On Gender Inequality and Being “Other”

There has been quite a lot of discussion recently about gender equality in the workplace and the gap that still exists for women to be treated equally and fairly in all aspects of society, especially in technology. I wanted to contribute my own journey and perspectives on this topic, although I am only qualified insofar as I happen to be a woman in technology with perhaps a mildly interesting story of being an outsider all her life and becoming comfortable with that fact.


First a little background…

I’m 36. I’m Chinese. I was born in China. For the first eight years of my life I had the privilege of a 1980s communist Chinese primary school education which emphasised obedience to the communist state, glorified military service and the heroic act of dying in battle for one’s country. To my eight year old brain this seemed like a really reasonable success to aspire to in life –  and I suppose that early aspiration has served me well in that when one’s ultimate career goal is to cease to exist in a glorious fashion, everything else that happens is really just icing on the cake.

My parents migrated to Australia in 1986 and so the little communist solider was plonked into the midst of a bourgeois capitalist landscape complete with Christmas presents (“They have this ‘Father Christmas’ who is the epitome of western decadence” – a teacher once told me), birthday presents, birthday parties, pass-the-parcel, afternoon suppers, knives and forks, the english language.

Once I got over the whole communist thing and slowly warmed to the idea of Christmas, I took to my new home rather well. But with this transition to a better life, one without food ration tickets or morning salutes to Mao, began a life in being “Other”, in being the outsider, the different, sometimes the disregarded.

On Suddenly Being “Other

I was the only Asian kid in my primary school. It was Adelaide in the late 80s and very little immigration from China had taken place, my family was one of the first to be allowed out of the country since the Communist Revolution. I was welcomed and considered an oddity. I spoke very little English and in one of those acts of generosity that teachers seem to overflow with which ultimately changes their student’s entire lives, my third grade teacher sat with me every afternoon, pointing to pictures and helping me sound out the words.

The other side of the story is that Adelaide in the 1980s was not a hugely welcoming place to Asian migrants. I remember graffiti on the roads that signed ‘Asians go home’, or people yelling out of their speeding cars at us – their words barely audible but the aggression in their voices perfectly clear.

It became apparent that I was different. There were almost no Chinese people on TV, or serving as role models in positions of esteem as part of Western society. In fact Asians were mostly depicted in negative stereotypes in movies and TV, the most infamous one being the “ping-pong-popping-stripper lady” in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert*.

Being cast as an outsider in such an extreme way was an interesting social experiment in that it had an immediate and direct impact on my personality, I became shy and quiet, in group discussions I would be too timid to contribute, not knowing when to break into the conversation. Whereas before I had been vocal, confident, lively. I had completely lost my voice.

I lost my voice and it was a long time before I regained it again.

I was an outsider predominantly because I was an ethnic minority, in part because I was female. But the causation factors almost didn’t matter, I had been subjected to an extreme change in situation where I felt a sense of isolation, of a lack of role models, of being an outcast, of an underlying sense that I could never affect society in any meaningful way.

For me the struggle for gender equality isn’t just isolated to gender. In any culture where someone feels they are an outsider, whether because of their race, gender, appearance, preferences – they will suffer a loss in voice, in self esteem and confidence. This loss is traumatic and should not be tolerated with the stereotyped view that women (or Asians) are just quiet by nature.

The Long-Tail of Otherness

My childhood is an example of a sudden onslaught of otherness. There is also the case of the Long-Tail of Otherness that most of us experience as part of accepted culture – that long-tail being a constant low-level hum of discrimination, versus a loud outburst in your ear as a speeding car rushes past yelling racial expletives.

The Long-Tail is subtle and harder to spot – it’s moments like being diverted to home economics classes instead of wood shop, it’s not having female engineering role models, it’s being told you look too young and too much like a girl to be taken seriously as a professional, it’s finding out you’re not being paid quite as much as your male colleagues.

We’re all immersed in this long-tail. It’s like the background radiation from the big-bang of the women’s rights movement.

And the impact of this long-tail over the course of someone’s life is the same – a loss of voice. A loss of confidence and potential.

Let me say this again, this is not a personality thing, this is a trauma. And it’s not just happening to women. It’s affects ethnic minorities, those economically under-priviledged, anyone who has made choices that makes them the target of discrimination.

Assertiveness and self-confidence are unisex traits, they come about through a constant culture of nurturing and inclusivity from a young age. Everyone has a voice and it’s our duty as a society to help people (especially kids) to find that voice and to believe in it. I’m not sure how to get there, but I hope we’ll all do a little every day to achieve it – like speaking up for someone who might not be brave enough to speak for themselves, or pausing a meeting to give someone a chance to voice their opinion.

Like my third grade teacher who sat patiently with me everyday to go through picture cards, having that direct impact on someone’s life will ripple into bigger societal changes.

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  1. Haiyan you are an exceptional example of what makes a great immigrant. Your parents should be commended for having the personal fortitude to pick up their lives and move to a foreign country where social and economic norms are so much in contrast with the original home land.

    That you overcame the confronting behaviour of our morons who cannot abide difference, is stunningly inspirational. Like your work alongside the mum with two challenged sons, your attitude to life is just so heart warming.

    From a privileged Adelaide white Anglo-Saxon grand-father who has two beautiful Chinese Malaysian grand-daughters I say thankyou for your persistence, innovation and love for your fellow humans. Keep up the quality of work you are producing as we all need someone like you to hold up as a shining star.

    Good luck in the next phase of your wonderful life.

  2. A very interesting article Haiyan. I would like to say though, that man or women it doesn’t take much to make you an outsider and when young in particular it can be hell.

    As a kid I was skinny, wore glasses and was badly dyslexic. The only thing I did well at school was fight when people tried to put me down.

    That energy was later used to get the knowledge needed, to drive a creative path, clear others out of the way and seek out the best people to work with and learn from.

    Being an outsider stays with you for life. It forms an inbuilt anxiety that forces you to be more creative, go further and longer than the others. It becomes part of you as an inner restlessness.

    In my 60’s now with successful businesses including environmental ones. Madly interested in everything still and when I die, it will hopefully be reaching for the next star.

    Being an outsider has hurt badly at times but looking back I wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s tough but it’s what makes you different and you are a classic example. I wish you good fortune and success throughout your life and as many challenges as you can handle.

  3. Beautiful, well articulated text, very needed perspective… I am honored to know you personally and know it all came out well in the end. You became the role model you were after for yourself. Very inspiring. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Wow. Well put, Haiyan. And very interesting to read about your life. We need more stories like this. We need more empathy. Otherness often leads to an over-focus on differences, in stead of a focus on how that otherness can contribute. Stories about being ‘other’ are an important part in bridging that gap.
    And we need more action.

    Anyway, well written, heart felt. Thank you for sharing!

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