Federal Coach: Working for equal opportunity
(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)
Jenny Yang, a child of immigrant parents and the first Asian American to head the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), has spent her career focused on ensuring fairness in the workplace.
In this interview, Yang discusses her goals for the EEOC, which she took over as chair in September, and some of the lessons she has learned from her parents, children and mentors. Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership, as well as a vice president at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and the head of its Center for Government Leadership. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What led you to become a civil rights advocate, particularly on the issue of employment discrimination?
My parents came to this country from China. From a young age, I saw my mother experience discrimination at work. By talking to her about these experiences, I saw how important work is to people’s lives and how critical it is to be treated with fairness, dignity and respect. So when I thought about what was most meaningful to me, I wanted to work on those issues. Thinking about how we expand opportunities for all workers is something that motivates me and drives the work of the agency.
What are your top goals for the EEOC?
We know that discrimination can be a persistent problem in some workplaces. Rather than just treat the symptoms of the problems after they occur, we are looking at the underlying causes so that we can identify strategies that promote prevention and have a greater impact.
Harassment, for example, continues to be alleged in 30 percent of the charges we receive. I’ve established a task force to identify common problems and effective strategies that prevent and remedy harassment in the workplace. In addition, we are working to ensure that EEOC delivers the highest standard of service to the public by providing timely responses.
What is the best career advice you’ve received?
One of the things that really struck me that I’ve heard from leaders of other federal agencies is that, by far, most of your best ideas are already within the agency. So hearing from those on the front lines about their ideas for how they can do their job more effectively and have a greater impact is really the starting place.
What is your favorite book?
I’m in two book clubs with my kids, and I just read The Giver by Lois Lowry. I didn’t grow up reading those science fiction and dystopian-futuristic kinds of novels, but my kids like them. So I started reading what they were reading to understand how they look at the world. It makes you look at how we structure our society today. It encourages you to be creative and to imagine a different world and what you would like it to be.
What else have you learned from your children?
I did not grow up as a baseball fan, but I’ve become a recent convert because both my sons play and my husband is their Little League coach. Watching the game, I’ve learned a lot that applies to work. First is about courage and resilience. Baseball is a high-pressure sport because all eyes are on you when you’re up at bat. There is a decent chance you’re going to strike out, and you need to stay focused on your goal and keep your chin up.
The second thing I’ve learned is about calculated risk. I’ve watched my kids steal bases, and I hold my breath hoping they make it. It struck me that this game teaches them when to take risks.
And the third is that you are rarely going to hit a home run, but you can still win by hitting some consistent singles and doubles. Getting on base and making incremental progress is also often how we succeed at work. Finally, when I see a team playing really well and throwing and catching just right, you know that, although it might look effortless, they have practiced incredibly hard and that is beautiful teamwork. So those are my work lessons from baseball that have developed over many weekends.
Is there anywhere else you've drawn inspiration?
Both my parents spent their careers in public service. My dad is a professor at Rutgers and my mother retired as a judge. I thought from a young age that they were fortunate to have careers that they were passionate about. In elementary school, I remember one day where everyone in the class went around and talked about what their parents did for a living. Some kids made it clear that their parents didn’t like their jobs, and it struck me that my parents were fortunate enough to do something they really cared about. I realized then that I wanted to do something that I was passionate about, too.
Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Apr 07, 2015 at 12:03 PM