Serena Fong

  • Laura Hay, Leadership |

When you face a massive problem, it’s a good idea to break it down into smaller, manageable parts. But how do you tackle a challenge that most people don’t even know exists, or realize they are part of the problem?

If that question hurts your head, you’ll want to chat with Serena Fong. She learned to break down big problems as an Asian-American journalist who faced the ‘Can’t see it – can’t touch it’ issue of unconscious bias.

Today as Vice President of Strategic Engagement with Catalyst, the global advocacy group for women’s advancement, Serena is ‘chipping down’ iceberg-sized challenges into ice cubes that can be dissolved easily. Her small, powerful tactics include Catalyst’s #BiasCorrect campaign to make the ‘invisible visible’ in this era of remote work.

Shining a light on unconscious bias

Serena recently told me how she encountered ‘unconscious bias’ long before it became a term in diversity and inclusion circles – and, she can relate to the recent rise in anti-Asian racism. In fact, this third-generation, Asian-American woman recalls incidents of racist name-calling when she was just three years old.

While these verbal assaults were upsetting, she was equally troubled by the more subtle instances of unconscious bias and micro-aggressions she faced throughout her career.

For example, imagine if you were a senior producer asked to fetch coffee because someone assumes you’re an intern? Or, consider how Serena felt when her managers decided among themselves that, ‘Oh, she won’t be aggressive enough, so we can’t give her this tough assignment.’ And, Serena adds that the most common question she heard over the years was, ‘So where are you from?’

Although these were disheartening moments for a journalist who wanted to drive positive change, she learned to respond with small, swift actions. “I would cut them off and say, ‘Well I’m Chinese-American but I was born and raised in California,” explains Serena, who today works with Catalyst to help individuals and employers take practical actions in the workplace.

And Serena finds it helpful that at least today ‘unconscious bias’ has a name and definition: “It is an association or attitude based on race, gender or aspects of one’s background, that are implicit, and operate beyond our control or awareness. Often, we don’t even know we have these biases, but they inform our perception of individuals or groups, and they influence how we act towards them.”

She adds that unconscious bias can have a detrimental impact on a woman’s career. “A classic example is managers who ‘assume’ that a woman with children won’t want a new assignment and they should ‘save her from that struggle’,” says Serena. “Often this bias seems small and benign, but it actually ‘Others’ you and means you are treated differently or unequally, and you miss out on opportunities to advance your career.”

That said, Serena points out that she doesn’t blame anyone for an unconscious bias: “If you have a brain, you have a bias. It doesn’t make us bad, it’s just something we need to be very aware of.”

Pandemic worsens invisible barriers:

If unconscious bias was already a tough challenge to crack, recent Catalyst research reveals that it has become worse for women during the pandemic. Specifically, one in five women say they have felt ignored or overlooked by co-workers during virtual meetings, and 45 percent of female business leaders say it’s difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings. And, one fifth of women have witnessed more discrimination at work since the COVID-19 outbreak.1

“It can surface in many ways in this age of video calls,” says Serena, noting that computer microphones require an individual to really assert themselves to be heard. “If somebody is dominating the conversation, the technology makes it harder for a woman to break into the discussion.” She adds that stereotypes can surface in stressful times, such as moments when a child interrupts a video meeting. A co-worker may judge a woman more harshly than a man and think to themself, “Can’t she control her kids?”

In response, Catalyst launched its #BiasCorrect “Make the Invisible Visible” campaign to provide effective tools to battle these pandemic-age biases. It includes bold, virtual meeting backgrounds that individuals can download to spark important conversations among co-workers about unconscious bias. For example, the colorful #BiasCorrect backdrops project provocative questions such as, “Have you ever been talked over in a meeting?” and “Have you ever been the ‘only’ in the room?”

Many small steps to inclusion

Serena points out that there are many ‘bite-size’ tactics for an individual to overcome unconscious bias. For example, you can seek out allies among your colleagues to help ‘advocate for you,’ or join an Employee Resource Group, which can be an invaluable support network. And sometimes the solution is immediate: If your voice wasn’t heard in a meeting, contact the meeting lead afterwards and say, “I just wanted to follow up with you to give my input on that topic the group discussed.”

That said, Serena emphasizes that the onus for correcting unconscious bias should be placed on everyone, not only the recipient of the biased behavior: “If you are in an on-camera meeting and you see that a colleague is struggling to talk, you could call on that person to give their opinion. Whether you’re a co-worker or manager, think of the power you have to help others overcome these challenges. For instance, a supervisor can ask a direct report, “Are you getting heard?” or they can host an awareness discussion on bias with their team.”

Naturally, employers must also take intentional steps to create inclusive work cultures. “Smart companies will incorporate diversity into their recruiting and talent development systems, not only by selecting candidates from diverse talent pools but also ensuring that those leaders who review the applicants are diverse or understand their potential biases,” advises Serena. “It takes a lot of small actions to mitigate unconscious bias through a company’s systems, processes, programs and policies.”

Serena is clear about the benefit of these cumulative actions, whether in her past media profession or in any sector: “In journalism, diversity among reporters improves what news is reported and how a story gets told. That same kind of diversity of viewpoints will strengthen any company. Once you realize this, the next question is, ‘What is your power to impact unconscious bias, and how can you make the invisible visible?’”

More about Serena Fong: Serena is Vice President, Strategic Engagement, with Catalyst Inc. where she leads strategic stakeholder communications at the global non-profit that works with some of the world’s most powerful CEOs and companies to build workplaces that work for women. Over the past 15 years, Serena has held senior positions at Catalyst in communications, public affairs and government relations. Passionate about workplace diversity, equity and inclusion, Serena often blogs on her experiences, continuing Catalyst’s decades of preeminent thought leadership. After completing her Bachelor’s Degree in Broadcast Journalism from Syracuse University, Serena earned high-profile television news production roles, including posts with ABC’s Good Morning America, Fox News’ Good Day New York, , Court TV and MSNBC.

For more inspiring stories from women leaders in financial services visit home.kpmg/mindthegap.

Footnote:

1The impact of covid-19 on workplace inclusion: Survey. (2020, July 15). Retrieved April 16, 2021, from https://www.catalyst.org/research/workplace-inclusion-covid-19/