SUCCESSFUL women have one thing in common – they never use their gender as an excuse and they all share a winning mindset.
Describing herself as gender agnostic, IBM Malaysia managing director Chong Chye Neo has never paid attention to gender bias because she was brought up believing that boys and girls should be given equal opportunities to excel. Growing up with two brothers and three sisters, she never felt different from the boys, thanks to her father.
“To him, boys and girls are equally talented. We could do whatever we wanted so long as we excelled in our choices. That’s why I believe that the right mindset must start at home.”
In Form Six, she was the chairperson of the Board of Monitors, which was mainly made up of boys. She never felt discriminated against, not even at the start of her career.
Recalling how the managing director of a company once asked her, “Why should I hire you when there are nine others vying for this job?” The rest were men and she was aiming for the position of hardware engineer, where heavy machines are part and parcel of the job.
Without skipping a beat, she replied: “If you hire me, I’ll give you the best that I can give and my commitment will be second to none.” She got the job.
Despite having been the only woman in a room full of men, she has never felt out of place as she never thinks of herself as being different. And if you show that you have zero tolerance for lewd, suggestive comments, very few men would dare to test you, she insists.
Like Chong, Maybank Group Chief Human Capital Officer Nora Abd Manaf thinks it is all in the head.
The challenges she faces are the kinds that anyone in leadership roles – regardless of gender, background, or aspirations – would encounter.
“Since the beginning, my mindset has always been to never let my gender stop me from doing the right thing or being part of any conversation that I can contribute to. But yes, societal norms on gender still lurk in every corner.”
Nora sighs at the World Economic Forum’s prediction that it will take another 79 years for gender equality to be a reality.
“Can you imagine, in a time where technology and globalisation are so pervasive, our mindset is still so backward?” she asks, sounding exasperated.
“Unfortunately, the glass ceiling is still there. But what’s more crucial is for us to ask: What are the solutions to hasten the glacial progress? What kind of critical decisions can we make today, as an individual, an organisation and a society, to create a promising future for our daughters and granddaughters to thrive in?”
She says many parties must work together, sharing the same mindset and initiating right, timely actions.
Women, Chong feels, should not have a perceived bias. “If your company is biased, then leave,” she shrugs. “You have a choice, unlike 30 years ago. It was more of the Old Boys Club then but nowadays, there’s much less male bantering.
“The term “glass ceiling” first appeared in the Wall Street Journal three decades ago. Things are different today. Larger organisations know that they need diversity to succeed.
“There are opportunities for women in almost every job. The challenges have more to do with how we feel inside. If you think it’s challenging for women, then it will be.”
Chong, who was recently named TalentCorp’s Life@Work Awards 2016 CEO Champion, is IBM’s first female managing director. She is largely credited with the company’s Women in Network Group (WINGS) that focuses on women’s interests and issues they face at the workplace. The initiative resulted in more women in IBM’s management and senior leadership roles.
Chong laments how women tend to turn their backs on opportunities as they think they are not capable or would not be able to juggle additional, heavier responsibilities.
“When I talk to women about bigger jobs, they are almost always uncertain. They create barriers for themselves, worrying about whether they’ll have to be away from the family more. They think the opportunity will come with a big sacrifice.”
Women tend to overthink everything, she feels. Too many “what ifs”. With men, it is an immediate “Yes, when do I start?”
The mother of two knows what she is talking about. Like most working mothers, Chong has had to make tough choices, but having strong family support and an understanding husband helped.
“My mother-in-law lived with us, so I felt comfortable leaving my kids home. And my husband was supportive. Although he was doing better than me, he gave up his corporate job to start a business so that one of us would be more available for the kids. That way, I could focus on work.”
While Chong admits to being luckier than most when it comes to her family, she too opted to take two and a half years off from work to spend time with the kids. When she returned to IBM, she was moved up the corporate ladder.
“Even when you take a leave of absence, always keep abreast with what’s going on in the industry, your company and colleagues. And keep your mind alert. That’s what I did.
“I love to cook and for a few months after I left the workforce, that’s all I did. My mind started to become less sharp, so I helped my husband with a leadership book he was working on and I learnt so much. It was like going back to school again and the lessons I learnt were very useful for when I went back to work,” she says.
Talent Corporation Malaysia’s (TalentCorp) chief executive officer Shareen Shariza Datuk Abdul Ghani continued to work as a freelancer after leaving the corporate world 18 years ago. She had just given birth and while she wanted to spend time with her son, she made it a point to keep in touch with her peers and former bosses. She maintained a network which proved helpful when she was ready to get back into the game.
A lot of companies are more flexible when it comes to welcoming returning talents. But, women must not be afraid to ask for what they want, Chong offers.
“If a company wants you for your special talent, there are certain terms that you can put forward.
“For example, ask to start at 10am instead of 8am or, request to work from home one day of the week. In the past, women didn’t dare ask for such terms for fear of being seen as uncommitted.
“But companies and the work environment have changed. Women’s mindsets must change as well. Women still think that if they have a bigger role, they have to slog till 10pm or risk being labelled as an uncommitted staff. It’s not true anymore. Stop overthinking.”
While many of those who helped Nora progress in her career were men, she says statistics show that the general environment is not encouraging for women talent.
“We’ve all heard and witnessed incidents of how women leave companies because they feel undervalued due to their gender,” she says matter-of-factly.
But what bothers Nora the most is the “unsettling irony” that such discrimination and bias are not just from the men, but from women themselves.
Moving forward, women have their work cut out for them, she says.
“We have to encourage more of our women to speak up and let their voices be heard. I’ve met many who are successful, yet they struggle to speak up because of the social stigma. They fear being seen as too aggressive or too bossy.
“To create change, we must first be the change that we want to see. Our women must start building their self-confidence and self-respect. If we don’t value and respect ourselves, our thoughts and ideas, how can we expect others to do the same?” she asks.
“Learn to focus more on how to be respected, as opposed to being liked. When you can do this, you’ll pay more attention to the importance of your contribution rather than just pleasing people,” she suggests.
Echoing Nora’s call, Shareen says women must put themselves out there.
“Women think companies will seek them out if they are good, but that’s not the case. Humility is a virtue that women sometimes take too far,” she muses.