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, “