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How to Disrupt a System That Was Built to Hold You Back

In almost every industry, women of color receive less support, and experience double standards, microaggressions, and unconscious bias.

By Lan Nguyen Chaplin (“Originally published on HBR Ascend")

I’ve been working in academia for two decades now. My colleagues would probably describe me as someone with “an upbeat personality,” who’s obsessed with learning and being a good peer. I might even describe myself, or the side of me that shows up for work every day, in the same way.

But there is another side, a more private one, that lives in me too. I’m an Asian American woman who has fought her way into the position of tenured professor. I’m the daughter of Vietnamese refugees who came to the U.S. to build a better life. I’m the youngest of 14 children and the mother of two. And while I consider my background one of many blessings, and am grateful for the doors that have opened for me, I’ve also faced a great deal of racism and sexism throughout my career as a result of who I am and where I come from.

You observe things from a special vantage point when you live in a world and work in an industry that was built to hold you back.

When I taught my first MBA class of nearly 60 students, whispers infiltrated the room the moment I walked up to the podium. A student yelled out, “How long have you been teaching?”

Their question, however jarring, was unsurprising. I’m petite and have been told that I “look and sound” young often. When people think about what a successful professor, or leader, looks like, they usually think of a white man: Women represent only 22% of full professors in business schools, or those employed at the highest rank. Only 3% of full professors are female and Asian in all of academia.

In this instance, I turned to my student and said what I always say: “I’m a lot younger than I look.”

The room, as if on cue, erupted in laughter.

Like many women in my position, I’ve become savvy at responding to these kinds of comments and occurrences. You observe things from a special vantage point when you live in a world and work in an industry that was built to hold you back. The perspective, blind spots, and biases of people who have never questioned their right to take up space or fought to be heard, becomes obvious. If you’re a woman, more specifically, a woman of color in a predominantly white field, you already know that.

Whether you work in academia or not, whether you are seasoned or just beginning your career, there are going to be times when you enter a space that doesn’t welcome you with open arms. In almost every industry, women of color receive less support, and experience double standards, microaggressions, and unconscious bias, making it much more difficult to advance our careers in rank and pay.

This kind of discrimination needs to be addressed at the institutional, organizational, and leadership levels. It is their problem to solve, and not ours. Nonetheless, when you are trying to excel inside of these environments, it’s a lot to go up against.

I want to share with you a handful of tools I’ve developed over the years to protect myself, my career path, and my mental health in an industry that I was never meant to succeed in. Take the ones that feel right for you and use them to disrupt the system that is getting in your way.


The most important lesson I’ve learned over the years: There is power in numbers, and this is true at every level of an institution.

People tend to favor those who look like them, meaning those in positions of power tend to look, sound, and think in similar ways. It’s harder for women of color, in general, to establish networks that can help them navigate their careers in predominantly white industries.

As an Asian American woman, the “model minority” myth made this difficult for me in my early career. I came from a low-income family with limited economic resources and a lack of social networks, and yet I was expected to excel with little structural support. The myth not only erases the individual struggles Asian Americans face, but also ignores the role racism plays in the struggles of other racial/ethnic groups, and worse, it pits people of color against each other when we should really be allies.

To create any kind of change, in any industry, our voices need to be heard. The more voices there are, the louder we will be. This knowledge is your secret sauce: Use it to connect with people in your office or at your institution who may feel disconnected and overlooked themselves.

Your ally can be an inclusive leader who wants to confront bad behavior and overturn patterns of injustice at the top. This person can create forward momentum for you by drawing attention to your contributions and recommending you for opportunities that advance your career. You can find them by asking around (“What’s it like to work with … ?”). If they are worth connecting with, they will appreciate your initiative, and reply to your email — if you keep it short and to the point.

Your ally can also be someone at your rank who will put in the work to listen to you, understand you, learn from you, share their own story, and act on what they’ve learned. This is the person in the room who you hold in high esteem, and importantly, who holds you in high esteem as well. Take their support and keep paying it forward. Expand your network of allies, and continue to support people from other marginalized groups.


When people make assumptions based on my appearance, I don’t assume they are hurting me on purpose, but the pain is palpable. Every year, I watch people act on their implicit biases to judge my character, abilities, and potential. Well-intentioned staff comment, “You’re such a cute China doll,” “You’re exotic. You’ve got big eyes for an Asian.” Well-intentioned students swear, “You don’t look like a professor,” and, “I thought you were one of us.” Well-intentioned people ask, “Where are you really from?” All believe that their words are compliments.

But are they?

No matter how conscious, unconscious, or seemingly kind a bias is, it has the same outcome: inequality, exclusion, and re-opened wounds. In my case, not being viewed as a professor translates to not being respected as a leader or deserving of my rank. Not being viewed as an American translates to not belonging — a feeling I have been battling since childhood.

So you see, even though the issue lives at the institutional level, it’s personal.

When I was a kid, I was only allowed to speak to my parents in their first language. They raised me to take pride in our heritage, but at home, I still struggled to feel like I was Vietnamese. Morning kindergarten class and afternoon Mister Rogers taught me English and U.S. culture, but at school, I still struggled to feel like a “real American.”

So you see, even though the issue lies at the institutional level, it’s personal. For my own mental health, for my survival and growth, I’ve had to get comfortable confronting these biases when they confront me. Because it’s what I can control. Because its effective. Because I need to set boundaries to focus on what matters: my work.

This was not easy to do when I was just starting out, but the more I practiced, the better I got.

Here’s a (very) quick take on what I’ve learned about confronting biases:

  • Schedule a private one-on-one meeting. Conversations that take place at the same eye-level in a neutral space are most respectful and therefore, helpful.

  • Focus on the other person’s behaviors. This will remind you that, more often than not, there are bad behaviors, not bad people. People grow and change. People have bad days. People say things without listening to what they actually said. Approach them with an interest in nurturing the professional relationship.

  • Speak in a matter-of-fact tone. You want your message to take center stage, not your emotions. Avoid blaming, labeling, yelling, swearing, sarcasm, insults, or threats. Avoid inaccurate over-generalizations, like, “always,” “never,” “everything,” and “nothing.”

  • Don’t bring up past events that could be misconstrued as a personal attack and derail the conversation. Focus the conversation on a single incident. This will help the other person gain insight into what happened and why it was wrong, whereas bringing up multiple incidents at once may feel overwhelming and cause the other person to shutdown entirely.

  • When discussing the incident, make sure you can articulate and support your point with evidence.

  • If the conversation gets heated, suggest a coffee break and reconnect in 10 minutes.

  • Really listen to what the other person says when they respond. Have the intent of understanding where they are coming from. I find that asking questions helps clarify (“Can you please help me better understand … ?” “What did you mean by … ?”)

  • End the meeting by thanking the other person for taking the time to engage and listen (“I’m glad you understand that … and you’ll work to … I now understand better …”) Ending the meeting this way nurtures the relationship.


Pain usually accompanies growth. The biggest milestones in your young adulthood — moving away from home, going to college, finding your first job, etc. — are going to come with challenges that are unique to you and your situation. People of color often face additional challenges because we have fewer resources to support us. Today, a big part of my job in academia is doing just that: supporting and mentoring students of color.

I love and value this work, but I have also been punished for it throughout my career. Women are regularly stereotyped as being nice, compassionate, and warm. These positive traits supposedly make us good caretakers, but not powerful, competitive, and competent leaders. In academia, women of color are tasked with the emotional labor of mentoring students who feel marginalized, and women in general do more committee work than men, which can decrease our research productivity and our chances of getting promoted.

If you are also tasked with the emotional labor of mentoring others, thank you! Your work is needed, especially right now. However, if this work is going unrecognized and decreasing your productivity in areas that are recognized, you need to either stop saying yes to service or begin to work collaboratively with top leaders at your organization to build service into your reward model. Everyone in every industry, but especially in higher education, needs to be discussing how to create more diverse, equitable, and inclusive environments. Your service is a part of advancing that mission, meaning you should be rewarded equally — and you can and should be a part of this conversation.

You’re powerful. You’re worthy. You deserve to take up space and be heard.

Turn to your allies. Together, reach out to people in positions of power at your organization or institution who have publicly shared their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. A part of disrupting the system is not just asking these leaders to include you in their conversations, but also inviting them into the conversations you are having around what needs to change.

Remember that you need their help to create that change, and they need your help to align their commitment to DEI with your institution’s mission and values.

I’ll leave you with this…

If your experience is anything like mine, you may have been expected to quietly “go along” for most of your life, and now your career. The hidden message here is that people may want you to be non-confrontational, easy to work with, and docile — a stereotype that is especially common for women of Asian descent. It took time, but today, when I speak up or do things differently than what is expected of me, whether by students or other professors, I make no apologies.

Sure, I’m still perceived as difficult, out for herself, and bossy sometimes. But — and you need to hear this sooner than later — the expectation that you should agree with a point you don’t support or go along with an idea without asking “how” or “why” is absurd.

We should never forget that it is ultimately the responsibility of the institution and the organization to address these inequalities. Nevertheless, there is a silver lining for us, the individuals being affected. Although women of color, including myself, often struggle with feelings of acceptance in many industries, it is these same feelings that can ignite a fire in us. Use this fire to find purpose in your work, to find your allies, and to challenge the status quo — something most of us have been practicing our entire lives. And do these things for yourself, if and when they feel good.

You’re powerful. You’re worthy. You deserve to take up space and be heard.

Lan Nguyen Chaplin is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is also the Founder of QuanTâm, a nonprofit that gives young professionals opportunities to expand their networks and sharpen their professional skills while serving their community.

Copyright Harvard Business Publishing 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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