The Women in Housing series is a month-long project featuring the voices, stories, and experiences of women who currently or formerly work in housing and residence life. Today's post was written by Dr. Lani San Antonio.
Asians in the workplace are often pegged with the “model minority” stereotype. In many ways, Asians are expected to stay in the ‘middle lane’ of the road – consistently produce good work and not complain. Unfortunately, while perhaps favored in their roles, Asians ultimately face what Dr. Renu Khator points out as the “bamboo ceiling” where they are unable to ascend or fail to see themselves in top organizational leadership positions. How is it that the “model minority” is often the least represented when it comes to leadership roles – especially in our own field of higher education? Where do we lose our Asian leaders?
For a decade, I dedicated my life to university housing. In fact, I was your model minority. It’s actually amazing I was even hired as a Graduate Hall Director! I was never a resident assistant, called residence halls “dorms” in my interview and was completely lost during my first training season. But I worked hard and did everything I could to catch up. I was involved regionally, nationally, and even selected to attend RELI and NHTI – even serving as faculty at the former. I presented, recruited and continually helped build the departments I served in. I often was the lone Asian voice at the table but somehow, I was at the table! A testament to my hard work – sure. But at the same time, I recognize that I am not your stereotypical “Asian”. In many ways, I modeled the typical American leadership qualities we seek early on in housing: I am very extroverted – a “big” personality, I don’t hesitate to offer my opinion and I am okay with moving away from home and being in areas that were not heavily populated with Asians. All these reasons I am certain helped me move up in housing. However, as Khator points out, these American leadership qualities often are in direct contradiction with Asian values (i.e. self-effacement, deference to authority, family).
But the nuance with being the ‘model minority’ is that at some point – you may be forced to leave the middle lane to address needed change. One such incident that I recall was the time when a graduate student expressed concern about the use of the term “key fob” as the term “fob” is often a derogatory term towards Asian immigrants. When they expressed their concern they were met with some resistance to a name change. I understood the concern but wasn’t exactly sure what I could do about the situation. It wasn’t until a supervisor said to me that maybe if I used my position as a leader on staff to bring up the issue, things might change. Not sure how I felt about ‘fighting someone else’s fight’ I knew I ultimately had to make a choice – do I watch this young minority professional feel oppressed and stay silent or do I use my position and voice to speak up for them? I chose the latter. And like my supervisor predicted, it was received and the word did get changed with very little issue. Yay, a win, right? Well the problem is once you open your eyes to oppression, it’s hard to turn back. And just like that – a new voice emerged. A forceful, educated and critical one. A voice that sometimes, frightened those that were not used to it or expected it.
When I look back, this was also the starting point of when I probably fell in disaccord with certain types of professionals. The problem with the lack of representation of Asian women in higher education is that those unfamiliar will rely on stereotypes to understand how to work with you. And when you don’t comply to the “quiet, fall in line, passive” professional – you are quickly castigated as a troublemaker. This is not new for our Black colleagues. But the difference is – often times, Black colleagues do have someone to turn to for support and affirmation. If not a direct colleague in the department – someone else in the field or black professional organizations on campus and within our associations.
Unfortunately, for Asian women in housing – it is very hard to find someone that “looks like you”. At ACUHO-I’s Annual Conference and Exposition in 2015, I was sitting and talking to a group of well connected, diverse professionals when a graduate student asked if we knew any Asian women Chief Housing Officers she could interview for her master’s thesis. There we were, silent for a few minutes because we couldn’t come up with one name – not one! So again, housing (and the larger extent student affairs) how do we remedy this?
First off, it starts with representation. As a mentor once said to me, “Housing should have the most diverse staff on campus – they are the ones who have the possibility to touch all the students on campus.” I don’t disagree with this belief, nor do I think many of us do. I think where we struggle is that often times, we hold ourselves back from recruiting and building diverse staffs. Staff selection processes and recruitment initiatives are often inherently culturally biased (i.e. on campus live in requirements, resume screening metrics, group process, etc.). We look for the students that ‘speak the language’, had ‘similar leadership experiences’, etc. But often times our minority students haven’t had those experiences. Thus, representation becomes more important at various levels to offer perspective and challenge the norms.
Secondly, once we hire minority women, we must continue to grow them and develop them. Especially, if there is no one in your administration that looks like them. I credit my ability to ascend quickly and smartly to the many great female mentors in my life. While Asian women Chief Housing Officers are unicorns in housing, my ‘model minority status’ afforded me the opportunity to have mentors from diverse backgrounds that didn’t hesitate to mentor me or pass me off to someone that they felt would be more qualified (code word: looked like me). But when you mentor and grow them (especially as a member of the majority) its important to not silence them. As Sheryl Sandberg championed women to stand up and not stay silent, she failed to address how this did not always favor those with intersectional identities like women of color. Recognize that this is not always easy for women of color and encourage them to speak up – give them the opportunity.
Lastly, create a culture where we can lead through the good and bad times. I’m always nervous when I see a minority professional rise really fast into top positions. We are attractive and help you cross off your diversity checklist, but the top is less forgiving to those that don’t reflect the image of the administration. We inevitably will make a mistake, it happens. But leadership – you have the opportunity to help us learn from those mistakes and continue to grow us. Unfortunately, so often we are easily casted aside, something that doesn’t always happen with our fairer skin colleagues.
I haven’t broken the “bamboo ceiling” yet in Housing. After ten years, I took a detour to experience the other side of higher education while living abroad. But one never leaves housing – I am still connected in many ways through involvement with ACUHO-I, mentoring minority housing professionals and my own research that centers on residential education. And I remain hopeful that someday soon, I will be able to hear many voices of Asians – specifically Asian females from all levels, including the Chief Housing Officer level.
Dr. Lani San Antonio is an Assistant Professor in Abu Dhabi. After 10 years in housing, Dr. Lani chose to pursue her passions of teaching and travelling by taking a position abroad. Since the decision, she travelled to 12 countries last year and looks forward to travelling to another 5 countries already scheduled in 2017! Feel free to follow her travels on Instagram at @LaniSanAntonio or #littlelanibigworld.
The Women in Housing series is sponsored by Adirondack Solutions.