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“You can’t move ahead if you are not given the opportunity to grow,” says Yuk Louie. For years, she worked as a chemical engineer at a petroleum tech center in Paulsboro and watched as people who started there at the same time were given transfers to more career-advancing positions. “That’s when I found I was being stymied by the lack of opportunity that was being given to me.”

Today, Louie is manager of R&D Operations for ExxonMobil Research and Engineering (EMRE) in Clinton, where she leads a team of engineers and researchers developing new technologies to help ExxonMobil meet the world’s growing demand for energy while reducing environmental impacts. But to get there, she had to overcome what she called “benevolent” sexism, where her lack of opportunity was presented as caring for her well-being.

Louie shared the experiences of her 39-year career with members of NJBIA’s Women Business Leaders Network meeting at the digital access solutions company SKIDATA, Inc., in New Brunswick. Louie was able to show how she navigated a path to leadership in a huge multi-national company while often being the only woman in the room.

In short, she did it by demanding those opportunities she was being “protected” from.

“In those 20 years in Paulsboro, I actively asked to have assignments,” Louie said. I did not wait for them, because it if I waited for them, they would just immediately go to the next guy.  So I asked the manager of the technicians group to be on the shift work, because I wanted to show them that I could do it even with young kids at home. I knew that if I did not take the shift job, I would not have gained the knowledge and the technical understanding about that particular process.

“Every step of the way, I just felt that I had to ask” for my opportunity, Louie said.

For women in business who are experiencing the type of benevolent sexism that holds them back, Louie suggests they do three things.

  1. Talk about it. “Don’t feel like you’re the only person confronting these things,” Yuk said. When she started talking about how she was being treated and how it made her feel, with men as well as other women, she learned they too have experienced similar feelings of exclusion and alienation.
  2. Get help. When she worked nights on shift work to advance her career, Louie leaned on her husband and her mother-in-law to take care of her children, acknowledging that it was hard on them too. But the important thing is for women to acknowledge that they cannot do everything themselves.
    “I think the first time that I really recognized that I needed help, I felt this weight lifted off of my head,” Louie said. “It was just so liberating.”
  3. Ask for change. If the environment you are in is toxic, then either get the company to change it, or force them to change your role or your location so you do not have to be subjected to it. Louie said that she would not only confront individuals about their hostile sexism toward her, but also go to HR and her boss.

“You gotta make sure you let your voice be heard. Don’t hold it in,” Louie said.

Data shows that companies that are inclusive and promote diversity in leadership are more successful financially. Louie can see why. She explained that when people are subjected to both hostile and benevolent sexism, they get frustrated and feel marginalized, and tend to lower their performance to match what they perceive management expects of them. If the situation persists, many of them simply leave.

“It goes to the whole issue of retention,” Louie said. “Can you actually retain people if you’re not giving them the right mentoring and coaching and opportunity?”