News + Ideas

MGAC Inner Voices: Episode 7


MGAC Inner Voices is an interview format podcast where a diverse mix of employees are interviewed to share their perspective on challenges they have faced in the A/E/C industry as a result of their identity—including race, ethnicity, religion, age, gender, sexuality, ability, etc. By discussing the experiences of our staff, our hope is that their stories will have newfound and powerful resonance with the audience—both to comfort others in similar situations and to encourage those in positions of power to bring about positive, actionable changes to workplace environments for all A/E/C professionals, regardless of their identity.

Bryan Gamez (MGAC Assistant Project Manager, Los Angeles) talks with Suling Pong (MGAC Senior Manager of Creative Services, Los Angeles) to unpack ageism, female friendships and dynamics, and treatment of those in “support” functions of a firm.


Bryan: Hi everyone. And welcome back to "MGAC Inner Voices," a podcast digging into the issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the architecture, engineering, and construction industry. As always, I'm going to preface this podcast by letting articles news now that we are not experts in all things diversity, equity, and inclusion, and we're just here to share our stories, our firsthand experiences and discuss how together we're creating a better outcome from all of us in the AEC industry. My name is Bryan Gamez [SP], I'm your host. I am an assistant project manager at MGAC working and living in Los Angeles, California. And today, I'm going to be interviewing and we have a special privilege of speaking with my co-worker coming from Valley office, Suling. So hi, Suling. How are you?

Suling: Hello, I'm well. How are you?

Bryan: I'm great. I'm so happy to be interviewing you or just talking with you.

Suling: I know, it's good to see you again.

Bryan: Good to see you. So can you tell us a bit about yourself and to our listeners?

Suling: My name is Suling Pong and I am the senior manager of creative services here in the LA office for MGAC. I've been with MGAC for a little over a year, but I've been in the industry for over 15 years now.

Bryan: Suling, can you tell us about your backgrounds and who you are, what groups you identify with?

Suling: Sure. So I am a female Asian American of Chinese descent, and I am part of the marketing and graphics realm within the AEC industry.

Bryan: And how has your identity as a female Asian American affected you in professional spaces? What challenges have you faced in your career because, or seemingly because of your identity?

Suling: So, I feel like I've been pretty fortunate to not have experienced a whole lot of discrimination for being Asian. I was born and raised in LA and I was raised very Americanized, I'm first generation on my father's side, but I'm third generation on my mother's side. So, in terms of feeling culturally different and feeling like an outsider in certain situations, especially in the professional realm, I'm lucky to not have felt that a whole lot. I think I was struggling more with Asian identity as a younger child, especially in my teens. I think that that was just a rougher time to be different or to really accept who you are. And now as I'm older, I've definitely appreciated my culture and my heritage, and I'm embracing that more and I can't even speak Chinese and I feel shameful for that. Like, that's a part of me and I should know how to speak it, but I don't.

Bryan: You touched upon you're third generation on your mom's side, first generation on your dad's side, but I think that you can find a balance and also celebrate your heritage. Which you said that you're doing now. You know, I was just speaking to a fellow co-worker and she's from Canada, but was raised in Mexico and she identifies as Mexican, even though she's Canadian. I'm similar where I was born here in America, I'm a first-generation American and I see myself as an American with my Latino cultural heritage. So, I celebrate who I am. So that makes me happy to be who I am. So I hope that you also are striking that balance. I wanna know, have you ever face discrimination in the workplace either by being any of your backgrounds? And this has come up in other podcasts about gender experiences and also even ageism. Do you believe that ageism is an issue in the work environment?

Suling: Oddly enough, I feel like I felt more of the ageism happening than discrimination because of my race or because of being female. I think that because I look a lot younger than I really am, my interactions with certain individuals, even though I may have more experience than them at the end of the day, they would treat me a little bit differently because I looked younger, they assumed I was younger, and therefore, I had less experience than them. And so, they always kind of tried to take over a conversation and the collaborations weren't truly collaborative in that sense because they always felt that their opinions mattered more because they thought that they had more experience.

Bryan: Unfortunate. That's honestly very unfortunate. I mean, you speak about having 15 years of experience in your field and ageism, you know, that's something that I may be a male, but I feel like I've experienced that as well. How has that impacted your career? Those situations are uncomfortable. You say that, you know, situations aren't as collaborative. Do they speak over you and how do you handle that situation?

Suling: It's discouraging. I think I just have to keep trying. When I did experience some of that, it definitely took a toll on my confidence and it made me question how vocal I wanted to be in meetings, how much my opinion was taken seriously. So, it's just about persistence and kind of just reminding myself that I do have enough knowledge to speak on this intelligently and that regardless of how people may perceive it or take it, or if they would just kind of overlook what I have to bring to the table, I just have to keep trying. And hopefully, that persistence will pay off, but also that others will eventually just come to recognize it. And I can only prove myself through more experiences. So maybe the first one is, you know, kind of blown off, but then as I keep proving myself over and over again, I think it'll hopefully start to sink in with people.

Bryan: I love, Suling, that you have confidence in you that you have the ability to speak out, and you always should because, at the end of the day, there's these people speaking in your head and also potentially someone who's really doing it, but don't let that person sitting across the table stifle you in any way. I mean, that's how I feel now. So I hope that our listeners can take this to heart when it comes to ageism, it has a real opportunity to stifle people's growth. And that's not how...if we're all about equity and inclusion, it's about ensuring that everyone's voices are heard.

Suling: In terms of being female for being Asian, my first job out of college, myself and another female Asian were hired together. And so we were pretty much the newbies fresh out of school. So I didn't feel alone or tokenized in any way. If it was just me and I was the only Asian on the team, which I would have been if it weren't for her, I wonder how that might've changed things. I'm not really sure because I never really thought about it. So it's just interesting. I had a peer, that we were kind of like in cahoots, you know?

Bryan: That's interesting because that has stuck with you for the last 15 years and you're using that as a moment right now. So, have you stayed in touch with that person?

Suling: Yeah. We're such good friends.

Bryan: Have you ever had a conversation about, you know, working together and how that's affected you now?

Suling: Yes, totally. I mean, she was not born in America. She was from Korea and her English was not as strong. And so, we always talk about how we grew so much together. She reciprocated that appreciation for having each other because she said, "You brought me out of my shell. You helped improve my English. You gave me the confidence I needed to be more vocal." And so I think that's just really cool. And she helped me embrace more of my heritage and my culture and my Asian upbringing.

Bryan: I love that. You guys were advocates for each other and I think that's how we should all be in the workplace. I hope that's the trajectory we're all heading down. Have you ever experienced a difference between men and female leaders?

Suling: So, on the topic of men and women, first of all, I was astounded when I learned that there is this huge wage gap still between men and women. I mean, I thought we've come so far. I'm gonna be honest in saying that because I haven't really experienced any sexism or anything in the workplace. I never was aware of the statistics until it came to the forefront more recently. As I've gotten older, I start to question, why aren't I seeing as many females in leadership positions at the C-suite level? Why are there only a few? There are far more females on this earth, period, than men, we that for a fact. So why is it so outweighed in the workforce? Part of it is because a lot of women leave the workforce when they have children, but I think that's changing because of need and because of want. So why is that still the status quo where men are dominating?

Bryan: I think that's the issue. I think that men use an excuse, that because women leaving for different desires or want, or for having a family, but that to me is no excuse for not to have a female leader in the C-suite. If anything, that mother has much more persistence, determination because she is a working mother, and not to say that the fathers don't, but I come from a family where I have a hardworking mom and she is amazing. And I think that I really resonate with working women, and maybe it's because I'm gay and I have better connection with women. But I agree with you. I don't think that there should be the wage gap...I think that we're working on it as a nation, but it's also like societal and cultural issues that are just ingrained in corporate America. And we're working on it.

Suling: I agree with you because I've heard you say this before that women do things differently. We're just kind of programmed to be a little bit...we function a little bit differently. There's a strong difference between how women think versus how men think. But that being said, when I have interacted with women in leadership roles, I really look at the example that they are providing, not only to me, but other aspiring women to really rise to the top or whatever their aspirations may be. I always wonder, "What does it take to get there? What does it take to get a seat at the leadership table? Do they need to act like men? What attributes got them there?"

Bryan: I mean, that's a really good question. And have you thought about those answers because I'm curious now what you think that may be? Because if you asked me that, I don't really think of it as men and women, I think of it as determined, ambition, good listener, and whatnot. And I hope that everyone does too. But what answers have you come up with for your own questions on how to get to the top?

Suling: I have to say that I've been very fortunate to work with a group of really intelligent, strong women. And so, I feel like I've grown as a woman myself because of that. They helped shape who I am today and they've been mentors to me, we've been great advocates and supporters of each other. And then, unfortunately, I have some experiences with women who are not so pleasant and they are one of the few at the top. And I feel like sometimes women feel the need to defend themselves and they kind of get possessive about it a little bit. And I feel like women with those responsibilities and the abilities that they have to empower other women and support and encourage, I think they should be doing that more. And so, it really makes me sad when you meet a female not doing those things.

Bryan: Suling, that's a really good segue into my next question. Suling, so there are many challenges that women face. What are those challenges that they face in the workforce to have them behave or act in a certain manner that makes an experience unpleasant? And have you ever experienced any of those in your career? And I mean, it sounds like you have.

Suling: Yeah. I mean, very few, but it's a very strong type of personality where they're trying to clearly dominate as opposed to support. So that's why I question, are those the kinds of personalities that these men are looking for when they bring someone up to their level? Is that something that they're looking for, those attributes? And so it kind of defeats the purpose of why you want women up there in the first place because women bring a different perspective and it adds to the richness and the diversity of ideas and collaboration. So if you're only looking for people that are too similar to you, you're doing a disservice to yourself and the firm and to everybody.

Bryan: You hit the nail on the head there, Suling. I agree with you. I think, first, when I think of a leader, I don't want them to be dominating. I don't want them to be micro-managing. They should let you be as innovative as you want to be. They should be a great listener, engaging, communicative. And there are times where you experience has been a lot of men who wanna be aggressive and their personalities are explosive. And you just think, you know, at the end of the day, I realize I don't really wanna work in this environment. So, you know, you may be a leader here, but in the real world, that's just not gonna cut it for me. And as I get older, I'm learning from these experiences of what not to be, what a leader should not be like.

Suling: Exactly.

Bryan: And that's how I take it. And I'm like, moving forward, I know that when I surround myself with my co-workers and my colleagues, I want them to work with me because they like to work with me because I'm listening to them. So I think what you just said resonates with me. It's about having a richness of diversity up at the C-suite level, it should not be similarities of personalities because as you said, I believe that's a disservice to the firm. Segueing into my next question. Why is diversity, equity, and inclusion so important in the workplace? Can you describe your professional service in the firm and how do you believe your service can help impact DEI through the AEC industry and beyond, and also your personal work?

Suling: Yeah. So this is interesting because the conversations have been mainly about ethnicity, race, and discrimination based on those things, but there's a lot to be said about inclusion or the lack of amongst the roles that each of us play in a firm. I think that the more we can be inclusive of everything in totality, the happier employees will be and the stronger the firm becomes. I've always been in in-house services of a firm. You know, we're not part of the core company service, we're not "the moneymakers," right? We're behind the scenes, we're the cheerleaders. In my experience, it's funny that our colleagues don't even understand what we really do.

We're a marketing team. We have the graphics component in there. We have communications and public relations within that. We are a hybrid of multi-disciplinary skillsets. And I think when it comes to architects or project managers, they often forget that we are just as vital to the firm as they are. And that there is the tendency to overlook or to have this unspoken bias about who we are and our roles versus theirs. And that goes for human resources, or accounting, or IT, any of the support services that some may consider ancillary services, you are there to support us. It's not like that at all. I would challenge people to think that we all need each other. We can't do what we each do without each other.

Bryan: I'm really happy that you shared that because I think in our field, when I was at GC, we had a few folks who did a lot of marketing and they were the face of the company to clients, to the public. And while you talk about it being an ancillary service, I think that you are just as valuable as the project managers, right? And I think that's unfortunate that you have felt that way, but I'm happy that you can share that here so that everyone understands that I don't know if we don't have the right to be questioning someone else's role and whether or not they're as valuable as a project manager within the firm, right, because you're just as valuable.

And your talent and your skillset is as valuable as the next person who is sitting right next to you, Suling. And so I'm happy that you're able to express that. What measures can people take to help others understand the value that you bring to the table, can you tell us why you're an asset to our team?

Suling: When it comes to what I specifically do or graphics-related, it's difficult because graphics design, it's all very subjective. People make comments, people have opinions, and we're always open to hearing them and incorporating them in. But where do we draw the line? At the end of the day, who has authority over graphics? And I don't think that people are aware when they make comments or questions certain things that we clearly know a little bit more about than they might. We're trying to provide that area of expertise to them. And sometimes it's hard to convince someone that they can trust us and that we know what we're doing.

Bryan: You know, I hope that's not the case all around. And I hope that people do trust you. I mean, I'm enjoying this conversation with you, Suling.

Suling: I'm not saying that we experience that all the time, there are just a few select people that will challenge us from time to time and almost forget that we are there because of what we can bring to the table.

Bryan: As I said, your role is important, just as important as other services within the firm. So I hope that when that happens, that also takes a little education, a little bit of communication, and also engagement with that person because their position is also predicated on what you're providing to clients. So there's just an understanding that needs to be maintained there. I think that's all about dialogue. It's unfortunate that you've experienced that. And I hope that you've had the opportunity to address that. How do you address that? How do you address that?

Suling: We definitely try to be as collaborative as possible. We're gonna be like, "Okay, Hey, we hear your concerns. Let's try to address and resolve your concerns using what we know and what we think is best." And it's not necessarily moving that exactly where you tell us to move that, or writing it exactly using these words. We're going to bring it all together and make it the strongest product it can be. We're looking at it holistically and we're trying to maintain a certain level of quality and consistency throughout.

And we sometimes get vetoed, but we try our best to at least explain our side of things. And at the end of the day, we will just have to do what it takes to make everybody happy. Sometimes behind the scenes, like, marketing graphics tend to be, we're not the ones that take all the glory, you know, the people that interview or the ones shaking hands with potential new clients, they're getting all the glory. And that's great. We're happy with that. We're good with that. But just don't forget to thank those who helped you get there along the way.

Bryan: It's a team effort.

Suling: Exactly.

Bryan: Right. It's a team effort. I mean, it's all the end of the day, it's about inclusivity and equality. You're sharing a common goal and you're sharing a common purpose within the firm. I do want to ask you, what advice would you give people want to pursue a career, a marketing career in the AEC industry who, you know, are worried about facing discrimination?

Suling: I think as long as you're getting yourself out there and showing that you understand the business, you understand what they do, and you try to educate and inform people of like what you can bring to the table and how you understand what they're saying, and we're gonna take what you're trying to convey, and we're gonna package it in this really beautiful thing that is going to win new work and get new clients. We just have to put ourselves out there. It is about reminding people what you can bring to the table, making sure that they know that you know what you're talking about because you understand the construction industry, you understand architecture, you understand the basics of like everything that they're talking about. And I think that's when they'll feel like, "Okay, in you I trust."

Bryan: So where do you see our industry in 10 years' time or even 15 years' time?

Suling: I think that we'll see a change for sure, in 10 to 15 years. It's not gonna happen overnight and the change might not be huge, but we'll start to see more people of color, more females. I think we need to do that.

Bryan: How does that become an action plan? I know that we've spoken with others that it's about first sharing these experiences and having these conversations, but maybe it's also conventions or forums.

Suling: I think that people need to remember to keep an open mind and have an honest conversation with yourself and ask yourself, "Am I potentially contributing to the problem?" Even if that means you've chosen to do nothing, has that even been part of what's the problem? And having conversations, very open dialogue conversation, and you don't have to go all out with whatever kind of change you wanna make, or however you want to contribute. It can be 1%. I think that people feel like, "Well, if I'm not going to go all in or be hardcore about it, I'm not going to even bother." But that's not true. Even just a little bit makes a difference. And maybe if you put 1% in here one time, maybe you'll want to up that and you'll do 3% next time and you'll just keep raising it. But the more we become familiar and teach ourselves how to start thinking in a different way, I think that'll help.

And including minorities, we all have a responsibility to put ourselves out there, right? To break out of our familiar communities and clicks, both professionally and personally, so that we can break down the barriers and perceptions. I want people to get to know me as a person, but if that means that I'm their first Asian friend and I show them that we have just as much to offer and that we have more similarities than you may think, that was hard to break down barriers and people will start to be more open to different cultures, even though at first sight it's not familiar to them. Or they may assume that they don't have any similarities, but we can find those common ground.

Bryan: Yeah. I agree with you. I think not saying anything is probably part of the problem, but it's also understanding that when you are engaging with someone, definitely don't try to pass judgment on them on who you think they may be because that also plays into it, right? That's also the perception that you've created in your own head about another person. We're human and that does happen with myself. And I always catch myself. I think back to Oprah, it says a lot more about yourself if you are passing judgment on someone, and that's important to note and where is that coming from? Is it coming from a fear? Is it coming from being uncomfortable? And it's you really have to break through that barrier to understand, you know, what is our common goal? And here our common goal is to really be successful together. That's a great point, Suling. I'm happy you brought that up. How do you think companies can bake DEI into their DNA?

Suling: I think we're trying the best that we can with forming a committee and having these podcasts and having these DEI calendars that go out to spread the awareness. And to just speak about things out in the open so they don't become so taboo, ripping that band-aid off and just like going for it.
Bryan: And I think we're going for it, Suling. I think we are. I think what I've really loved about this podcast is listening to everyone's perspective, right? It's not just about sex as a single, you know, national origin. It can be about socioeconomic statuses. And also internally, you've talked about say your role in the firm and also ageism, it's all about making everyone feel inclusive. And this is what we're doing here at MGAC is really creating that safe space for everyone. They are trying and we're collaborating amongst each other and providing a space to share, as you said, cultural dates with the calendar and also this platform to speak about our experiences.

Suling: And I think that we're figuring it out as we go too because there's no right or wrong way to approach this. So we're just kind of feeling it out and open to more ideas and thoughts on how we can be better. So I like that you're asking this question of everybody that you're interviewing, because there may be, really, new ideas that we can be bringing to the table.

Bryan: Because I always think about this question, like how do you bake it into a company's firm? And I'm gonna be kind of honest here. I hope that this podcast doesn't fall on deaf ears with leadership. My genuine hope is that 5 or 10 years from now, really, that there will be more minorities in leadership positions. We deserve it because of our performance, but also because of our perspectives. And I hope this is gonna leave a lasting impact on the AEC industry as a whole. And that's my genuine hope. And I say that in all sincerity.

Suling: Oh, yeah. I agree.

Bryan: Can you speak to increasing diversity and representation while avoiding tokenization? You know, you talked about how you were hired with your friend and you didn't feel tokenized.

Suling: Yeah. I almost wish that we can change up the recruiting system where it's kind of like the voice where it's you don't know their name, you can't look them up and see their photo on LinkedIn. It's just purely about their experience, their education. And if that impresses you, then, you know, look into them more. But it shouldn't start with the name because that's where I feel like...that's what can ruin things if people are discriminating against things. You can't see them, you don't know their names. I mean, my name too, like. My name is very Asian. Sometimes I get mistaken for a man. And then I wonder if they think that I'm gonna need sponsorship because of my name. And so, they automatically dismiss me, you know?

Bryan: That is such an interesting point, Suling. Like I don' know, my name is Bryan, but, you know, I've actually never thought of that before. That's an interesting point that you bring up because how I hope that people don't think that way, but that's the truth of the matter of the fact is that that's probably what has happened.

Suling: Even subconsciously, right? They may not be aware of it and that's playing into their decision-making. So it really should just be about your achievements and your experience.

Bryan: Absolutely. And I agree with you.

Suling: And I think that if they were to just focus on that, then you would see a lot more diversity and then the more diverse the firm is as a whole, the more diverse the leadership should become within that if it's all relative, I would think.

Bryan: Yep. She's got a point. She's got a point. We have co-workers who probably have never experienced discrimination or any negative treatment. You know, what advice would you give them to be an ally?

Suling: I would say, keep your eyes open and don't live in your own world. Try to really understand their side of things and not make excuses for others and speak up for them when you can and if you can. However you can. Also reaching out to these people that you see are experiencing this, reach out to them and tell them that you see this and ask them how you can help, show that you care so they don't feel alone. And so that they feel like they have the support they need to keep that confidence going and to not lose the faith.

Bryan: I think, you know, you bring up a really good point. I think some people don't realize that others may feel so isolated, that in a workplace you can make someone feel isolated and not, in turn, creates a terrible working environment for them. And on at the end of the day, everyone wants to be heard, right? Everyone wants to be listened to know that they matter. You're right. Everyone should lend a helping hand and also understand that it's really about engaging with the other person and their experiences. This sounds really cliche, but if you don't know the person, you know, put yourself in their shoes or ask, you know, not even you don't have to just ask and create the communication create the dialogue.

Suling: Yeah. Even if you have an inkling that something might be happening, just ask them like, "Hey, is what I think is happening, is that what you're experiencing or...?"

Bryan: And I think that we're really touching upon all these aspects on this podcast. And with that Suling, it's been such a pleasure talking to you today. I'm really happy that you came on and shared your experiences with us. We talked about ageism. We talked about, you know, your professional surfaces and that's something that we really haven't discussed before, maybe potentially briefly, but I think that you're bringing up these topics that are worth discussing and worth having people really dig into. So I appreciate your candidness. And also, I think you are very eloquent in everything you said.

Suling: Thank you. I'm glad to have been a part of this and I'm glad I can do my part however I can.

Bryan: And I appreciate it so much. And with that, thank you for listening to this episode of "MGAC Inner Voices." We really appreciate you guys listening, and I hope that you guys come back next month for our next episode. Bye, everyone.

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