Q&A Series – Women’s History Month: Debra Wong Yang

In 1987, the United States Congress passed a proclamation declaring the month of March to be Women’s History Month. To celebrate this year, the staff at Committee of 100 sat down virtually with a few of our amazing female Committee of 100 Members and Next Generation Leaders for a blog series called Chinese American Women Shaping the World: A Special Q&A Series. In these interviews, Committee of 100 Members or Next Generation Leaders will talk about their career paths, the challenges – and opportunities – in being a successful Chinese American woman in today’s society, as well as their hopes for the next generation of Chinese American women.

Committee of 100 recently spoke with Debra Wong Yang, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher’s Los Angeles office. Debra is Co-Chair of the firm’s Crisis Management Practice Group and the White Collar Defense and Investigations Practice Group. Debra previously served as the United States Attorney for the Central District of California, appointed in May 2002 by President George W. Bush, who made her the first Asian-American woman to serve as a United States Attorney. Debra has been a Member of Committee of 100 since 2007 and currently serves as the organization’s Vice Chair.

Committee of 100: What is one of your achievements that you are most proud of, which helped dictate the course of your career?

Debra: The achievement I am most proud of was serving as the first Asian American woman appointed as a United States Attorney.  I oversaw the Central District of California, which is comprised of 5 counties and is more populated than some states.  It is the largest district outside of Washington DC, and has the most varied types of crimes and challenges.  I also took my office after the attacks of 9/11 and the enforcement world was in the midst of responding to unprecedented needs that it had never experienced before.  It required me to not just focus on prosecuting crimes and defending civil actions, but also finding and identifying ways to prevent future attacks.  Knowing that the well-being of all the constituents rode on our work was the most important and real pressure I’ve felt professionally.

Committee of 100: What is a major lesson you learned from a failure or setback in your career, which also helped dictate the course of your career?

Debra: There was an incident once, where I was with a group of lawyers at a press conference.  I was not one of the featured speakers, nor someone of particular import.  At the end of the remarks, one of the reporters called for me to come to the microphone.  The question they posed to me started with “as a long-time defender of civil rights, do you believe that civil rights are being violated by this policy”?  It was such a deep question, that resonated with me because I have been a defender of civil rights and there were issues and questions that had not been resolved about the fairness of the policy. I could not answer with a simple answer and fumbled at the microphone in front of everyone.  It taught me that anytime I am in front of the press, I have to be 1000% prepared even though I may not be expected to speak.  And it also made me focus on media relations and trying to become more comfortable with the press and how information and statements could be shared.  I believe this was part of the foundation for me focusing on crisis management, where a huge part of the work deals with reputation management.

Committee of 100: What topic/s do you feel are not being talked about enough when it comes to the advancement of women as leaders?

Debra: Compensation.  And I don’t mean compensation in a crass, material kind of way. Compensation is another indicator of success. In some places, compensation means true power.  I have watched happily over the years as women have advanced and taken on positions of power, increased their presence at all levels of corporate America and in government.  But women are still compensated at vastly reduced rates compared with men.  That’s not equality.

Committee of 100: What qualities do you see in the next generation of Chinese American women that brings you hope and joy for the future?

Debra: These young women are so highly educated, trained, and skilled that when you compare them to yourself at that age, you cannot help but marvel at all they have accomplished. They are well-read, well-versed and truly thoughtful.  They are sensitive to the world and to the universe.  But the demands on their generation are great. Long hours at work. Constant keeping up with communication demands. Staying on top of the knowledge that comes from so many more sources than when I was younger. So I find that they don’t have enough time for themselves.  Quiet time.  Time to be creative, time to be philosophical, time for them to reflect, time for them to recharge.  I want them to feel the gift of “time” and to understand that this “time” is their own and to stake a claim in it so they can have that balance. With that, I think they can do anything.

Committee of 100: If you could go back in time and give advice to your 20-year-old self, what would you say to the younger version of you?

Debra: Don’t worry and feel insecure.  Just because you are a girl who grew up in Chinatown, surrounded by people who can’t speak English, who immigrated to this country with little, and who did not have a chance at education, you learned so much from them. You learned how to take care of others who cannot take care of themselves. And being able to give to them is the greatest gift you can give yourself. You will be a bridge from one community to another. You learned that you have a “community” behind you and that no matter where you go, they will still be here. So move forward not focused on what you don’t know, but focused on what you do know.

Committee of 100: Who is your inspiration and why?

Debra: My inspiration is my three daughters.  I would do anything for them. And I want the world to be better for them and because of them. So the professional work that I do, the charitable work that I do, is all so that the world they will inherit will be more evolved and more fair.

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