Last year, I participated in a career panel co-organized by Women in Global Health (WGH) and the American Public Health Association (APHA) – ‘Beyond the glass ceiling: Advancing women and minorities in global health leadership’ where a stark reality was highlighted – “Asians, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are one of the fastest-growing populations in the U.S., representing over 40 different ethnic groups, and 51% of them are women. Despite being stereotyped as a ‘model minority’ and a demographic group most likely to have graduate degrees, AAPI women face systemic barriers with pervasive discrimination and bias when it comes to opportunities for career advancement. They are less likely to be included in workplace discrimination conversations, are less likely than any other race to be promoted to management roles, and least likely to have supervisory responsibilities or even have positions within three levels of reporting to the CEO of a company or representation at the highest levels of the federal workforce”. In many Asian settings, gender, cultural and societal norms naturally favor men – women are taught to be humble and take a back seat, are less likely to advocate for themselves, are not adequately represented in places where higher level opportunities and initiatives are discussed and are disproportionately affected by responsibilities/caregiving considerations. While there has been progress on this front, we have a long way to go!
My story isn’t much different from that of many Asian American Women Leaders. Coming from a modest middle-class family from India – the first and currently the only medical doctor, and now a public health physician and vaccine professional (I still can’t bring myself to refer to myself as an ‘expert’), gender subjugation/bias/discrimination were always there in some shape and form – some subtle and some, not so much. As I sought higher opportunities, advanced in my career and stepped more into a leadership realm, the gender dynamic became more apparent as a powerful determinant – especially when combined with race, culture, and immigrant identity. For over 10 years, I served as the technical lead on two newer vaccines for the US CDC’s global immunization effort. Despite tremendous hard work, showing ingenuity, developing a new, full portfolio of work from a non-existent one and maintaining a leadership status for the organization externally, I wasn’t given even the basic first-level leadership position status. When I advocated for the same, I was made to feel by an older, white male leader that I wasn’t deserving of it, and I wasn’t given the respect and status, I had earned. Among the many discriminatory experiences, this was by far the worst setback, which had the potential to ruin my career. When it happened, at first, I behaved exactly how most women do – blame myself, over-apologize and try to settle for less. However, having been a part of WomenLift Health and the awareness that I had gained, I knew I could not settle. I followed two of my ‘sheroes’ – as Stacy Abrams, has said, “don’t let setbacks, set you back. Be clear about your what and your why” and Brene Brown in her Dare to Lead conversation, “your two core values” – for me, courage and fairness. I believed in my worth, my ability to lead with authenticity and my goal of contributing towards global health impact. I made a decision to leave the CDC and joined Johnson and Johnson’s Global Public Health Organization, where I bring a unique perspective and experience to J & J’s mission of equitable distribution of vaccines for resource-limited settings, our Covid-19 vaccine to control the global pandemic and our Ebola vaccine to stop outbreaks before they start.
While I am proud of what I was able to do with my G.R.I.T and support system, there are many high-potential women leaders out there, who have had to settle. We still face some of the same challenges – a few weeks ago, me and two other women were called “young women” in a professional setting. Much needs to be done to eliminate conscious/unconscious biases, policies, systems but most importantly a fundamental mindset shift is needed to further the advancement of women in higher-level opportunities and leadership roles, including women of all colors and from different cultural contexts. It’s time we start a “To be one, make one” movement where every leader, makes a prodigy – lift someone with you as you rise.