By Ray Birch
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa—Mai-Linh Hoang says the best piece of advice she’s received is to never worry about what other people think of you.
Today, she credits that approach with helping the VP of marketing at the $1.3-billion Collins Community CU advance within the credit union community and in a business world that still needs to a improve at treating women equally as men.
“Don’t care what others think about you and trust yourself,” advised Hoang. “I know that I can’t go through life making everyone happy, because in the end, I won’t be happy. I had to learn to trust myself—that I can do it. I have always told my mentees that I don’t really care if people like me or not. All I ask is that staff respect me and work to move our organization forward.”
With Women’s History Month being celebrated during March, Hoang spoke with CUToday.info as part of a series on female leaders within the credit union movement.
Hoang said despite progress women have made in recent years, until their voices are heard and barriers are removed to women in the workforce, it may be difficult for true equality to ever happen.
“That being said, some of this depends on the industry,” Hoang explained. “For example, Estee Lauder has over 50% female VPs.”
Hoang suggested half of the problem with women not advancing to executive positions at the same rate as men is due to “innate” reasons, while the other half is due to women themselves.
“Half of the issues is due to how we, as women, perceive ourselves,” she said. “Women are built differently, so naturally we hold ourselves back, because we don’t commit to anything that we don’t feel we are 100% prepared for. The innate part is that women are wrongly perceived as not strong enough, because of their nurturing qualities, or sensitivities or emotions.”
Strengths Seen as Weaknesses
Hoang, as did others in this CUToday.info series, said in the workplace such qualities are seen as weaknesses.
“I also feel that women are held to a different standard than men,” she said. “Not only on the emotional level, but physical as well. The set of rules we play by today need to be redefined. Today’s set of rules is still based on whatever the good old boys network set up way back when. Most women who have risen to the top most likely played by that set of rules, and were able to figure things out.”
On the heels of the #MeToo Movement, Hoang believes women’s issues need greater attention.
“Things are gaining a lot of steam, but not much has changed in true numbers to warrant that we’ve paid enough attention to these issues,” she said. “I still think a big problem is understanding the value of having women at the table, and being OK with having a different opinion at the table.”
The Glass Ceiling
Hoang stressed the glass ceiling remains in place, often the result of attitudes toward female employees.
“Around the conference table, you will rarely hear, ‘He might not be able to handle the pressure because he’s too sensitive,’” Hoang said, adding that a woman’s dedication to her job can be wrongfully questioned, as well. “‘She has three kids. We’re not sure if she will be able to dedicate the time needed for this role,’ you can sometimes hear people say.”
Hoang said she has faced the glass ceiling in multiple ways.
“Not only am I a woman, I’m an Asian woman that doesn’t look my age. Even though I am still considered young on our senior management team—I am approaching 40—I went opposite my stereotype. Don’t get me wrong, I’m decent at statistics and data management, but strategic marketing is my forte.”
Hoang said her family, while supportive, had their own ideas about what a female should do with her career.
“Even though my parents wanted me to get an education and graduate with at least a college degree, they expected me be a stay-at-home mom, without needing to work,” she said. “During a job I had early in my career, the HR manager told me that my position was just an internship and wasn’t a real position, even though I was doing real work there as a communications associate. Shortly after I left, the position turned into a full-time role and a male was hired.”
Hoang said she still faces subtle and not-so-subtle pushback in her career due to her gender.
“I constantly face this. Maybe it’s the nature of marketing, because typically everyone thinks they can do marketing,” Hoang said. “I face constant pushback regarding the way I set up my strategy and most are often quick to give me suggestions, while I observe my male counterparts almost never get questioned on their respected strategies regarding their own lines of businesses.”
Evolution as a Leader
Over her 16-year professional career, Hoang said she has evolved as a leader, especially in one key aspect—looking over the shoulder of subordinates.
“Through the years, I’ve learned to let go more. Even though I detest being micromanaged, I used to manage that way early in my career,” she said. “It was because I was afraid of screwing up. But because I micromanaged, it made me very stressed out and overwhelmed. I wasn’t a good leader during those times.”
To become a better leader, Hoang said she took a break from full-time work to “re-evaluate” herself.
“In 2008 I quit my full-time job, which was also when the economy was at its lowest,” she said. “Now, I take more time in understanding my staff and their ‘why’s.’ Once I can understand the why’s, I can work on the how’s.”
Long Road Ahead
Looking forward, Hoang believes women in leadership positions still face a “long road” ahead in achieving equality with men.
“A woman in an executive role constantly gets pushed and questioned, I see it today. If a male were to sit in the seat, conversations may happen, but ultimately, he has the final say,” Hoang said. “It’s not so for a woman in the same seat. Her power is not given the same weight as her male counterparts.”
Hoang said she wants to be a good role model for women who are working to rise in their careers.
“Women need to support each other and create that sisterhood,” she said. “As I have risen through the ranks, the thing I can’t quite put my finger on is why women don’t always support each other. It’s that scenario that we often speak of: Women don’t get dressed up for their husbands or significant others—they dress up for other women.”
More in this series: