.'”
Shibing Wang, product engineer at ASML
“Asian Americans are not particularly underpopulated in STEM; however, there are not many women. Oftentimes, I’m one of the few females in the classroom, or the only female in the conference room. It takes quite a lot of courage, effort, and persistence for women to stand out in the STEM field, or in any field. In this regard, I believe my Asian background instilled a strong work ethic and determination to persevere through difficulties, whether it be in my technical work or interactions with colleagues at ASML. In this era where technology develops very quickly, I feel fortunate and find it exciting to ride the wave and be part of progress. I certainly hope to influence change and work on sharing this excitement with other Asian American females.”
Michiko Araki Kelley, vice president, New Business Group, Sony
“As a woman who was born and raised in Japan, I didn’t have many choices to explore a broad spectrum of career options and wasn’t able to identify my true career passion until my late 20s. Today I feel blessed with the opportunity to make new technologies, like our KOOV programmable robotics, more accessible to students of all backgrounds — including young women and minorities. Exposing students to emerging technologies empowers our next generation of STEM scholars to pursue their passion for innovation and creativity.”