Women Who Lead – Ellen Li
In celebration of Asian Heritage Month, Live Your Potential highlights an empowering Asian-Canadian woman leader, Ellen Li.
Ellen is a remarkable leader as the Vice President of Finance at a private equity firm. In Part One of our interview, she shares her authentic leadership journey, her thoughts on Asian stereotypes in North American corporate settings, and the best work-related advice she’s ever received.
Read Part Two of Ellen’s interview below as she continues to share her insights on diversity and leadership, inspiring the younger generation of Asian women leaders to build a better future for themselves.
In Part One of our interview, you spoke in-depth about the “Bamboo Ceiling” that many Asians in the North American corporate settings have faced over the years. What is needed to build the next generation of women leaders, especially women leaders of colour?
I believe opportunity, mentorship and support are important factors to build the next generation of female leaders.
In recent years, companies are facing growing pressure to improve diversity among their leadership and director ranks, reflecting a greater awareness of the need to address Environmental, Social and Governance (“ESG”) issues. Investors are incorporating ESG factors into their due diligence process and reporting requirements and, as a result, companies are facing external pressures to increase the representation of women on corporate boards, in C-suite positions, and across executive leadership roles, as well as equal compensation and mobility to women and people of color. This is creating more opportunities for women of color to rise through the ranks, as companies and governments focus their resources to address diversity, inclusion, and gender gap.
An example of such policy is the board composition mandate implemented in Norway. In 2007, the country required its public companies to have at least 40% of female representation on Boards. Since then, the performance of public companies in Norway have not worsened; the criteria for board members widened but did not weaken, this created more opportunities for both men and women who were not the traditional candidates for public company Boards. This also created knock-on effects for private companies to increase their gender representation, as well, which is fabulous.
Personally, I hold mixed feelings about using quotas to promote diversity, as there is the risk of tokenism, complacent lip service, and even potential backlash. Education and communication are crucial to get buy-in from all levels. Otherwise, it will be a challenging path to success. I do believe using policies to create opportunity for women of color can be an effective and impactful tool, if the society is prepared for change.
Many companies have established mentorship programs to promote diversity in their leadership teams. For example, McKinsey established the Next Generation Women Leaders event in 2012. Many major banks, firms, and industry groups in Canada have similar initiatives and programs. They enable women to build meaningful professional connections early in their career and create opportunity for formal and informal mentorships to be established. I feel the value of good mentors can never be overstated; they are a critical part of the foundation to a successful career.
To build women leaders of color, I believe it is important to have community support and a guilt-free mom mentality. As a mother, you want to give 100% to both your family and your work. It’s a noble goal, but the pressure and competing demands are often unsustainable. When women don’t have a strong support network, they’re often forced to choose between family and career, and people should not be forced to make that choice.
There was a recent podcast from The Daily, produced by The New York Times, which focused on Japan and its low birth rate. The episode attributed Japan’s low birth rate in the past decades in part to its family and workplace culture, where men traditionally contribute very little to household chores, and the workplace is incredibly demanding. The cultural dynamics make it very hard for a married woman to juggle both family and career. The podcast noted this context may be a significant cause for why a lot of Japanese women choose to lead a single life rather than to get married and have kids. It seems to me if women have more support from their community, there will likely be more talented women in the workplace, and more choices for families in the society at large.
I focus on community support because it should not be limited to just support from the partner. The community should be expanded to include family members, friends, childcare options, companies, and the government. The look and feel of that “community” may be unique to each person, but you need that support, and you should not harbor any feelings of guilt for asking for that support. Without strong community support, it’s extremely hard for women to “do it all.”
Speaking of the guilt-free mom mentality, you recently returned to work after your second maternity leave. How was that experience, and what advice do you have for parents (both moms and dads) who are experiencing that transition? What can organizations do to help parents navigate this transition?
As someone who transitioned back to work from maternity leave in March 2021, there are three areas of personal experience I wanted to speak to.
The first area I want to highlight is the transition to and from maternity leave. It is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do as a person. First, there is the challenge from physical recovery and having your body slowly piece itself together after pregnancy and childbirth. Then there are the mental challenges; the hormones are still in limbo and settling down, the lack of sleep, the stress from that steep learning curve of parenthood. There is also the social challenge where you are pulled away from your familiar routine and dropped into three-hour blocks of feed, rinse, and repeat. Despite the challenges, parenthood is also the most amazing experiences I’ve had as a person. To see the world through my daughters’ eyes is a magical feeling, to be part of their growth and journey is a privilege, and it did transform and strengthen the relationship with my husband as well. I believe the appropriate saying here is “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
The transition back to work also has its own challenges. You are re-engaging in society and splitting your focus between two parties that you care so deeply about. On one side is your family, and on the other is your career. You want to keep developing and delivering at the same level of quality to both your work and your family, and very quickly you realize it’s impossible to do it all. You need help, and you need to set boundaries, and that takes time.
This links to my earlier comment about the critical importance of community support, which is the importance of strong allies both personally and professionally. I never understood before why people say it takes a village to raise a kid, until I became a parent. It is not meant to be a solo task.
The pandemic shrunk our village significantly last year. Which means keeping the right people in your corner is that much more important. Perhaps it is a caring partner, grandparents who step up, family who check in regularly, friends who get it, bosses that make sure you have a good role to come back to, or co-workers who stay in touch during the year. Without the right allies, it can feel impossible.
The last point I want to mention, is that we’re quite lucky in Canada. I recognize that there is social and financial support for up to 18 months, which is a significant period compared to our neighbor to the south and most Asian countries. It doesn’t mean we have it 100% right; there are still other ways we can make progress.
A few examples come to mind. Over the past few years, I have seen more men take longer paternity leaves in my company, which is amazing. Especially when this is done by team leaders; this sets the right tone at the top.
Another example is from my friend who works at a Toronto law firm. The firm introduced a protocol a few years ago that maternity leave will not impact promotions. It is limited to one maternity leave and strong performers. In practice, if you were a first-year lawyer prior to your maternity leave, you can return as a third-year lawyer after a 12-month leave. This puts you on par with other associates in your year, as if you never left.
I hope these changes pave the way for more inclusive, family-friendly policies in more companies, and these progresses will make family planning easier for all parents.
Lastly, even as a successful corporate executive, do you have moments of self doubt? If so, how do you manage that, and what’s your advice to young women who are experiencing imposter syndrome?
I have heard many successful women in various stages of their career say, “I feel like I faked it. And everyone’s just one failure away from realizing that I don’t deserve to be here.” I have heard that from women who I look up to, whom I would have never questioned for a split second their worthiness, talent, or commitment. Sheryl Sandberg noted in her book, Lean In, her own area of self-doubt and how women can overcome imposter syndrome. I certainly have my own moments of self-doubt that bubble up from time to time.
My advice to young women who are experiencing imposter syndrome would be twofold. First, focus on your own growth and delivery. Try not to compare yourself to other people, because that is a slippery slope of “never enough.” Instead, focus on what you bring to the table and your efforts with your work and your career. If you have tried your best, and the result still is not what you wanted, then focus on the lessons. Be grateful if any failures happen early in your career. Because when you fail early in your career, it is much easier to pick yourself up, dust off, analyze the lessons learned, and move on.
My second point of advice is to build a cheerleading team around you and to always have people in your corner that believe in you. Build that strong personal and professional board of directors to help you address all these negative emotions when they come up, and seek out their help so you can navigate the pitfalls as you develop your career.
It is very hard; the work never ends. I have been told if you work hard to avoid falling down the same rabbit holes of “never enough” and “I’m not good enough,” and identify the triggers early on, eventually your inner voice will be so strong, it will dispel those fear and insecurities. That is my light at the end of the tunnel. I’m not there yet but I know I’ll get there.
Ellen is a phenomenal Asian woman leader, who is navigating her role as leader and mother in a beautiful and authentic way, acknowledging the hardships and being proactive in being part of the solution to the challenges. Thank you, Ellen, for sharing your story with us.