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UW-Eau Claire Student Researches
Hmong Women Leaders
MAILED: May 17, 2002
EAU CLAIRE — Poised at the brink of her college graduation, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire organizational communication major Maiknue Moua takes pride in her Hmong heritage and speaks passionately about her future as a Hmong woman leader.
It wasn't always like that, and Moua credits her experiences at UW-Eau Claire for helping her find her Hmong identity.
"When I first came here, I didn't really know who I was," said Moua, whose family members came to the United States as refugees from Laos in April 1979 and eventually settled in the Green Bay area. "I was the only minority at my high school. I was embarrassed about my Hmong language and culture."
Feeling lost as a new freshman at UW-Eau Claire, Moua connected with the American Ethnic Coordinating Office staff and joined the Hmong Student Association, where she found mentors and made friends within the campus Hmong community. In the classroom her inquisitive mind paved the way for numerous scholarships and awards, including an undergraduate research fellowship, which provided the means to pursue her growing curiosity about the rewards and obstacles faced by Hmong women who are leaders of organizations.
"I've identified who I am as a result of my research," said Moua, who this year was named UW-Eau Claire's Woman of Color, the only undergraduate in the UW System to achieve this honor. "It has made me very proud to be Hmong and helped me better understand our ceremonies, our history, our ancestors and our marriage customs."
The research project started with a class assignment in "Administrative Communication," taught by her adviser, Sally Webb. The assignment required that Moua interview an organizational leader about his or her job. She chose a Hmong woman, Bo Thao, then director of a Minnesota state agency and currently executive director of Hmong National Development Inc. in Washington, D.C.
In the interview Thao talked about the joy in giving back to her community but also about the many challenges she had in crisscrossing cultural borders between her work and her home.
"I wanted to find out more about the experiences of other Hmong women who have succeeded in careers," Moua said.
Last summer she received a McNair Fellowship to pursue this research, and Susan Hafen agreed to be her faculty mentor on the project.
"Maiknue and I together decided upon research questions, designed an interview guide, did research on Hmong history and culture as well as on identity and role formation, and structured the paper format," said Hafen, associate professor of communication and journalism.
Moua did extensive interviews with five Hmong women leaders in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Washington, D.C., and transcribed the interviews. She wanted to find out how they are balancing their roles as traditional Hmong women and as organizational leaders.
After analyzing the transcriptions, she and Hafen wrote the paper, which begins with a review of Hmong history and culture, summarizes the methodology and backgrounds of the narrators, and then presents the seven themes that arose from their research questions.
It examines leadership roles in the Hmong community, the influence of education, the expectations of women in marriage and family life, the effect of Americanization on parental control, resistance within the Hmong community, refugee/racial impact on identity, and the recognitions and rewards (or lack thereof) for female leadership.
The five women talked about barriers they had to overcome with the gender roles ascribed to them and pressure from family, men and/or other women. In particular the three women who are single have struggled with the stigma of being perceived as having put their education above the family. As one of the interviewees said, people judge her by whether she can cook or clean, not whether she can have a conversation with the president.
"The most surprising thing we found was a lack of recognition from within the Hmong community for these women's accomplishments," said Moua, who presented the research with Hafen at the Western States Communication Association convention in Long Beach in early March. "I didn't anticipate that the lack of recognition by both men and women, would be so high."
Hafen said the project gave her "valuable insight into how 'person' identities - one's drive, perseverance and values - can overcome 'role' and 'group' identities when a Hmong woman goes against gendered norms to become a spokesperson for both Hmong women and men to the outside world."
Moua said the project provided her with role models and the inspiration to become a Hmong woman leader. She said most Hmong community members define their leaders as the head of a family or a clan. Since men always hold these positions, the community doesn't
value the work of professional women in careers. The majority of the community still believes that a woman's most important role is to have children and contribute to the family.
"Learning about their experiences taught me what I might encounter someday due to gender roles, family and male-female relationships," Moua said. "I know I'll be criticized in the future because I have come to believe that women can be independent and contribute to our society outside the home.
"We have different definitions of leadership," she said. "For me it's getting an education and a professional career and working to support my people."
In the fall Moua plans to attend graduate school in communication. She may pursue a doctorate and a career in higher education, but she also knows she wants to make a difference in the Hmong and greater Asian communities.
"It's important for my generation to get involved in educating the Hmong community about these issues," she said. "As women we've come a long way. We were never asked to bridge the generations, but now we are by going out and working to help support our families and our culture."
UW-Eau Claire News Bureau
Updated: May 17, 2002