My personal statement

Applying to a PhD program in sociology taught me a lot about myself…

The curious fact of sociology is that it is everywhere, inherently — so to say that I care deeply about sociology seems as obvious as saying I care deeply about life. However, just because one cares does not mean one notices, inspects, and critiques that which is in front of her everyday. Unfortunately, the very immediacy of these topics is what often blinds us from them. Fortunately, I have the tendency to jump into the spaces that others overlook.

When I was young, this meant playing as the only girl on the middle school boys’ soccer team, and then on the high school boys’ baseball team; I wouldn’t let my gender stop me from playing the sports I loved. These became some of the best experiences of my life, and some of the best social experiments, as well, because I could compare the experience of playing on boys’ versus girls’ teams. On the boys’ teams, for example, when coaches told us to run five laps, we gritted our teeth and ran five. On the girls’ teams, when coaches told us to run four laps, we protested for 10 minutes, talked them down to three, and then ran two (this actually happened). Did this occur because girls are inherently lazy or weak? Or because the coaches enabled the girls to be lazy, leading to weakness? Or because society, at large, not only accepts, but condones the relative weakness of women? The questions are endless.

When I was older, I went against expectations by becoming a female engineer and technologist. At the time in Silicon Valley, companies like Google, LinkedIn, and Yahoo were releasing their diversity data, with the intent of defining the diversity problem in order to solve it. At the Accenture Technology Labs, where I worked, executives claimed that our group was better because we were 40% women. When I challenged this statistic, I found out that not only were these informal best-guess numbers, but also we could not do the calculations ourselves because human resources would not release official data. After hacking together the info ourselves, my co-worker I discovered that we were 33% female, not 40%. This was frustrating on several accounts. First, our organizational structure made it difficult to know the truth. Second, our executives (while well-intentioned) had been taking advantage of the unbiased reputation of data in order to support a theory that not only made them look good, but would maintain the status quo, and likely the patriarchal hierarchy, within the workplace.

The workplace is a microcosm of our culture. It reflects our history and our hierarchical power structure, and it often reproduces inequality. However, if business-as-usual changes, it has the power to disrupt society. I believe our world is at a pivotal point due to the impact and growth of technology. While working in industry has shown me the potential dangers of data, it has also taught me the power of data and technology to create change — which is why I would like to apply my technology skills to my research in sociology.

While at the Accenture Technology Labs, I studied big data, machine learning, and advanced analytics — first from the technical side, focusing on data visualization, and then from a strategy and technology thought leadership perspective. What I realized doing the former is that data visualization is one of the best tools we have to effectively communicate stories about data to effect change. What I realized doing the latter is that like any powerful technology, data must be used responsibly. With an overemphasis on big data and machine learning, data scientists may overlook anomalous data, or miss data entirely. Without adhering to correct research methodology and using a critical eye, it is surprisingly easy to see what one wants to see.

For a long time, I wanted to see that hard work was all that was required for success. I believed that race, gender, sexuality, and social class had nothing to do with it. Case in point, I was a half-Asian female who was successful due to hard work, so my “logic” was that anyone could overcome any odds. It was not until college that my perspective changed. While seemingly insignificant, I distinctly remember when I realized that the mechanical engineering mills were not made for short people like me. I was slower at the mill-assignment than my taller male classmates, and there was nothing I could do about it. Around the same time, I started studying comparative studies in race and ethnicity, and it changed my life. It opened my mind to and enabled me to discuss the minority experience. Over time, I found myself more empathetic to those with a societal disadvantage, simultaneously realizing how much privilege I truly had. Now, not only do I fight against structural inequality, but I want to dedicate my studies and research to ending it.

My greatest curiosity, however, has always been around gender. I know this because in my journal as a seven year-old, I wrote, “I love being a girl, and I love to show boys girls are just as good. I’m ready to fight for that as much as I can… and say everything I can because I believe in girls. I think we’ve been made for not only beauty, cooking, and all the girl stuff, but for sports and standing up for ourselves.” Looking back, I wrote this because I was different; I was smart, and I was athletic. I believed the other girls around me could be, too, but I felt that our culture was holding them back. In response, I subconsciously modeled myself after men because I noticed that they held the power in our society. I played to win. I fought through pain. I didn’t show emotion. And it (sort of) worked.

As a woman in our modern world, I believe I was afforded this privilege to more easily (than a man) break out of my stereotypical gender role. But in doing so, I simultaneously put myself in the “man box” and suffered from its detrimental effects. Therefore, just as men are working to end violence toward women, I, as a woman, want to work to liberate men from the expectations our society has of them — to be the breadwinners, to not show emotion, to have no weakness. I want to learn about the construction of gender, of the masculine and feminine. I want to research how we construct these dichotomies, and how we might be able to break them down. And I want to share what I learn with the world, to redefine and reshape it for the better.

More specifically, I would like to research men and masculinities, with an emphasis on their role in the workplace. Do men feel the need to compromise who they are in order to be successful? How do men and how do women perpetuate the stereotypical role of men in the workplace? Do organizational structures reflect and support gender norms? Are there ways that we can challenge preconceived notions within the workplace, in order to foster greater gender equality? While these are just a few potential research ideas, I realize that given my wide variety of interests, I would like to study at a university that can accommodate and support them all.