Chef Anita Lo Talks Being a Woman In a Male-Dominated Workplace

Top Chef Anita Lo

Today, CNN featured a mini-interview with Chef Anita Lo, who competed on the first season of “Top Chef: Masters” and beat Mario Batali on “Iron Chef America. Lo was honoured in Food & Wine Magazine‘s “Best New Chefs in America” feature, and owns the NYC restaurant, Annisa.

Lo talks about being a woman in an industry overwhelmingly dominated by men. She is, of course, also Asian-American and much of what she has to say seem to apply to minorities in white-dominated workplaces:

Five Things to Know About Being a Female Chef in a Male-Dominated Profession: Anita Lo

1. “Gender is a social construction. Men and women are raised to think and act differently through parenting, ubiquitous media images, language and general peer culture. It is important to question and debunk these myths that all of us carry. Some people think that women cook for love and men cook for glory, but to be successful, at least here in New York, you need to do a little of both.”

2. “To make it in this business you have to be extraordinarily passionate and tenacious. You will spend long hours on your feet in a hot, uncomfortable environment for meager wages at odd hours. Cooking is a lifestyle choice for the obsessive-compulsive.”

3. “You must be prepared to answer a million of these types of questions. As one of a very small minority, you do get asked about this a lot. And of course, I am a big supporter of women in business – our wine list at Annisa celebrates women in wine and is made up of wines mostly by female vintners.”

4. “The ratio of gay-to-straight executive female chefs is much higher than amongst the general population. The Kinsey Report states that about 10 percent of the general population is gay. I think that ratio is higher among female executive chefs and apparently, in the WNBA as well. But on a more serious note, this is perhaps related to my first statement and begs the question: are gay women less bound by societal norms and therefore get further in this field?”

5. “Find a support system outside of the kitchen. Women Chefs and Restaurateurs is a national organization that supports women in cooking through education and networking. This is perhaps the beginning of the ‘old girls’ club.'”

As a scientist, I am also a woman who works in a male-dominated field that remains particularly adherent to its “old boys network”. I agree with Lo that success for women in these kinds of professional environments depends heavily on having a passion for your chosen field, along with the ambition to fight for the same kind of recognition that men generally reserved for men.

For me, it sometimes feels like I have to work twice as hard just to break through the sub-conscious condescension that some men (particularly those of the older generation) reserve for women in the sciences. I have to work to prove that I belong in the lab, and that I am just as competent as my male colleagues. It’s true that a very specific personality type seems to succeed under these conditions.

But, I also find that my female predecessors have broken through many barriers to help pave the way for female scientists. There is truly a support system for female scientists — just as Lo talks about the support system for women chefs. My mentor, also a woman, runs a lab that currently trains more female students than male students, and she and her colleagues seem particularly supportive and sensitive to the concerns of female trainees.

Female chefs, female scientists, and female CEOs are all pioneers, breaking through glass ceilings in our respective fields. And even over the last fifty years, huge advances have been made: my mentor recounts how she was routinely dismissed and patronized towards when she was a student in the 1970’s. By contrast, a recent study found that more women than men received PhD degrees last year.

While I don’t think an “old girls’ club” is a useful idea to pursue — there’s no reason to reproduce the institutions of oppression that marginalized our gender in the past — I’m glad to see parallels between my own experiences as a woman in science and Lo’s, who stands shoulder-to-shoulder with world-renowned male chefs.

Sexism is “Our Moral Challenge of the Twenty-First Century”

Yesterday, CNN featured a TED talk by Sheryl WuDunn, on the worldwide plight of women and girls. WuDunn is a former reporter for the New York Times (and the first Asian-American to win a Pullitzer Prize), who, along with Nicholas Kristoff, penned the book Half the Sky, which explores how empowering women can help solve global problems of class, education, violence and oppression.

With compelling anecdoes, WuDunn describes the stories of women who live in rural and impoverished towns, treated as disposable by their families. WuDunn recounts how in the so-called First World, women slightly out-number men (because women have a longer life expectancy); but how in the so-called Third World, demographers have shown that because of a combination of sex-based abortion, preferential resources being given to young boys over young girls, and cultural oppression, 60 to 100 million women are missing world-wide.

WuDunn talks about how small donations — if they make it to their intended destinations — can cause a ripple effect simply by elevating opportunities for women. She ends her talk with a powerful anecdote, urging those of us who have most our needs met to consider what moral responsibility we have to help others:

WuDunn told the story of an American aid worker in Darfur who had seen great suffering but never broke down.

On a vacation back in the United States, she visited her grandmother and noticed a bird feeder in the backyard.

“She was in her grandmother’s backyard and she basically broke down. And she realized that not only was she able to feed and clothe and house herself but also see that people in her country were able to feed wild birds so that they don’t go hungry in the winter. She knew that with that luck and fortune also comes great responsibility.”

I love this message of activism and hope — not victimization and defeat — and how it is particularly focused on the plight of Asian and African women. And I love how it is being championed by a confident, empowered, unapologetic Asian-American woman.

WuDunn’s talk — despite its unintentional Spiderman overtones — empowers women, and dosn’t merely tell just another tale of “poverty porn” (stories of abject poverty around the world told for the mere gratification of wealthy Westerners). Women, in “Half the Sky“, aren’t just victims — women can have the power to be “economic catalysts” for worldwide change, if only we in the First World provide the initial help to spark that revolution. It’s not about sheltering women like porcelain dolls, but about truly recognizing the worth and value of every daughter, sister, wife and mother around the world.

CNN’s article includes the following excerpt from the book:

“So let us be clear about this up front: We hope to recruit you to join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts. That is the process under way — not a drama of victimization but of empowerment, the kind that transforms bubbly teenage girls from brothel slaves into successful businesswomen. This is a story of transformation. It is change that is already taking place, and change that can accelerate if you’ll just open your heart and join in. …

“The tide of history is turning women from beasts of burden and sexual playthings into full-fledged human beings. The economic advantages of empowering women are so vast as to persuade nations to move in that direction.

“Before long, we will consider sex slavery, honor killings and acid attacks as unfathomable as foot-binding. The question is how long that transformation will take and how many girls will be kidnapped into brothels before it is complete — and whether each of us will be part of that historical movement, or a bystander.”

Act Now! Here’s the book’s website — Half the Sky — which contains information about the upcoming book, as well as links if you want to start getting involved.

Margaret Cho on the Next Season of “DWTS”

Margaret Cho is going to be in the next season of Dancing with the Stars, along with Michael Bolton, Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, David Hasselhoff and the mom from The Brady Bunch.

Do with that information what you will.

Kimberly Yee, First Asian American Woman to Serve in the Arizona State Legislature

Kimberly Yee, newly appointed AZ State Rep for District 10. She is the first Asian American woman to serve in the Arizona State Legislature.

Kimberly Yee made history in Arizona by becoming the first Asian American woman to serve in the Arizona State Legislature, nearly 50 years after the first Asian American — Wing F. Ong — was elected to the Arizona State Legislature in 1964.

Yee is a Republican who was appointed by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors to replace former Representative Doug Quelland as State Representative for District 10. While living in California, Yee served in Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Cabinet as Deputy Cabinet Secretary, and has been active in Arizona politics in Maricopa County since returning to Phoenix.

It’s great to see an Asian American woman making such headway in the political sphere, particular in a state with such regressive racial politics as Arizona. Sadly, I disagree with Yee on virtually all of her politics: she’s pro-life, pro-guns, pro-privatized healthcare, and pro-charter schools . Further, I’m kind of disappointed that the first Asian American woman to serve in the Arizona State Legislature fails to even acknowledge her racial and ethnic background on her official biography.

But, as I said when I was talking about Barry Wong, I have a soft spot for Asian American politicians, even if I completely disagree with their politic and would never, ever vote for them.

So, kudos, to Representative Yee. May you revise your political stances while serving in the State Legislature.

Cross-posted: Blog for Arizona

Domestic Violence Awareness in Eminem/Rihanna Music Video

I love pop music. A lot. Like, so much, that I’m often found dancing to the latest saccharine pop hit in the aisles of the grocery store or on the gym floor.

My latest guilty pleasure has been Eminem and Rihanna’s collaboration, “Love the Way You Lie“. To me, the song has the right mix of pop-y, I-can’t-get-it-out-of-my-head appeal with a surprising amount of gut-wrenching soulfulness. For a song written by a guy who brought us such high-brow audio fare as “The Real Slim Shady” and “Crack a Bottle“, “Love the Way You Lie” is refreshingly in line with Em’s more recent self-reflectiveness. (I think that Em’s Relapse album is one of the best thematic hip hop albums of the last few years.) 

In “Love the Way You Lie” Em’s lyrics are intermixed with the haunting vocals of Rihanna, who expresses both anger and pain as she sings the hook. For me, the song has appeal because you can feel how intensely personal the subject matter is for both artists. Both have made headlines for publicly being involved in abusive and self-destructive relationships — Eminem with his ex-wife Kim, and Rihanna with artist Chris Brown.

Moreover, the song — and associated music video — feels so honest in its exploration of domestic violence. Em’s “boyfriend”  alternates between rage and regret over his actions. He seeks forgiveness while in the same verse threatens assault and arson, reflecting the cyclical nature of abusive relationships. Rihanna’s “girlfriend” character acknowledges both the self-destructive nature of the relationship — he’s going to stand there and watch her burn — while she simultaneously explains her reluctance to leave — she loves him.


This video doesn’t hide the truth — relationships, particularly abusive ones, are messy and complicated. For me, the song strikes a deeply personal chord: it reminds me of abusive relationships I witnessed in my childhood. I remember the feelings of being trapped, afraid, and resentful of the anger and the violence, while at the same time wishing that the “good times” could last forever.

It’s tempting to simplify the issue of domestic violence into one where we villify the abuser and victimize the abused, but oftentimes, those simplifications only serve to blame the abused for being reluctant to leave the relationship. No relationship, not even an abusive one, is horrible and violent 100% of the time. How often have we heard Em’s first verse echoed by victims of domestic violence who are hesitant to abandon their partners: “‘Cause when it’s going good, it’s going great. / I’m Superman with the wind at his back, she’s Lois Lane. / But when it’s bad, it’s awful. I feel so ashamed, I snap.” In one scene, Monaghan and Fox kiss while sitting outside in lawn chairs, which reminds us how we even the most destructive relationships can appear, from the outside, to be loving and intimate.

Furthermore, sometimes it’s hard to remember that abusers don’t always wear the stereotypical black hat. Em reflects about how his rage transforms him into a different person, a person that even he doesn’t like. “Who’s that dude? I don’t even know his name. /I laid hands on her, I’ll never stoop so low again. /I guess I don’t know my own strength.” For people on the outside looking into an abusive relationship, it’s easy to forget that sometimes even the abuser knows his or her actions are wrong, and doesn’t know how to stop them.

Despite these lyrics, the video and the song make it crystal clear that this is not a relationship to be glorified. The music video, featuring Dominic Monaghan and Megan Fox, show both partners trapped in a cycle of violence, destruction, and passion — best exemplified by one of the last scenes that show Monaghan and Fox traveling through the set, going from a tender moment of forgiveness to another violent argument culminating in Fox locking herself in the bathroom to get away from Monaghan. Again, the video acknowledges why neither partner wants to leave — for all their abuses towards one another, and all the lies they tell to keep each other in the relationship, they love each other. But it also shows the viewer why the two must separate. The relationship is (in the form of a metaphorical fire) consuming everything within them, until it burns their house down in the climactic scene where Monaghan slaps Fox across the face.

Much in the same way that Em made a career out of connecting with disaffected White youths across America (which he cheekily acknowledges in “White America“), I think this song powerfully connects with those who have been affected by domestic violence. As I’ve blogged about before, domestic violence is a major, if not often talked about, issue in the Asian American community.

I hope that all men and women, particularly Asian Americans who struggle in abusive relationships, will be encouraged by a song like this to reflect on the health of their relationships and seek help.

Act Now! This is the DayOne domestic violence helpline included in the video above: 1-800-214-4150