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I was the first person in the meeting room and as it gradually filled with the 20-odd participants, I noticed that I was once again the only woman. The meeting chairman walked around the table greeting everyone with a handshake but walked right past me without any acknowledgement.
As a network operations engineer in a large telecommunications company in my home country of Malaysia, I had experienced many such instances.
While troubleshooting equipment in cramped server or Subscriber Distribution Frame (SDF) rooms, the male field technicians would ask if I preferred to wait outside. When doing site visits or field work, the men would freely decide to climb ladders or enter manholes while the handful of women were advised that it was not suitable. These situations were commonplace yet they were subtle enough to be easily disregarded.
Gender discrimination wasn’t really intentional, most of it was cultural and, thus, even socially accepted.
Finding the right balance
I chose not to concede to these social norms that I did not believe in. When I was overlooked at a meeting, I would stand up when speaking, commanding the attention I deserved with my body language. When I was asked not to “crowd” a cramped up server room, I would sit underneath or inside empty racks or shelves, so that my colleagues did not have to worry about invading my personal space.
When I wanted to learn how to jumper cables in the exchange, I would change from my heels into my work shoes (I love high heels and unapologetically wear them everywhere!) and climb the ladder myself. I made a conscious effort to accommodate the “expected behaviours” of my male colleagues without compromising on my own intents and desires. Reflecting upon my experiences years later, I realized that that was perhaps the biggest lesson I learnt. As my career progressed to more challenging leadership and change management roles, I faced more engagements where I needed to overcome stereotypical expectations. There were three things that helped me the most.
Three key lessons
1. Work around the differences
Firstly, I learnt to work along‑ side or around the differences, instead of battling them head-on. Change is difficult, especially when related to ingrained beliefs or unconscious biases. I once had to convince a pilot project team of experienced field technicians, most of whom were many years my senior, to try a different way of working. I realized that despite the accuracy and certainty of my method, hearing it from a young, minority woman — someone so relatively dissimilar on so many levels — was almost unnatural for them.
Instead of pushing my agenda squarely on them myself, I decided to work with a respected peer of theirs, who championed my ideas and jointly promoted them with me. As people discovered that I actually knew all the technical procedures, from Main Distribution Frame (MDF) jumpering to Digital Subscriber Line Access Multiplexer (DSLAM) configuration, they were able to look past their clichéd expectations of me and collaborate professionally.
2. Show results
That led to my second key lesson: show results and let the work speak for itself. Instead of simultaneously striving to have my voice heard, my new ideas implemented and my job responsibilities expanded, I learnt the proverbial art of picking my battles. When others were fighting for spots to present to the CEO, I fought to lead a project which eventually earned me the opportunity to present to the entire C-suite.
Being someone for whom patience was not quite a virtue, this was not easy. I had many moments where I resented some of my colleagues who appeared to believe that some things were rightfully theirs while I endeavoured to prove myself. Nevertheless, if you’re good at what you do and enjoy hard work, the long-term gains far outweigh the momentary struggles.
3. Look for supportive mentors
Lastly and perhaps most importantly, have a mentor who supports and advocates for you. I am fortunate to have had a couple of great coaches and an amazing mentor throughout most of my professional career. I was introduced to one of the C-level executives by a consultant with whom I was working. As a good coach himself, this consultant was keen to support the professional growth of the clients he worked with. The executive was open to giving junior-level, hitherto unrecognized employees opportunities to be part of large-scale initiatives he was implementing. He was and still is a great believer in my abilities and never entertained the idea that being female had any bearing on what I could and could not do. He is always aware of the difficulties I face being in predominantly male environments but he also always encourages me to think through my approaches and then execute them with conviction.
My career has since progressed across different roles, job functions, organizations and even geographic locations, and these lessons have remained relevant, and applicable. While I currently do not have a woman as a personal mentor, I have tried to pay it forward by being one myself. And my greatest reward yet was when my very talented mentee told me: “You have been a good mentor and I have much to learn from you.”
By Karmini Murthy, IT Transformation Officer, European Stability Mechanism.
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