INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S DAY 2019: So Jene Kim on #BalanceForBetter

Author: So Jene Kim, Partner, Capco US Published: 28 February 2019

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is “Balance for Better”, and it’s another reminder that the struggle for women’s equality is still an ongoing battle. It’s a battle that must be fought with bold actions and commitment, but it’s also one that can be fought with simpler tools; one that we can all contribute to in our day to day lives by engaging in small acts, that can lead to profound change and betterment for all.

As a mother, wife and Partner at Capco, I’m always juggling priorities, so “balance” for me is something I’m always striving for, but never quite able to achieve. What should I be doing to “balance for better”? Probably the simple, most obvious things are exercise, eat better, sleep more and procrastinate less. In the pursuit of more equal representation, not just for women, but for all classes of diversity, I think the answers are just as simple. I’d like to focus your attention on something small and easy that we can all do for each other, but particularly the women in our lives, to help achieve balance. It’s something that we can do as individuals, without the power of an organization around us, and one that can be undertaken with very little effort. I’m talking about boosting another woman’s confidence.

I’ve been aware of the fight for gender parity for most of my life. When I was growing up, as the first-born child of Korean immigrants, I often had to deal with gender norms and dynamics from within my own Korean-American community, as well as the broader ones unfolding in the U.S. It was a confusing time, as the community seemed to be sending messages to strive to be the best, but only within certain boundaries. There were many things that girls “should” do, and things that girls “could” do better than boys, but many others that seemed inappropriate. A girl who excelled in athletics was praised, while in the same breath disparaging comments were made about her physique and “thick calves”.

Doing well in school meant you could pursue a great job, which would in turn lead to a better marriage - at which point you could settle down. I remember being in middle school when Geraldine Ferraro ran with Michael Dukakis on the Democratic presidential ticket, and it was the first time that there was open dialogue in my life about what women could achieve outside the boundaries of what society had predefined for them. It was also the first time I truly recognized the absence of women in senior positions across politics, business and education. Though Dukakis/Ferraro lost in a landslide, the attention garnered from having a female Vice Presidential candidate stayed with me and helped shape my views as I progressed through my secondary education and into the workforce. What didn’t seem possible suddenly seemed possible, and that was a huge boost in confidence to a young woman who was not satisfied with the happy ending that had been prescribed.

I chose to attend a women’s college (Bryn Mawr – where my Seven Sisters at?), where there was continuous and purposeful dialogue about the pursuit of higher education and opportunities for women. To be honest, I chose to attend Bryn Mawr because it was the only school that my parents would allow me to dorm in. All the other schools on my list were co-ed, and my conservative parents would have preferred to have me commute to those schools. Attending Bryn Mawr turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.

"Helping to build a woman's confidence can be a small and simple act, but one that is essential to achieving better balance."

So Jene Kim
At Bryn Mawr, I found my first taste of independence and a safe place to discover my voice. In that environment, my value was not predetermined by gender, and I grew accustomed to having the same chances, the same opportunities, and the same expectations, as everyone else. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was building a “confidence” muscle, and while it has been strained, sometimes abused and sometimes weakened, it continues to serve me in every facet of my life.

My first job out of school was at an investment bank. My parents were euphoric that I had somehow levered a degree in English Literature into a job at one of the premiere investment banks in the world. On my first day on the job, I was struck by how few women there were. I was surrounded by wonderful people, but they were mostly men. While there were several prominent women in middle management ranks, I didn’t even need all five fingers on one hand to count the few women in senior management.

This became the new normal for me. I could fill a book with every tale of inequality, pre- and/or misconception that I experienced in the workforce. Some were subtle, some blatant, but all tried and tested my confidence. Imagine being mistaken for a colleague’s masseuse in a taxi ride to a client dinner. The statement by the driver bothered me as much as the potential ramifications this comment would have on my relationship with my colleague going forward. This is an extreme example, but think of all the comments and actions that serve to separate, differentiate and often belittle our female colleagues. We’d entered the taxi as equals, but with one ignorant statement, that equality was shattered. I went on to enjoy dinner with my clients, and my colleague and I laughed about the stupidity of the remark, but that moment still remains with me.

I wish I could say that it doesn’t happen anymore, but that would be a lie. As recently as December, I was mistaken for someone’s wife at a work event. So, it happens, and will continue to happen, and it happens to all women, regardless of where they are in the organization. We should remember that every such instance chips away at a woman’s confidence, no matter how tough or resilient they may seem. We should also remember that helping to build a woman’s confidence can be a small and simple act, but one that is essential to achieving better balance.

After 22 years in the workforce, I have seen some positive changes. There are more prominent and powerful women in government, business, and education, but still not enough. There’s no doubt that these women have had to seriously work on their confidence muscles! I have been blessed with terrific friends, colleagues and family who help boost my confidence at every turn. They do this by including me in conversations and the decision-making process. They do this by trusting my opinion and ability to get things done. They come to me for guidance and entrust me with their own struggles. They treat me as an equal in these interactions, and it motivates me to do my best. I don’t want to let any of these folks, or myself, down.

I can attribute a lot of my own small success to the community of support I have around me, and as a Partner at Capco, I recognize that I have to cultivate this community within our organization. I hope that you will all be active participants in this pursuit. Think about what you can do to help boost the confidence of the women around you. Think about the words you use, or the perceptions you have. Are you looking to provide opportunities and to engage with your diverse colleagues? When you hear or see something that excludes, stereotypes or can undermine confidence, are you addressing it? As women, when things happen to us, let’s strive to communicate so the behavior doesn’t repeat itself. I’m still working on this one myself, but I trust that when I do speak up, my community will support me.

This IWD, I pledge to continue to advocate for myself and for the women around me. And I hope that the Capco community will do the same. I’m confident that the women of Capco will be at the forefront of bringing better balance and success for us all.