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inequality at work

‘He asked me if I wanted to date a board member’: An Asian American grant writer on being treated like a commodity at work

"It was such a toxic, damaging culture. It made me feel like a commodity, considering I was out selling this program. And in a lot of ways I felt like I was selling myself," said Angela Chan O'Donnell.
"It was such a toxic, damaging culture. It made me feel like a commodity, considering I was out selling this program. And in a lot of ways I felt like I was selling myself," said Angela Chan O'Donnell.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Angela Chan O’Donnell is a grant writer for a local nonprofit. Here, she talks about the experience of being a young Asian American woman treated like a commodity by the older white men she used to work with — as told to Globe reporter Katie Johnston. Part of an occasional series of personal essays by people of color working in the Boston area.

As an Asian woman who relies on building relationships for work, I constantly have to cater to white corporate America. I am an intelligent person whose intelligence is undermined by my gender and by my race.

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I used to work at a Boston organization where I had to deal with a lot of older white men. It was the big boys’ club. As a young-looking Asian woman, I was definitely treated in a different way than someone who was not of my color or gender. People in power, they are the ones who dictate norms. They expect young women to cater to their egos.

My team made a presentation during a board meeting, and shortly after that, I went to the CEO’s office, and he said, “Come in and sit down,” as he often did. “The door is always open.” He asked me, “What meetings have you had recently? How was your weekend?” Casual chitchat. It was a little weird that a CEO would give a new employee so much attention. Then he asked me if I wanted to date a board member. Something along the lines of, “Oh Angie, are you single? Because I think you would be good for this board member.” At which point I said, no, I was not single.

That was the end of it. But following that interaction, I felt his door was no longer open. There were times I ran into my former CEO at formal events. It was like I didn’t exist.

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At the same job, I once was basically trapped in a four-hour lunch meeting with one of our business partners. He asked if I was single, what my hobbies were, how often I worked out; he was a well-known businessman and was shocked I didn’t know who he was. It had nothing to do with work or building a relationship with a partner.

The worst part was reporting that I felt uncomfortable and trapped to my supervisor and being made to feel that I had somehow led the business partner on, like it was my fault. I informed someone above him, and it never got addressed. I was younger, I didn’t know. I didn’t feel like I had power. I still don’t.

Then a few weeks later, as instructed by my supervisor, I sent the business partner an e-mail, a copy and paste note I sent to all the partners. And his reply was just, “Hey, when are we having lunch?” I forwarded it to my supervisor, noting that it hurt the integrity of the program by not taking it seriously, and he replied, “You shouldn’t have reached out.”

Another time, I was driving an older white co-worker to South Station and I was asked where the good massage parlors were in Chinatown, obviously indicating those that offer sexual services. Another director told me not to bend over in a certain way, and I heard that the same director showed a colleague a picture of me he’d found on Facebook that I didn’t realize the public could see. It was a picture of my tattoos on the side of my body from my early 20s.

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It was such a toxic, damaging culture. It made me feel like a commodity, considering I was out selling this program. And in a lot of ways I felt like I was selling myself.

These are men who are really powerful, and it’s scary for me to even reference them, never mind name them. I even refrain from naming women in power I’ve told about these experiences out of fear that they would suffer consequences. I’ve told my story to at least five women of color, and none of them expressed shock. In some cases, they shared their personal stories of harassment. But this shouldn’t be a sisterhood of silence.

As an Asian American woman, there is always a perception of being an “other.” There is a feeling of being perceived as younger and therefore not as informed and intelligent. There is the idea of being hit on by older men, of being judged by my appearance, rather than my achievements.

There’s a stereotype — I hate the term, I hate it with a passion — yellow fever: white guys who have a fetish for Asian women who are docile and obedient. This definition was provided almost word for word by the colleague who asked about massage parlors. To be treated according to that stereotype as a weak Asian woman is very traumatizing in the workplace, in identity. It erodes self-esteem, and ownership, and pride in the work you’ve done. The idea that Asian women are obedient — that’s a joke. You can ask my husband.

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You know what else is really interesting? Going by Angela Chan vs. my married name, Angela O’Donnell. Just the tone that people use with me, over the phone or on e-mail, when I changed my name to O’Donnell is completely different. When I was Chan I had people explain American culture to me, even though I was born and raised in Boston. When I started using O’Donnell, people were more polite to me, the grammar in their e-mails was better. I definitely get taken more seriously when I use the last name O’Donnell. I am no longer an “other” with my white last name.

When all this diversity and inclusion stuff started, I felt empowered to add back “Chan” to my e-mail signature. Under immense pressure, organizations are finally seeing the value of diverse opinions and experiences; I can only hope these efforts are sincere rather than a box to be checked.

I have always excelled in school, and I’ve been told by so many of my colleagues that I’m good at my job, I’m a strong writer, I have poise. But so much of it I feel is perceived as me achieving that success because I am a young Asian woman who smiles and wears a dress. Forget the fact that I just signed your first 25 partners, forget the fact that a citywide festival I helped plan won an award.

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One of my mentors at a previous job, a white male, was working on a grant about empowering Asian women as part of a mental health program. He deferred to the edits made by me and my intern, also an Asian woman, saying he didn’t want to disempower us by speaking for us. This one simple interaction showed me how people with power and privilege can be true advocates.

Angela Chan O’Donnell can be reached at chanodonnell@gmail.com.

To tell your story, contact workplace reporter Katie Johnston at katie.johnston@globe.com. Explore the full Inequality at Work series.


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.