On Oct. 7, the University of Connecticut’s Women and Philanthropy Network hosted an event centered around the conversations of six panelists and how their different groups and backgrounds affect them in their areas of expertise. The discussion was moderated by Manisha Sinha, the Draper Chair in American history at UConn, and included panelists Socheth McCutcheon (UConn Law ‘06), Meghana Shah (UConn Law ‘04), Chauntay Mickens (UConn CLAS ‘10), Amy Lin-Meyerson (UConn Law ‘94) and Luz Burgos-Lopez (Neag School of Education).
The event started off addressing the issue of cultural bias by discussing how their particular backgrounds affected them and specific challenges they encountered during their careers. Shah, a partner at Evershed Sutherland law firm, had a lot to say on how her experiences as a White-passing South Asian woman came up during her work. As a child of immigrants, pursuing a law career was quite different for Shah, in that the element of being a lawyer was never passed down to her as they presumably are in richer, White families. In turn, microaggressions were a common aspect she came across during work.
“The ones that I’ve sort of observed for myself are things like casual shortenings of my name or calling me Megan, or something,” Shah said.
On the same subject of cultural bias within the workplace, Mickens, who now works in the nonprofit sector at MLT (Management Leadership for Tomorrow), explained her personal battles when starting off in her job field.
“I’ve always had strong viewpoints on things and I’ve always wanted to fight for what’s right and fight for myself, but a lot of times as a Black woman, if you do advocate for yourself, it comes off as being disruptive,” Mickens said. “It comes off as being angry or loud and there’s all these stereotypes around the ‘angry Black woman.’”
The inner anxieties of being perceived as a stereotype caused Mickens to lose her voice in the pursuit of being heard. Mickens’ experience outlines the importance of resources and confidence-building tools for women of color on how to speak up and understand their inherent value. In light of this, Mickens also made a meaningful point about how the Black Lives Matter movement has actually shed a positive light on disruptors.
“People are actually listening, people are appreciating folks that are taking charge,” Mickens said.
As an Asian American woman, microaggressions were not an uncommon occurrence for Lin-Meyerson, who, when shifting gears to the topic of mentorships and their role in empowerment, provided insight on her interactions within the law field.
“When I first started out as an attorney, I was offered the opportunity to match up with a more senior woman attorney as a mentor,” Lin-Meyerson said. “So I took it, we had an initial call and one of the first things she said to me was ‘You should drop Lin because Amy Lin sounds too cutesy.’”
Lin-Meyerson did not hesitate in explaining to her mentor that Lin was actually her maiden name and she intended on keeping it. Given this one exception where her mentor was a woman, she also explained that most of the mentors she worked with in the past had predominantly been White men. However, this changed when she later joined the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA), where she was able to come across mentors of more diverse backgrounds.
Mentorships in particular seemed very important to McCutcheon, the associate general counsel at Verizon, who is especially proud of how her workplace handles issues of diversity.
“Sometimes we get taught that you have to pick a mentor that’s at the top. Honestly, my mentors are women of color, femme folks, queer folks around me who are not in those high positions to make those decisions because you need that group of people, that family, to ground you and remind you that you’re more than the production you contribute to any company or institution.”LUZ BURGOS-LOPEZ
“I feel like the work environment I have is a really good example of having a supportive work environment because there’s a lot of messaging and we even have a learning portal of all of the various important discussions and YouTube videos and things from experts addressing racial inequality and social injustice,” McCutcheon said. “The company has really given us a lot of empowerment to say … ‘We want you to be who you are.’”
Burgos-Lopez, a second-year doctoral student, emphasized her own experiences as a Latina woman and a first-generation college student earlier in the event. She later had much to say regarding mentorships.
“Not all skinfolk are kinfolk, but also be mindful of who your mentors are,” Burgos-Lopez said. “Sometimes we get taught that you have to pick a mentor that’s at the top. Honestly, my mentors are women of color, femme folks, queer folks around me who are not in those high positions to make those decisions because you need that group of people, that family, to ground you and remind you that you’re more than the production you contribute to any company or institution.”
The final question of the event asked for any advice the panelists would give to those within the UConn community who might be facing particularly challenging environments today. As a lasting remark, Sinha delivered a moving statement that perfectly summarized the contents of today’s discussion: “It is important to champion yourself and to not feel as if your experience is any less. In fact, it may be the most valuable in the end.”
Thumbnail photo courtesy of UConn Foundation website.