A lifetime of breaking the glass ceiling

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 November, 2013, 3:52am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 November, 2013, 3:52am

The unfair treatment of a child maid, or a xiaoyatou, some 80 years ago inspired Linda Tsao Yang to a lifelong pursuit of equal opportunity for women.

The 88-year-old chairwoman of the Asia Corporate Governance Association was playing a hopscotch game in her hometown in Shanghai as a child when she invited a neighbour's child to join in but she shied away. Tsao found out from her mother that the girl was a xiaoyatou, which meant she could not play or risked being punished.

Asked what would happen to the xiaoyatou when she grew up, Tsao's mother said her mistress would marry her to a good labourer at best.

Tsao was upset.

[I was asked] how I would feel working with a group of white, middle-aged men

"I told my mother that was so unfair," said Tsao, whose vivid account of the incident makes it sound like it occurred yesterday. "I felt this is not right and fair. My brother Frank always teased me 'you will be the chairlady-in-waiting at the All-China Women's Federation'."

Tsao never became the head of the mainland's most powerful female organisation but was named the first woman and minority head of California's Savings and Loan Department, the regulator of the state's chartered savings and loan institutions in the 1980s.

This was one of the ways in which she broke through the glass ceiling.

She was also the first non-white female vice-president of the board of administration of the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) - the largest US pension fund - and vice-chairman of the pension fund's investment committee.

Well past her retirement age, Tsao in 1993, at the age of 67, moved to Manila as the US-appointed executive director of the Asian Development Bank. Yet again, she was the first woman to take up this job.

Tsao put equal opportunity for women at the top of her agenda.

She said that when she retired from the bank in 1999, the proportion of female staff had risen to 22 per cent from 8.55 per cent at the beginning of her stint.

The proportion had risen to 34.6 per cent earlier this year.

"In my work, I look for opportunities for women to shine," Tsao said. "One year, I led a board-level mission to study capital markets around the world. I deliberately chose a young woman professional whose supervisor did not value her."

Until 2010, Tsao spent six years at the state-backed Bank of China (Hong Kong) as an independent non-executive director, taking charge of the bank's strategic planning.

During her career, Tsao has from time to time been challenged by the harsh reality of gender inequality. A case in point was the interview for her CalPERS job.

"A question from the interviewer was how I would feel working with a group of white, middle-aged men?" she recalled. "I was not prepared for that question."

But she got the job.

In 1946, when Tsao was 20, she left behind her parents and four siblings and travelled alone from Shanghai to New York.

By then she had already finished a bachelor's degree in economics from St John's University in Shanghai, one of the mainland's oldest and most respected universities.

Her life-changing voyage stemmed from the encouragement by her history professor, who was educated in the US. With blessings from her parents, Tsao embarked on a transport plane island-hopping the Pacific from Manila to Guam, Midway, Honolulu and San Francisco, then took a train to New York.

At that tender age, she was too young to worry about anything.

"I was more focused on what was to come than worried during the journey," she said.

Well before the motto "life is a box of chocolates" in the Forrest Gump film, Tsao's mother - her most influential mentor - taught her that life was as sweet as candy.

"On the morning I was to leave [for the US], mother stuffed a handful of candy in my pocket. She barely held back her tears and said to me 'may your life's journey be sweet'. How I remember that moment!"

Tsao was married to Yang An Tzu, a professor who helped found the mechanical engineering department at the University of California in the 1960s. He died in 2003. Tsao gave birth to two sons after settling down in Davis, a university town in California, in the 1960s.

She does not believe women have to stay at home taking care of children and give up their career development.

"For me, when my children were young, I'd take time out, but I would make sure I had one foot in my field," she said.

Although a bad car accident six years ago left her walking with the aid of a cane, Tsao still enjoys what she has always done - contributing to the community.

"My sons call me UPS, which means pick up and delivery [as I fly around so often]," she said during her brief stay in Hong Kong before heading off for a family reunion in Singapore later this week. "I will keep working as long as my physical and mental capacity allows me."