During my time in corporate America, I’ve known many leaders who were exceptional communicators. The leaders who stood out were ones who used plain language (no corporate jargon), provided context (so I can understand the big picture), and were open (shared what they knew).
I’d like to share the third and final research finding from my study on the experiences of Asian immigrant women and their journeys into corporate leadership.
The first finding from this study was the Asian women living by values in life and leadership. The second was the women receiving guidance and help throughout their life journeys. The third finding was the use of language as a tool.
As expected, for any person immigrating to a new country, knowing the language and understanding the country’s customs is essential for survival. And for the eight women, they initially focused on acquiring and fine-tuning their English speaking skills as they acclimated into their new environments. For them, being able to express themselves helped to acculturate into the American culture.
Gaining language skills is a crucial factor in learning bicultural efficacy (described by LaFromboise et al.). This means that an individual believes or has confidence in her ability to live “effectively or satisfactorily” among two cultural groups, without losing or minimizing her cultural identity. In addition, by successfully balancing between two cultures, the individual can achieve bicultural competence. Gaining bicultural competence allows for an individual (in the new culture) to cultivate a sense of self while developing a sense of cultural identity. Meaning, the women would not lose their identity as Asians while learning how to become more American.
For this research study, it was important for me to understand the duality of being Asian and American to gain insight into how the women perceived themselves as immigrants and as leaders.
The themes that emerged from the women’s stories imply that they were neither assimilated into the new culture nor rejected their own cultures but in fact, integrated both their home culture and host cultures.
For many of the participants, there was not a sense of feeling ostracized, but rather, the women felt excited when they first arrived into the United States; especially ones who came here when they were college-aged.
The Women’s Life Stories
A few of the women who arrived as young adolescents without English skills, they initially felt disconnected from their social environment and as a result, from themselves. For example, two women described feeling detached from their true identities during their adolescence because they could not fully communicate with their peer groups. One woman described feeling like she was “just as capable” as the American students, but she felt she couldn’t show her competence until she learned to speak effectively.
Another woman explained that once she learned English, the ability to communicate allowed her social environment to expand, providing her with an opportunity to observe how her peers interacted with authority figures. This was a turning point for her, as she was able to shape her own identity and not force herself to be someone her parents wanted her to become.
For the majority of the women, attaining the ability to speak English, was an essential resource, allowing them to connect with their peers and focus on what was important to all of them: completing their education.
The Evolving Self
As new immigrants, all of the women were in situations where they received guidance from their peers, friends, teachers, colleagues, and later, their managers. These interactions contributed to the development of their identity as leaders in corporate America.
American Sociologist, Charles Horton Cooley’s concept of personal identity and social identity being interrelated was relevant for the women in this study. Cooley’s concept of the “looking-glass self” – when people see themselves through the emotional reactions of others – applies to the life experiences of these women. For them, the ability to see themselves belonging to a group was reinforced as they gained English skills.
Once the women were skilled in their communication approach, they put their energies toward achieving academic excellence, advancing into leadership roles, and planning long-term goals.
For several women who achieved levels of success in corporate America, their next challenge was to share their message and inspire other women. Whether this was done through a conference, community event or even this research study, the women expressed a desire to share their stories and contribute to the growth and betterment of others.
I close out these research findings by thanking the eight inspiring women who generously shared their life stories with me. Without them, I would not have evolved as a scholar-practitioner. More importantly, every word, every sentiment, and memories uncovered, were all required for me to expand the sparse literature on Asian women in leadership.
Lastly, today and every day, I express my gratitude to one of the strongest woman leaders I know: my Mom. Not knowing the language and not having the capacity to fine-tune it, my Mom experienced hardship for most of her life in this country.
But even though my Mom didn’t have the power of the English language, in my mind, she never appeared weak. With her broken English, she persisted; through many manual labor jobs to starting several businesses that failed – all while raising a family. Ultimately, her life experiences have defined who she is and how she fits into this world; which is a strong Korean-American woman.
The characteristics I find admirable in others are ones find in her: a hard work ethic, a strong sense of self, humorous outlook on life, optimism, and a fierce sense of integrity.
My goal is to make sure this research goes beyond the pages of my dissertation so having this chance to share it with you means so much to me.
Thank you all for reading this. I hope it was worthwhile for you.
My Mom and Uncle. South Korea.