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Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Female Leaders Share Their Experiences at Annual Be Heard! Conference

by Maggie Rotermund
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Maggie Rotermund
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ST. LOUIS - Saint Louis University’s Emerson Leadership Institute held its third annual Be Heard! Women in Leadership conference on Friday, May 3. The event, “Breaking and Powering Through the Bamboo Ceiling,” kicked off Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. 

MICDS students in costume walk through the crowd at the Emerson Leadership Institute's third annual Be Heard! Women in Leadership conference on Friday, May 3. Photo by Sarah Conroy.  Launch SlideshowMICDS students in costume walk through the crowd at the Emerson Leadership Institute's third annual Be Heard! Women in Leadership conference on Friday, May 3. Photo by Sarah Conroy.

The half-day event featured conversations about creating a sense of belonging and equity in the workplace, culminating in a panel discussion with local Asian women leaders. The panelists shared their experiences and how they navigate the workplace.

The conference featured a panel of local Asian women leaders, including:

The panel was moderated by Luchen Li, associate vice president for global engagement at SLU.

Barnali Gupta, Ph.D., the Edward Jones Dean and professor of economics at Saint Louis University’s Richard A. Chaifetz School of Business, told the audience that leadership is about the people being led and not the leader.

“If you make leadership about you, you’ve already failed,” she said. 

Gupta challenged those in attendance to remember why their work is important. 

“Our students are my why,” she said. “They are why I do what I do. Find your why.”

The panelists shared experiences around tokenism, the paths to leadership and finding solidarity with other women, whether in the workplace or through professional organizations. 

Lee said she found solidarity and kinship with other women of color early in her teaching career and those relationships helped her move up in educational administration. Cha said finding relationships with women of different generations helped her shed generational bias. She also noted that it was critical that she freed herself of the friendship myth.

“There is this expectation that we are all supposed to get along all the time and that the work of teambuilding tends to fall on the women,” she said. “We should be professional and be supportive of one another, but you don’t have to be best friends with everyone.”

Being supportive goes beyond co-workers, Mahadevan told the group and should extend to the women not yet in the organization.

“We don’t just need to be the best we can be, like the Army slogan, but we need to be the generals at the front,” she said. “We set the example and teach the people behind us. I think of my daughter when I am thinking about what comes next.”

Schiller echoed that sentiment, noting it was incumbent upon women in leadership to ask themselves how they are developing their employees to be leaders.

“Team success is grown by individual success,” she said. “As a leader, I need to help them be successful and continue to invest in their development and growth.”

The path to leadership was varied for the panelists, with Schiller sharing her experience of creating an intentional path to academic leadership at UMSL by determining her motivation and aiming toward a goal, while Cha shared that being a radio host was not a job for which she was aiming.

“I lacked the direction some of my colleagues here have talked about,” she said. “But I asked questions all along the way. I have stuck my neck out, which hasn’t always served me well, but I am where I am because I am assertive without being loud. That’s the secret sauce for me.”

Cha challenged those in attendance to find their own secret sauce to propel them forward in their careers.

“Don’t be afraid to do things,” she said. “Leadership comes from moving together.”

About the Richard A. Chaifetz School of Business

Founded in 1910, the Richard A. Chaifetz School of Business at Saint Louis University has shaped the future of industry for more than a century. As one of the oldest business schools west of the Mississippi, the Chaifetz School has built a reputation as a leader in business education committed to innovation, inclusion and impact and recognized with eight undergraduate and graduate programs nationally ranked by U.S. News & World Report.

About Saint Louis University

Founded in 1818, Saint Louis University is one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious Catholic institutions. Rooted in Jesuit values and its pioneering history as the first university west of the Mississippi River, SLU offers more than 15,200 students a rigorous, transformative education of the whole person. At the core of the University’s diverse community of scholars is SLU’s service-focused mission, which challenges and prepares students to make the world a better, more just place.