From El Salvador to Singapore, stories of women leaning in
Alexa Crisa (Lean In Atlanta), Ikuska Sanz (Lean In Barcelona), Nahomy Hernandez (Lean In El Salvador), and Uma Thana (Lean In Tech Asia)
About this Episode
From El Salvador to Singapore, Spain to the U.S., women everywhere experience gender bias—and we all benefit from the support of other women, too. In this episode of Tilted, we talk to women who run Lean In Circles (small groups of peers who meet regularly to support one another and learn new skills together). They share their experiences with bias in their respective home countries and the things that unite us no matter where we live. To start or join a Circle, visit leanin.org/circles.
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Welcome to Tilted, a Lean In Podcast. Each week we explore the uneven playing field—the gender bias that lurks in unexpected places, the impact it has on our everyday lives, and what happens when women lean in and start driving change.
I’m your host Rachel Thomas, co-founder and president of Lean In.
Today I'm so excited. I'm coming to you from Lean In's annual Leaders Conference. And for those of you who don't know what it is, and that’s probably most of you, it's a gathering of our top community leaders from around the world. We call them Lean In Leaders and they run small networking groups called Circles. A lot of people don't realize how big and global our community is. We have members in over 160 countries from Canada to France and from Brazil to India.
Every time I talk to women who run Circles, I am struck by two things: How different the challenges women face are around the world, but also how similar the fundamentals are—no matter where we live in the world, women experience gender bias—and no matter where we live, we benefit from the support of other women.
So I’m excited. I had the chance to sit down with three of our inspiring leaders to talk about their experiences: Ikuska Sanz from Barcelona; Alexa Crisa from Atlanta, Georgia; and Uma Thana, who grew up in Malaysia, lives in Singapore, and runs Women in Tech Asia.
Rachel Thomas: What does being feminist mean to you?
Alexa Crisa: It means a lot. You know, at home, we never really had like very candid discussions. It was just my parents shared roles and responsibilities. And so, you know, the idea of gender roles has always been very fluid. My brother is actually transgender. So feminism is the female lens and view into equality.
Rachel Thomas: Uma, you're nodding a lot. What does it mean to you?
Uma Thana: So I grew up with, you know, my mother being the breadwinner to the family because the year I was born my father had a heart attack, survived. He was a mechanic and my mother was a nurse and she said, ‘You know, you're not going back to work anymore because I'm really worried.’ So she raised two kids on, at that time what would have been a salary of 500 U.S. dollars a month. And so I watched her raise kids, go to work. And she expected my father to learn how to cook, get the kids to school, do the gardening, etc.—much to the dismay of my father's mother because that's not what she expected him to do. And so for me, quite simply, you know, the ability to make the choices that you want to make for yourself and living it with authenticity.
Rachel Thomas: Ikuska, what does it mean for you?
Ikuska Sanz: So for me, it means just basic equality. And I think it means freedom. I live on my own. I can go to the movies, I can walk home at 4:00 a.m., no issues. I feel free. You know, but I've traveled a lot. I've lived in other countries and I think, it's not something I think, like, that's not the case. You know, that's just something that we take for granted, certainly in Spain and in many European countries. And it's not the case. So I think feminism, ultimately, it's about freedom: individual and collective freedom.
Alexa Crisa: Yeah.
Rachel Thomas: It's an important moment for women in Spain right now. Tell us about that a little bit and how that impact team kind of you as a woman in Spain and your circle and your community there?
Ikuska Sanz: Yeah it is, it really feels like we're having our #MeToo kind of moment, or movement, or year. There was this very high profile rape case with five perpetrators, men rapists and one victim. And because of the violence of the case and the, how the media portrayed everything and the fact that they're free waiting for trial, living their lives, it just rocked the country to its core. So there is, like, before and after this event. And so on Women's International Day on March 8th, for the first time ever there was a feminist strike. So there was a nationwide walkout. And hundreds of thousands of women joined. And this is the first time in history and I've never seen anything like that. So they were marching. They were demonstrating. They were telling their male colleagues, ‘We're not going to work,’ or ‘I'm going to work and then I'm going to go to the march and I'm not going back.’ So it's—it's been a shift. Now we have a majority feminine cabinet, for example. So things are shifting and I think we're living in a very, very interesting moment.
Rachel Thomas: So, Alexa, obviously a very different part of the world than Barcelona and Spain, but you're running your community in Atlanta. It must be really interesting. You know, on one hand, Atlanta is one of the world's great cities. It's huge, it's modern, it attracts people from all over the world, and on the other hand there's kind of this old school notion of Southern womanhood, and that goes back many generations and I know it still persists to some degree. So what is that like? How do you think about that?
Alexa Crisa: Yeah, it's very interesting at home right now. And I think what we see is a lot of women who are nearly needing to like apologize or qualify, like, ‘Hey, I think I think I'm ready to, like, take off my pearls and, you know, elevate myself and be ok with being a champion for myself.’ I think that the idea of making yourself small is something that is really really hard to change in the South especially, where, you know, oh… I forgot the name of the golf course where they have the Masters, right?
Ikuska Sanz: Augusta?
Alexa Crisa: Yeah, women aren't allowed to be members. And it's very bizarre because then you go back into Atlanta, where we all live, and Sara Blakely is the CEO of Spanx. And so, you know, you turn one corner and there's progress and there's these beautiful visions of what society could be like, and then you turn another one and there's some ugly hatred. There's racial divisiveness. But I think we're definitely seeing a shift.
Rachel Thomas: Uma, I see you nodding a lot and, you run Circles all across Asia—so this is different countries different cultures, this is complicated—so what is it like supporting women across so many different cultures and belief systems?
Uma Thana: Yeah. So firstly we're at a very initial stage of doing that. So the network’s called Women in Tech Asia. And the main Circle right now is mainly focused in Singapore because that's where I live. And there's about 900 members there. But I'm also a vice president in a global tech company that takes care of 15 different markets so, I do get to interact with men and women in these economies. So it's very diverse, I would say. Firstly, let me just say for all of those economies, we are making progress and that's good news. But, you know, Japan is very traditional. It is about the 100-year calendar on the wall when you're doing business. So very traditional in thinking but they have made some progress. Now generally, women were expected to quit after marriage simply because access to childcare and support for childcare outside of your home was not very popular. But today, if I traveled to Japan for business, I do see very young kids coming out of daycare centers. So there's more of those coming up, which means that mothers get to go back to work earlier. In Indonesia, there's a lot of successful women who are executives. And then for them, maybe not the major, but one of the most common things to think about is how do they walk the tightrope? So being aggressive and making bold decisions for their businesses, yet being feminine and being motherly like, if you will. In India, a lot of women work. I'm Sri Lankan and they're expected to have equal effort. But then you also see the State Bank of India, one of the largest banks in India, did this brilliant commercial about how women should save and she does have a say. So there is no one size fits all, right, for Asia.
Rachel Thomas: But getting real for a second, there's a lot of really good guys out there, but there are some pretty cruddy guys out there too. Talk to me—and we're all smiling because we all know—talk to me a little bit about like. When have you experienced sexism? And, you know, what is the ugly side of this that you've been seeing? And what are you doing about it and are you talking about it in your Circles? Is it coming up a lot?
Uma Thana: Yeah, so I work in tech so that probably is more prevalent given the dominance of men, especially at leadership level. That was one year where I was at a very large global conference and we were sitting down and having dinner. It was about 12 of us, and I was the only woman and there was a reporter that wanted to take a photo of all of us. So we took a photo and then—I've only told this story once on stage—someone grabbed my ass. And I couldn't figure out who it was. And I was so stunned. Despite all of my intelligence and awareness and everything. So I sat down at my chair and I did process of elimination of who it could possibly be. And then I figured out who it was. And I was in such a state of shock. I actually didn't talk about it for a year. That's the story that I can think of right now. I'm sure these guys have other stories.
Ikuska Sanz: Yeah, I have a very similar story. I was living abroad, I wasn't living in Spain at the time. I was at the general manager's office—it was a big corporation—and there was the whole c-suite there. We were doing some HR meetings—and I have a tattoo on my shoulder. And the general director, like vice president, came and touched my shoulder in front of everybody like a—
Rachel Thomas: She's caressing her shoulder for those of you who can't see her.
Ikuska Sanz: —and said, ‘Well nice tattoo.’ And I sat there like, you can't touch me, like, you're not my friend. You can't touch me. And then I was so angry at myself because I didn't say anything but what could I have said? Like, you know, in front of everybody like, ‘Don't touch me please.’ You know, it would have sounded so harsh, and it was in another country where it's way more conservative—and I have no problem in saying that but…
Uma Thana: You’d be the angry blonde woman!
Ikuska Sanz: Yeah. The angry foreigner. And, I didn't know what to say, but I felt so bad afterwards. And your case it's worse—but, you know, it's my shoulder, you don't get to touch it. And when we talk about it at Lean In Barcelona, it's way more about microaggressions.
Rachel Thomas: Yes.
Ikuska Sanz: So that's something that we talk a lot about and we're actually doing a workshop on microaggressions this fall because it's been one of the requests from our attendees.
Rachel Thomas: How about for you, Alexa?
Alexa Crisa: I was in one of my first, like, big girl job interviews and had no idea—kind of the rose-colored glasses, right. Like, ‘Oh here I am, I'm going to work.’ And I'm in a second round interview with the company, and the guy sits back in his chair and he's like, ‘So I know how 23-year-old girls are. How can you convince me that you're not about to get engaged, you're not about to go run off to New York, like, how can you convince me that you're going to stay?’ And I—I didn't know what to do. I was like, ‘I don't know what's normal. I don't know what's not normal.’ And, you know, I left still wanting that job. And I'm very fortunate I was interning at the time magazine, a pregnancy and newborn magazine actually. So I went back to this office of strong women. And I was like, ‘This didn't feel right.’ And they were like, ‘It's because it's not right.’ And you know, I keep that one in my back pocket to remind myself like, you know, these things happen, but we grow.
Rachel Thomas: Yeah, it's so interesting, though, we have to release ourselves of this, right? Because I'm thinking, you know, we all have our own stories. And what I'm struck by is—it is disorienting, but we're kind of blaming ourselves.
Ikuska Sanz: Yes.
Rachel Thomas: Which is just crazy. Because it's like, it's not us. It's them. So it is really interesting that we still do that. I'm curious, and I'm just putting on the spot, so you might not know. But if you were going to go back to your younger self, your 23-year-old self now—knowing what you know, both because of your own life experiences and some of the research that we now know about women's experiences—like, what would you do differently? What would you say to yourself.
Alexa Crisa: God, I mean I would say like, ‘You don't, you don't need this. You don't want this. Like, you deserve to be spoken to as an equal.’
Ikuska Sanz: I think you said the right words. Like, you are an equal.
Alexa Crisa: Yeah.
Ikuska Sanz: Yeah.
Uma Thana: That's where the power Circles come in.
Alexa Crisa: Right, yeah.
Uma Thana: And, you know, I think it's the generation coming up behind us now—the Millennials—I mean, we look at our volunteer group for Lean In is just over 200. And I'd say, more than 50% of them are Millennials. And they are forming Circles, etc. So I think it's very inspiring because they now want to get more educated. So if you're saying, you know, go back to your 23-year-old selves, we are seeing 23-year-olds now wanting to be educated. They want to know more. They want to know what to do. They want to learn how to negotiate, sit at the table. So we come with scars and I think that's the power that we bring to bring the women behind us a little bit faster forward.
Rachel Thomas: One phrase I heard which was the power of Circles—which was amazing and, you know, I think we all kind of, we get that sitting at the table. But that's one piece. And then the other thing that's really clear is that all the cultures are different. You know, Atlanta is so different from Barcelona, which is so different from Singapore and, of course, Asia more broadly. These are complicated issues and they're a little different. You know no matter where you are in the world—but talk to me, like really specifically like—why do Circles work? Like, what happens in your Circles? Like, how is it helping you address like what's uniquely happening in your area? And I know that's a big question, so just kind of take a bat at it. I'm curious what you think.
Uma Thana: Yeah. So we've grown from 21 Circles to now 84 in the last year or so.
Rachel Thomas: Which is just amazing.
Uma Thana: Yeah. Thank you. And that's because Helen and I felt really strongly that, that was going to be the most powerful thing that we could do to make an impact for women. So I think if you talk to the women in Circles in Singapore—number one they say, you know, ‘Yes, such a simple concept, why didn't we think of this before.’ Because, when we say Circles, I mean it's really important to explain this isn't a Circle of friends. This is, the way that we do in Singapore, is to the three Cs: the commitment, the communication, the confidentiality. And it is about coming together, you commit. So my own circle, you know, we say we're going to be married to each other for a year and then we're going to, right? Renew our vows. That we're going to stay committed. Right? As long as we're all in town we're going to meet once a month. And I think the power is when they all come together and talk openly about the challenges in the workplace. Number one, they feel, ‘Oh my god I'm not alone. It's not just me.’
Rachel Thomas: Yeah, we're all nodding vigorously. Yeah.
Uma Thana: The second is that peer to peer support works in both ways. One to validate ‘OK should I, you know, I want to be CEO someday. And if I went out, my normal friends would say, 'Yeah of course. You know, if they don't select you, it's them, it's not you.' Whereas my circle would say, ‘OK what have you done to plan to be CEO? What steps are you taking? You said you were going to do that. Did you do it?’ So that's the commitment and skills-building part of Circle that I think makes a huge difference. The third is the power of stories. I think that, you know, we talk openly. And, you know, I was at Standard Chartered Bank on International Women's Day and I told the story of my first two Lean In moments. Which is, you know, I left university, which I put myself through. My parents couldn't afford to do it. And I was sleeping on single mattresses on the floor with three other girls. And one of them had a sister that worked for IBM that knew about this IBM distributor that was going to hire a fresh graduate systems engineer role. And so that was my first lesson the power of networks. That's how I got the interview. But then when I got there, he offered me a job on the spot and I was so desperate to sleep on my own bed that I said he needed to pay me 400 ringgit, Malaysian ringgit more. And, you know, he was so surprised. Like this fresh graduate, Asian, colored woman is negotiating. I had no strategy whatsoever. I just wanted to sleep in my own bed. And very recently a woman that was sitting at that event on International Women's Day at Standard Chartered Bank came up to me and she said, ‘I heard your story about sleeping on your own bed. I walked up to my manager last week and I said—I want this promotion and here's why.’ And he gave it to her. They are now moving her to London, one band higher, and she's going to start Lean In in London for Standard Chartered Bank.
Rachel Thomas: It's amazing.
Ikuska Sanz: I think that's amazing, because that has happened in our Circle as well. It is just, you have to ask.
Rachel Thomas: Yep.
Ikuska Thomas: Ask for it. Like you have... If you don't ask for it, the no is there.
Rachel Thomas: Another two things. So, one is—this is the biggest story we hear over and over again. You know, at Lean In headquarters, which really kind of inspires us, kind of keeps us going and I'm so glad to hear it's been your experience as well. But just this idea that, you know, one woman talks to her Circle about something she wants to do or, you know, that she feels like she's underpaid or whatever it is, and the Circle says, ‘Go get it.’ And not only just go get it, sometimes the Circle will practice negotiating with her or kind of help her figure out how to go out and do it. And then she comes back and she's been successful. And then the second woman goes, ‘I can go do it too.’ And then the third woman. And it's this idea we talked about earlier, like, just this compounding effect because this is the number one story that we hear where you're driving real change. And one of the things that's really interesting is, we conduct the Women in the Workplace study every year—which you guys all know about it because we talk about all the time, but for those of you listening, it's the largest study on the state of women in the workplace in the United States. And we're slowly going to start going global, which we're really excited about. But we're seeing that women are now negotiating at the same rate as men. They're asking for raises, they're asking for promotions, and ten years ago that was far from true. Men asked for more and so they got more. And so I just love hearing this, because I really think the takeaway is—Lean In Circles are playing a little role in this, you know there's lots going on in the world why women are speaking out more and standing up more for themselves—but for me the takeaway is, women are doing our part. So it's now, ‘What is everybody else going to do for us?’ So, anyway, that story just always lights me up because I think it's such a big part of the change that we're all trying to drive in the world.
Uma Thana: Absolutely.
Rachel Thomas: Huge thanks to Ikuska, Alexa, and Uma. Your stories are so powerful. They paint a very clear picture that women still face too many barriers, but they also show how women are supporting each other and charging ahead—and that’s really exciting.
Thank you for your leadership—and thank you for being such badass women.
We’ll be back after a message from our sponsor—and then we’ll hear how Circles are helping women in El Salvador.
Welcome back. Now we’re going to hear from Nahomy Hernández. Nahomy is another one of our amazing leaders. She’s in El Salvador, and she’s going to tell you in her own words how she’s using Circles to lift up women in the poorest corners of her country.
Nahomy Hernandez: My name is Nahomy Hernandez, and I am the director of operations for Vayamos Adelante En Comunidad in El Salvador and Guatemala. El Salvador is going through a very difficult period right now. We have high rates of violence. It's actually, it has been named the murder capital of the world in 2015. We also have the highest rate of violence against women in Latin America.
We know that we have to fight exactly this perception that this violence is normal and we have to start at the core. We have to start in families. And when children, you know, are being raised with these perceptions—this contextual violence that they see all around them, especially in the communities that we visit—we know that that's exactly where change can start and should start. So we topicalized the idea and when to do and try out a Lean In Circle in an open park.
The idea was to use cinema and entertainment to help communities restore hope and restore the capacity to dream. In El Salvador, there's a lot of hopelessness right now. And we saw this as a vehicle to bring safe, healthy family entertainment to these communities that have never probably been able to actually go to a movie theater. And so we bring the movie to them. We install a huge inflatable screen in an open area. It can be a park or a public plaza. And so we create a festival for them. The entire community is welcome. We go to schools, we go to public areas, we go to cultural houses, and we invite the entire community.
Women are at the heart of these communities that we were visiting. They are essential not only for raising their families, which they are—they are doing and they are, you know, a lot of the times they're the single breadwinners—but then they are also essential for restoring peace in their families and in the community as a whole, in the neighborhood. So with the women that we work with, we realize that we had to get to the very basics. We have to first help them to see value in themselves. It's like actually developing their self-esteem from zero.
Sometimes we have had women that start crying in the moment because they say, ‘I cannot say these words. I have never been told that I am valuable, so I don't believe it. If I say it out loud, it feels weird.’ And so it's starting out there, at that moment, and actually look at their eyes and really believing for themselves when they cannot believe for themselves that they are valuable.
At the beginning, I thought I was doubtful and I thought, ‘I don't know if they're going to actually open up with people that they have never talked and that they have never met and it's in an open area. And I imagine they have they are going to feel concerned about privacy,’ but there is so much thirst for these spaces because these women, you know, they became mothers—a lot of them—very early, like in their teenage years. And they had to stop school and a lot of them don't have a partner to share the load with. And so, a lot of the time, they think that they are alone. But, in fact, there are many cases that are similar within their neighborhoods. And so what we are creating is this a safe support system among them. And, you know, it's themselves that they actually started leading the Circles afterwards. Our hope with all this that we're doing, is that by lifting up these women and building up their confidence, it will create a ripple effect that, in turn, will lift up the entire community.
Rachel Thomas: We’ve covered a lot of ground today, and wow are these leaders amazing. I hope today’s episode left you feeling inspired by what’s possible when women come together and push for change in our lives, our workplaces, and our communities
If you’re interested in learning more about Circles, I hope you are, please text “Lean In” to 555888 or visit us online at leanin.org/circles. And to see some photos from today’s episode, especially Nahomy’s souped-up truck in El Salvador, check out my Twitter feed at @RachelSThomas.
Please subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Our producers are Jordan Bell and Shara Morris. Special thanks to Katie Miserany, Ali Bohrer, Megan Rooney, and Sarah Maisel from the Lean In team and Laura Mayer at Stitcher.
Our engineer is Ryan Roberts and our music was composed by Casey Holford.
This has been Tilted, and I’m your host Rachel Thomas.