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Tracy Lai is a current Senior in the Ross School of Business. She also is on the e-board of Lean In, a feminist organization with a chapter here at Michigan. We sat down with her to hear about her experiences with Lean In as well as her thoughts on feminism. 

Her Campus:  Lean In is a great organization on campus, why don’t you tell us a little bit more about what it is and what your role is within it.

Traci Lai: Lean In is a book by Sheryl Sandberg, which focuses on women in the workplace to discuss gender biases that is still so pervasive in our society today. She encourages women to “lean in” to their careers and focus on the things that they can do (versus what they can’t do) in a time when sexism still exists. This philosophy has been taken to create a national organization, also called Lean In, to bring together people of all genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds to discuss gender inequality and motivate everyone to reach their full potential.  

Lean In at the University of Michigan is a chapter affiliated with the national organization, and we aim to facilitate open dialogues about issues surrounding gender inequality inside and outside of the classroom. We have about 80 active members, and create smaller communities through circles, which are peer support groups that meet about once a month to discuss a variety of topics, ranging from controversial political topics to personal goal-setting. We also put on campus-wide events to inspire and empower leaders on campus; in the past, we have hosted Sava Lelcaj (the owner of Sava’s and Babo) to speak about her success in the restaurant business; filmed screenings of The Mask You Live In and Miss Representation; hosted a speaker panel of Michigan professors and students; and have an annual This Is What A Feminist Looks Like photo series. We just had our first ever Leadership Summit this past Friday with successful women speakers such as Debbie Dingell and Fatina Abdrabboh.

The executive board for Lean In at the University of Michigan operates on a flat structure – there is no hierarchy and we each have our designated roles. I was the past Director of Circle Engagement with Steph Mecham, and our job was to recruit new members and work with circle moderators to ensure that our members have a positive circle experience. We are still looking for a more diverse membership for people to not only share their unique experiences, but also learn from each other and how to be an ally.


HC: What are your thoughts on how college-aged women can keep fighting for equality in this current political climate? 

TL: Do your research and do whatever you can. Although gender inequality has been an ongoing issue, I think this past presidential election has served as a big wake up call for a lot of millennials. Political affiliation aside, the outcome of this election has shown just how far we are from achieving gender equality by the lack of diversity of our leadership, and the continued harassment towards women and minority groups. If we want to see change, I think it is important to do our research: take some time to look into established organizations, attend speaker events to educate yourself on political issues and how they affect you, engage in conversations with our peers and professors, so that you can equip yourself with the resources to make an informed judgement on these issues. It is also important to act in whatever way you can, whether that is by participating in discussions, showing your support at rallies or marches, donating to an organization, speaking up for a friend or even engaging with people who have different views. Just don’t get complacent- everyone has a voice and you can make a difference.


HC:  Typical question: who is a female leader that you look up to and why?

TL: I highly respect Sheryl Sandberg and her efforts to reopen the conversation about feminism through Lean In, both the book and the movement. I know, not surprising, but Lean In changed my life. Reading her book over winter break of my freshman year here opened my eyes to what feminism really stands for: the belief in gender equality, not angry man-hating females which I had once (naively) thought. The book did a great job of identifying experiences and forming them into a story that many women could relate to, and after listening to her TED Talk and being asked “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” I was inspired to take action. When I got back to campus, I looked for ways to get involved by joining Lean In and becoming a circle moderator before applying for a board position. Her movement has empowered me to speak up on feminist issues and find support in a community of like-minded individuals who have pushed me to achieve my goals.


HC: There’s a larger focus on intersectional feminism in today’s world and a lot of POC women are looking for allies in non-POC people. How do you see these two groups working together and how can white women help POC women? 

TL: It helps to be hyper-aware and to maintain open communication. As an Asian American, I have found it difficult to express my frustrations to my white friends, since racism comes out in all sorts of shapes and forms and often in little pieces that just keep accumulating. My Asian American and other POC friends can relate, but the truth is our words just don’t have as large of an impact as our white counterparts and we are sharing the same experience that our white friends cannot relate to. It is no one’s fault, but this is something that can be changed. Our white friends can show their support by asking POC people about their experiences and understanding what makes them uncomfortable, and POC people can share not only their experiences but also ways that their allies can stand up for them for when a future situation arises.


HC: There’s some evidence that the Ross School of Business is coming closer to an equal distribution between men and women. As a Ross student, do you see that there is inequality within the school or do you believe that there are steps being taken to bridge the divide and that gap does not exist anymore? Do you think this translates to the workplace? 

TL: There is still a gender divide in Ross, but it is much less than I have experienced in my LSA classes and what I hear from my female engineer friends. I think Ross has done a lot to bridge the divide, such as encouraging professors to call on an equal number of boys and girls (I hear more female voices contributing to discussions in my Ross classes than other classes), assigning groups for group projects, and including a Management & Organizations in our core curriculum which addresses gender biases in the workplace. Since there are steps being taken to bridge the gender gap, I think students in Ross are more aware of and more comfortable addressing gender biases in group settings. I believe this will translate into the workplace since most jobs require that you work with other people, and we’ve basically been conditioned to know how to deal with difficult group members.


HC: Big tech companies such as Uber have recently come under fire for their issues with women in the workplaces. As you are going to work for Microsoft and worked with Amazon in the past, what are your thoughts on this? Do you think that companies have a responsibility to challenge a deep-rooted culture, if so, how can they begin? 

TL: I think the negative public response Uber has received recently shows a shift in people’s values for a company’s social practices along with the product or service they provide. Now that companies can be evaluated by anyone with access to the Internet, and with younger generations being more in touch with social issues, it is so important for industry leaders to maintain good business practices to stay in their position and attract top talent. The struggle towards gender equality and diversity is especially difficult in the tech industry, which has been built on “bro culture,” which has deeper roots from society’s association of STEM fields with masculinity.

While the tech industry is a male-dominated field, there is no excuse for sexism in the workplace. Being an exclusive “boys club” already alienates women, and provides no room for diversity, which studies have shown to yield better figures and results for a company. Some ways companies can combat this bro culture is to establish a zero-tolerance policy to any form of sexual harassment or discrimination, set annual goals to work towards a more representative, diverse work force, provide a platform for feedback and discussions about gender biases. Working at Amazon opened my eyes to how male-dominated the tech industry is, but I had great mentors (both male and female) who supported me throughout my internship and ultimately provided me a great experience. Both Amazon and Microsoft provide smaller interest groups for their employees to provide input on where the company should focus its diversity efforts and to build an internal network though smaller communities and mentorship. While their numbers are far from where they should be, these are some honest efforts to try to improve them.


Photo courtesy of Traci Lang.

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