Published on in Responsible Business

International Women’s Day (IWD) is a moment to celebrate those that have challenged inequalities and shown the value in a gender balance brings. It’s also a time of reflection, to understand where we need to continue to focus our efforts in order to bring about further change.

This progress is so important because creating a fair society is the right thing to do and also fosters creativity, innovative thinking and yields all-round better results for employees and customers.

In the spirit of this year’s IWD theme, #ChooseToChallenge, we invited five panellists to share what they learned from challenging typically male-dominated industries. In this blog post, we’ll share some of these insights in the hope of inspiring more people to choose to challenge. Follow each of our panellists on LinkedIn below.

Being comfortable with being uncomfortable

If you’ve visited the airport in Abu Dhabi, Dublin, or Heathrow, you’ve most likely entered buildings engineered and overseen by Dervilla Mitchell, Director at Arup Group. These large and complex projects are her proudest achievements as they involve leading large multi-disciplinary teams often distributed across many offices and countries, and their completion brings satisfyingly tangible results after many years of endeavour. They also serve as evidence that Dervilla was the perfect person for these roles. However, had she never challenged herself or allowed herself to feel uncomfortable or conformed with gender stereotypes, we would not be able to walk through these buildings which served millions of people in a pre Covid world and will again when the pandemic passes.

Being an engineer, Dervilla has frequently found herself in the minority.  At school, she was one-of-two girls who joined an all-boys school to learn maths and physics.  At university, where she studied civil engineering, she was one of just four girls in a class of 200 students, and the situation was no different as Dervilla entered the workplace. Happily today the situation is changing with many more women in engineering.

In order for Dervilla to take on major projects and to be leading the UKIMEA Region of Arup she has had to ignore the lack of representation that might have prevented her from succeeding, and instead focused on being a champion for other women in engineering and provided the representation she never saw in her youth.

Becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable, is certainly something that also resonates with Paul Patterson, CEO and Head of Northern and Western Europe at Fujitsu and a firm ally of the Women’s Business Network. When Paul took on the role, he felt so much responsibility for others that one of his key responsibilities was ensuring the workplace is a fair and equal environment for everyone.

To do this as an ally, Paul says you have to accept that there’s always room to do better and to challenge what you think you know by surrounding yourself with people with different experiences.

When Vanessa Smith graduated from the University of Virginia in the late 90s, high-tech sales just wasn’t something women got into, but her interest was piqued. Like Dervilla, she faced a workplace that didn’t have anyone that looked like her.

But now, as she steps into a new role as SVP of Strategic Go-to-Market at ServiceNow, she recognises just how vital having the right support networks, allies, and mentors is in overcoming the barriers put up by lack of representation in the industry – and pushing herself to achieve more.

Representation matters, she says, and this is what she believes it will take to encourage an increase in front-line sales roles. This is one of the next steps in progressing diversity in the workplace, she says: people in the field need to sponsor and mentor junior talent who can’t see themselves in leadership or sales roles – an action she hopes to do herself as a way of giving back.

Sheena Sood, Senior Partner at Beale and Co, similarly finds power in surrounding herself with a support network, while working as a dispute resolution lawyer in construction and insurance. Her parents emigrated from India in the 1960s and her father passed his Bar exams but was unable to secure pupillage. He was hesitant for Sheena to follow in his path as he felt that being Asian and a woman, she would face additional hurdles.

Initially, Sheena was decided against a career in law and chose a more vocational course, but she soon changed her mind. Yet, hesitant to ask to change course, she asked her sister to call the university and organise the transfer, which they did. Finding a job was the next potential obstacle; she applied to 100 law firms and got only two interviews.

Had Sheena been discouraged by the obstacles she faced, she may never have been in the position to open two offices abroad, plan strategy for the firm and win it business. A major enabler of her overcoming these difficulties, like Vanessa, has been having that support network, which includes her colleagues, but also extends to her family and her children – who she hopes to also inspire to choose to challenge.

Define your own success

Masako Takagi, Senior Director at Citrix, agrees challenges present an opportunity to learn and grow.

Masako has always been in quota carrying sales position in the male-dominated sales organizations. So, when it came to having children alongside working, it was difficult to know how to set the right balance, due to a lack of female working parent role models around her.

We often talk about context switching reduces productivity in our modern day life.  As a single mother, Masako was constantly task-switching between managing kids (i.e. potty-training) and managing global sales teams, and tired being great at both, caused real mental strain. The image of women who can have everything all at once without so much as a hair falling out of place, made Masako doubt herself.

She took a step back to challenge her assertions and consider what she wanted to achieve – not how she could accomplish the media’s idea of success. She realized it’s more about work life integration than work life balance.  For her, it was about being able to say she never checked out for her children or work. By taking the time to consider what she wanted in life she was able to find a supportive employer and a role, that makes and feels the happiest she’s ever been. Her words of advice: stop comparing yourself to the people in Forbes magazine, define your own success.

While each of our panellist have similarities in their experiences they have each made their own way through challenges and barriers with the support of their networks, mentors and families. While no one will have the exact same experiences as you, there will be people standing beside you to support you overcome them.

If you’d like to watch the panel session the ‘Are you ready to Challenge, Change, and Inspire?‘ webinar is now live on YouTube. You can also our read more inspiring stories about ‘What can be achieved when we #ChooseToChallenge’ with Dame Stephanie Shirley.

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