My “Aha!” moment for my platform was while I was in college working a seasonal job in agriculture. My mother gave me Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In for Graduates. I was skeptical but began reading. I have never finished a book so quickly, or ever felt so passionately motivated about something. Sandberg described the struggles that women face as they begin their careers. She explained her own experiences and those of her close friends, but she also incorporated copious amounts of research to ground her assertions. The tone was neither confrontational, nor was it placing blame on any particular group of people; instead, it was factual and practical. Her approach resonated with me so deeply that I knew instantly that this was an issue I could stand behind.
Having experienced instances of the discrimination Sheryl mentions, I chose to implement a platform that focuses on bringing about awareness of the obstacles women often face in the workplace, while at the same time offering practical tools to navigate the workforce as a woman. Women have made huge strides in equality during the last five decades, but there is still plenty of work to be done. I am thankful to the Miss America Organization for bringing other women into my life who are natural leaders. They use their position to create positive change. They lead by example with a servant’s heart but are not afraid to speak up when they feel it is necessary. One of these extraordinary women is Crystal Lee, Miss California 2013. Having competed in the Miss America Organization throughout her teens and early twenties, Crystal has now started her career in the tech industry. Being a strong woman in a male-dominated field, I wanted to get Crystal’s take on her experiences as an Asian-American woman in the workplace.
MF: As a woman in a very male-dominated field, how has your gender played a role in your experience trying to launch your career?
CL: As with all things in life, there can be advantages and disadvantages. I’ve found that a fair amount of resilience and healthy ignorance has helped me launch my career.
My first boss at Google loved that I was Miss California. I will always be thankful to him for hiring me and supporting me right after “retiring” from pageants. Many of the women on that team helped me transition to the working world and to this day they are still my friends.
Where I’ve found it to be more of a challenge as a woman in tech is in building relationships within teams and individuals who are less accustomed to a young, female presence. Now I am often in business meetings with potential insurance and financial partners who probably notice that I don’t often fit the typical profile of an enterprise software founder.
MF: Can you give one example of gender discrimination you have personally experienced?
CL: I once had someone tell me, “Wow, you’re a lot smarter and more impressive than I thought you would be. You’re not like most pageant girls.” I wanted to turn to this person and say, “wow you’re less attractive that I thought you would be.”
MF: Do you feel that your background in pageantry has positively impacted how you approach your career and push to overcome the obstacles that arise in your path?
CL: Without a doubt – YES. I’ve gained perseverance, resilience, public speaking skills, confidence, and so much more.
MF: Considering that a huge part of the employment gap between men and women is due to the fact that women, whether intentionally or subconsciously, hold themselves back from seizing opportunities in workplace, what is one piece of advice you’ve learned through your own experience that you would give to young women preparing to begin their careers?
CL: Be bold. Ask for things you feel unqualified for; whether it’s about pay, project assignments, benefits, anything. Get used to asking. The worst they can say is no – and that’s something that anyone who has previously accomplished great things knows well.
Also, being obedient is overrated. Put yourself in positions that are challenging and hard. Don’t be afraid to fail early and fail often. Your 20s are for those formative experiences and if you’ve never failed, you’re not pushing yourself enough.
There are some challenging assumptions about women’s behavior: women are expected to be quieter, gentler, and more compassionate. We are expected to behave a certain way and when we do not, feathers are often ruffled. This has contributed to the lack of diversity and damaging stereotypes which Crystal mentioned above. Obviously, one of the ways to have a profound impact on the conversation regarding equality in the workplace is by producing more women like those found in the Miss America Organization, but the work cannot end there. Women (and men) need to actively support women who lead with strength, intelligence, and charisma. Just as Crystal said, be bold and unafraid of failure, because there is power in numbers and you as an empowered woman (or man) will empower other women. That is a powerful chain reaction.