Seattle Culture

Trailblazing Women: Grace Yoo

Executive director, Washington State Women's Commission

By Grace Yoo May 29, 2024

A professional black and white portrait of an asian woman smiling, standing in an office environment, dressed in a blazer and white top.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

On my dating profile I aspirationally describe myself as “Lara Croft meets Joanna Gaines.” (Don’t feel bad if you had to Google either of those names; most people who know one usually don’t know the other. The video gaming and HGTV worlds rarely collide.) From first dates to panel discussions, I often get asked why I quit my job as a U.S. State Department diplomat and moved to Seattle. It was for family: to be closer to my parents, and to hopefully start one of my own without the pressures of endless international moves.

Twelve years ago, another woman with a foreign policy career more storied than mine — Anne-Marie Slaughter — famously penned an essay, “Why Women Sti ll Can’t Have It All,” upon leaving one of the top jobs at the State Department. A dozen years have passed since I read that as a bright-eyed 22-year-old, yet the World Economic Forum still forecasts that it will take 169 years to achieve economic parity between men and women. In Washington, we rank in the bottom 10 in the nation for gender pay equity.

Why? Maybe it’s not about any one person having it all. Maybe it’s about creating a “Land of Ands:” a workplace, community, and city that fully accept and account for the reality that women must navigate multiple identities. Where it’s not seen as greedy or unrealistic to want to be adventure-seeking like Lara Croft, and still want to be a mom of many who bakes bomb cookies like Joanna Gaines.

In Washington, D.C., and overseas, I often faced situations where “either/or” thinking clouded inclusivity and common sense. Every day I navigated a world where you could either be a woman in her early 20s or a diplomat confirmed by the Senate and appointed by the president. It was just easier to label me an intern, secretary, or the young wife of an older, white male diplomat.

Let’s face it: Black and white, either/or thinking requires less brain power. What if women of color, women of various ages and socioeconomic backgrounds, leading in spaces like national security and state government, don’t have to be so rare or unconventional, but expected? What could that unlock?

When I joined Gov. Jay Inslee’s Cabinet one year ago last May, my boss Kelly Wicker (a trailblazing Asian American woman herself) empowered me with the trust, flexibility, and freedom to lead my agency. She hired me for my vision, then gave me space and support to give it a go, although I was relatively new to returning to Washington state and had far fewer years of experience under my belt than my predecessors.

The result? The Washington State Women’s Commission successfully advocated the state Legislature to increase our staffing to reflect its mandate of representing 3.8 million women, supported bills to expand the Equal Pay Act and protect women construction workers, and launched a statewide campaign to bring more women and girls into higher-wage careers. We brainstormed local solutions for child care and pay equity by aligning with the White House’s National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality, and gleaning global best practices from consuls general in the Seattle area.

It may be a little less physically demanding than raiding tombs, but my next adventure is to bring together government, business, labor, and academia to drive down the gender wage gap in our state. In Seattle, tech companies can lead the way by making sure their high wages and flexible work benefit a more diverse workforce. Who knows? Maybe South Lake Union can do for Seattle what government bureaucracies with classified, in-office work could not for Anne-Marie Slaughter and me.

I say it’s about time.

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