PEOPLE: I can be what I can’t see – Jean Sum

Jean Sum, Founder of Sum of Jean, made a shift from the banking industry to international development and is also now a mentor to Asian-Australian women. She believes strongly in empowering women, overcoming imposter syndrome and breaking through the bamboo ceiling so everyone has the opportunity to become what they cannot see.

  • For those who resonate with imposter syndrome, what’s a step by step process they can go through to manage and overcome the roadblocks imposter syndrome can create?

Imposter syndrome is an interesting term used to describe the feeling that one doesn’t deserve their success. At the root of this, I see this as someone not feeling they are worthy. Not seeing themselves as good enough and worrying that they would be ‘found out’.

I have a few tricks to help me through this:

  • Stop. Acknowledge. Feel.

I stop and listen to the voice that is telling me that I’m not good enough. When I was invited to MC the Australian National University’s Alumni Gala to farewell Chancellor Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC as my first MC gig, my response was “Who, me?” I gave it some airspace by acknowledging this voice and recognised it was my perfectionist persona stepping out.

  • Gather the evidence

What experiences have I had that tell me I am good enough? That I am worthy? I have over the years saved congratulatory and thank you notes. Occasionally I pull these out to remind myself that I am on the right path and making a positive impact.

  • Have a support crew

When I feel shaky and need a bit of support, I call my support crew. This group includes individuals who understand my journey, my coaches, mentors and champion. I trust them and they understand my dreams. I called my Champion about this MC gig – he said “Great idea! You are perfect for this role. You encompass exactly what this gala needs”. This was all I needed to say yes.

  • List the qualities and skills

Every year, I write a list of qualities and skills that I am proud of. The qualities that make Jean Sum unique. One of my qualities is creativity which I have used to turn this list into a colourful word collage. Everyday I walk past and a word or two subconsciously fills my mind and my body.

  • Dance, Journal, Meditate

Yes! I do all these to help me believe I am worthy! Why? Because I can live so much in my mind and I need to come back into my body and heart, which hold so much intelligence. I dance to express my emotions and shift my energy. I journal to process thoughts. I meditate to centre myself. These practices help to clear and sift through the mind clutter that can contribute to the imposter syndrome, and return to my central intelligence – my inner voice that gives me strength to achieve great things.

  • The stats clearly show that both the glass ceiling (for women) and bamboo ceiling (for Asian-Australians) exist in Australia. For those experiencing that in their workplace or industry, how do they overcome these barriers and become what they cannot see? How do they break through to pioneer a ‘first’ in their sector and be a breakthrough role model for others?

The bamboo ceiling represents the barriers that exclude ethnic Asians from executive positions on the basis of subjective factors such as ‘lack of leadership potential’ and ‘lack of communication skills’. You can hear what’s on the other side of the bamboo ceiling, but it’s hard to reach. Approximately 13% of Australians are of the Asian diaspora, but only 1.6% are in senior leadership positions.

Firstly, recognise what the external and internal barriers are. Ask yourself: What can I and can’t I change? Are there skills I need to improve on? Are there any self-limiting beliefs that I am placing on myself? Doing some internal work helps to shift our thinking.

Secondly, what are the external barriers? Are there opportunities available? To whom are they available? Who can I talk to about this? Is there someone who believes in me and can be a champion for me?

There is a saying ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ and to some extent this is true. But think of the ground-breakers throughout history – Rosa Parks – Activist, Lakshmi Bai – Warrior / Queen, Wang Zhenyi – Astronomer – these women became leaders in spite of everything stacked up against them. They couldn’t physically see what they could become, but they had a vision. And this is what they saw.

I draw on my personal experiences to remind myself that I can be what I can’t see. I have successfully changed careers and built a cross-sector career. I am often the first corporate partnerships manager in organisations I work in and have developed ground-breaking and sustainable partnerships over the years.

I achieve this by allowing myself to think and feel what is possible. I find others to back my work. I have developed effective communication skills. I work across the organisation – executives, managers and teams. I find courage from within to try new things. I haven’t met many Asian-Australian partnership managers in the community sector and it is not stopping me from being a great one.

My goal is to breakthrough into senior leadership within the community/social impact sector as there are very few Asian-Australians who are Directors or Heads of Departments in this space, let alone Asian-Australian Women. My drive is to model what is possible for future generations, in a field that is not traditionally encouraged for Asian-Australians to enter into. To show what is possible.

  • Have you ever experienced the glass or bamboo ceilings in your career? If so, what happened, and what did you learn from those experiences?

Yes I have. I was in my 20s working in banking and I noticed that most managers were Caucasian men. I have university qualifications in Commerce and Actuarial Studies and had intentions to climb the corporate ladder. I tried talking with managers about my aspirations, but I found it difficult to. I tried networking and demonstrating my capabilities, but I didn’t fit into the mould of what a successful banker looked like. I wore pant suits, watched football and went to the pub with colleagues. I was trying to be ‘one of the boys’ which failed miserably!

I was hiding a big part of me.

Life threw me a curve ball when my brother died of suicide. His death made me realise that life is too short to be doing something where I couldn’t be all of me. I decided to pursue my university dream of working in international development. It was there that I started being seen – as a woman and an Asian-Australian. It was the very essence of my being – as an Asian-Australian Woman, I understood the impact of gender inequality and communities in Asia that supported my transition into the community sector.

My lessons:

  • Learning why I am doing something. Why am I spending my energy in particular areas of my life?
  • Learning how I can respond to the situation. I left banking because it wasn’t what I wanted. But the skills and experience are incredibly useful now as a cross-sector partnerships manager and I am working with banks and corporates to address our society’s challenge of family violence.
  • Learning that ceilings can be dissolved in other ways. As a corporate partnerships manager I am demonstrating what is possible through embracing diversity of culture, gender and different ways of thinking. I am having conversations with executives in ways that I couldn’t have imagined. I have advised CEOs, Vice-Chancellors and Executives of international companies from a culturally diverse and inclusive lens. This is an impact far greater than that I’d envisaged in my 20’s.
  • Why is it important to find your ‘support crew’ in your career? 

My support crew help keep my ship steady in the rough seas. They remind me of who I am, my strengths and the impact that I have made through my work. They encourage me to grow and challenge me to think in ways I might not have before. My career support crew includes my colleagues, mentor/champion, coaches and sometimes clients.

When I created Sum of Jean, I was nervous about adding it to LinkedIn. I knew it was important for reaching my target audience, but the thought of connecting my professional and deeply personal stories was nerve wrecking! I called upon my support crew to make this jump. They reminded me of my purpose and held my hand as I leaped.

  • For those wanting to build a ‘support crew’ because they’re just starting out in their career, where do they start?

I invite you to close your eyes. Imagine you are surrounded by an incredibly supportive group of individuals who believe in you. They have your best interests at heart and know that you can be what you can see. Because they see you. How does it feel? What words come up? What colours do you see? Now imagine where they come from. What skills and experiences do they have?

Open your eyes and write these words down. Write what pops first in your mind.

Go through your network of family, friends, colleagues, teachers and managers. Who encompasses these qualities? Are there qualities that you have identified that are not found in your network? Place these into categories such as job types, industries and skills development.

Talk with those on your list and tell them your story, ambitions and dreams. Ask if they would be your support crew. Ask them for their advice. Tell them you are looking for other supporters. Can they recommend anyone? People are often more than happy to help – find the courage to ask.

Remember – you don’t need many – quality over quantity. As you grow your network and experiences, this support crew will change over time. Enjoy building your relationships with them.


About the expert

Jean Sum is a proud Asian-Australian Woman with a keen interest in solving “wicked” societal challenges. She is a mentor to Asian-Australian women, writer, speaker and a cross-sector partnerships broker with nuanced understandings of the private, community and university sectors.

She created Sum of Jean to offer support to other Asian-Australian Women to align their life and career paths with their values, strengths and desires. As a woman who started a career in a traditional, masculine industry (banking), she hid a large part of herself in order to be seen as exceptional in her career, and did not embrace her feminine qualities such as intuition, expression and empathy which are the traits needed as leaders in the 21st century.

Jean’s vision for Asian-Australian Women is to truly see and believe in themselves, to walk boldly in the world and for their voices to be heard.

To know that they are worthy. You can read about her learnings and stories through http://www.SumofJean.com.

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ADVICE: Breaking the bamboo ceiling

Annick Ah Lan is the Chief Operating Officer of Australian Institute of Quantity Surveyors, but had to overcome a range of racial stereotypes to get there. Annick is passionate about getting more women on boards, and believe strongly in the importance of recognising everyone has something valuable to bring to the table.

In this interview, she shares her experiences with meeting and surpassing the bamboo ceiling, and how she has thrived in male-dominated industries ever since.

  • You’ve had an impressive career in various industries, and currently as COO and 2iC to the CEO at AIQS in the construction industry. Have you ever experienced the bamboo ceiling?

Very much so. It was fortuitous that the first job I held at a European company based overseas had a progressive Managing Director at the helm, who mentored me and kept to the adage that “the sky is the ceiling” for every single member of staff. He looked after the health and wellbeing of employees, invested in training and development and had workplace practices that only now, almost 15 years later, some companies are barely making headway into developing for their own staff. 

Due to the GFC and numerous closures worldwide of this company, I left to face the realities of the job market when I based myself in Australia. Some comments I received whilst interviewing were along the lines of, “You’re so young, why are you on such a high salary?” and “Oh, you can’t REALLY have done all that work?” or “You are so accomplished for someone so young!”. 

It also goes without saying, when you see the line-up of senior management within any particular company and you cannot spot someone who is young, Asian and female, you pretty much deduct in hindsight why you didn’t get a particular job you were aiming for. 

Whether it’s one, or a combination of reasons, there is never an easy way of eliciting the base reason if it stems from unconscious bias. I knew my worth at the time because I had done the hard yards and put in the time, but I was constantly discouraged from aiming high. Another favourite I heard one too many times is, “Oh, you’re very outspoken for an Asian person! Where are you from exactly?”

  • How has that experience shaped the way you approach business, leadership and your career today?

It’s definitely taught me to never take anything for granted! It’s also made a me a much stronger person, more resilient, and quick to accept and react to change. 

There’s no point in fighting against the status quo, so it’s made me quite resourceful in finding smart and innovative ways of doing things.  It’s also made me more understanding and open to listening to others. 

I always ask why, and what am I missing, in situations where I do not see eye to eye with someone else. I also try to figure things out by myself, rather than just wait for answers to fall into my lap, which is something I’m vehement about in instilling in workplace culture. 

Someone who has gone through the painstaking journey of figuring out how to do something will never forget it, and they will do it well, because they would have learned from mistakes made along the journey. 

  • What’s your advice to others unsure of whether they are facing the bamboo ceiling in their current roles? And for those who are, what can they do about it?

To be sure about what they are feeling. Whether or not they take it to the next step to voice their concerns is purely up to each individual. I personally never have, because I chose to either work thrice as hard to prove my worth, or leave the company. If I’m on par with everyone else and can significantly demonstrate this without anyone finding anything to argue against, then the argument to not promote me or not give me what I justly deserve becomes moot. 

How someone acts or reacts in any particular situation is purely up to them, as you can’t change other people’s behaviours, but you can change your own. It is with this attitude that I take things, the good with the bad, and every single hurdle and challenge put in my way has only served to help me grow and become a stronger, more resilient person. 

Sitting around and raging about the situation doesn’t really help anyone, take things into your own hands and demonstrate what you can do, or move on.  Either you accept the situation, or you change things, whether it’s your environment or your attitude, to ensure your contentment.

  • What or who encouraged you to embark on a Bachelor of Computer and Mathematical Sciences when you were studying?

Growing up, I have always had a keen interest in sciences. My dad qualified as a Chemical Engineer, so I assume that being around scientific equipment at a young age sparked my sense of wanting to explore the what, how and why of things. Instead of asking for dolls I was asking for telescopes, microscopes and scientific kits. The National Geographic shops were my favourite place in the world! 

I was also lucky enough to have had a Commodore 64 which was my first foray into programming. From there we moved on to the Pentiums and my fascination with computers continued to develop. I selected IT, maths and biology as majors for my HSC and then applied for two IT-related courses, and neurology as a third option! I was happy to go into either field, but IT won! 

Having said that, I will be the first person to tell anyone that I am an artist at heart. I have done classical ballet almost my whole life and played the piano to university level, however, these were never perceived to be “proper” career options, coming from an Asian background!

  • What do you think holds back young women from studying STEM, and how do we as a society overcome these obstacles?

I believe it’s the stigma and preconceived ideas – almost unconscious bias – surrounding STEM.  My interests were never quashed, I was never told that I couldn’t pursue something purely because of my gender – and I’m talking about from much earlier than kindergarten age.

My thirst for knowledge was encouraged, critical thinking and research were key educational pieces at home, and I devoured books.  As gender wasn’t an issue for me, I never saw it as an obstacle.  During childhood and adolescence, I had a good group of male friends, which meant that I was never afraid to voice my opinions or ever felt uncomfortable being the only female in a group of males. 

I believe that the key to overcoming it is developing a high level of emotional intelligence, understanding that males and females are wired differently, and we need to embrace those differences rather than setting it up as a battle of the sexes. 

A good, solid education begins at home. School is of course, important, but the shaping of a human being’s intrinsic ideas, behaviours, instincts and core beliefs, these come from parents. Therefore, society as a whole needs to work together to overcome the obstacles, it’s not just a matter of policy-making within businesses – by that point, it’s much too late.


About the expert

Annick is the Chief Operating Officer of a Professional Association within the construction industry. Her core focus as the 2IC to the CEO involves operationalising the company’s strategic goals across all areas of the business, including project management, corporate governance and risk management, human resources management, business development and financial management.

She is a spirited advocate of and holds staff lead roles across some of the business’s various committees, including a Diversity & Inclusion Committee, Membership Committee as well as a newly-formed Digital Innovation Committee. Annick is a firm believer in the Kaizen ethos and is a self-professed quantum physics aficionado!