Breaking barriers


To get the recognition they deserve in the workplace, women must stand up and get themselves noticed. 

TO GET where she wants to be, a woman must take credit for her work. She has to move from the background, up to the front line. 

It’s time women bragged about their achievements, said Anusoorya Themudu, human resources director (corporate) of General Electric (GE) Malaysia. 

Anusoorya Themudu: ‘Trustyourself and your instincts.’

“Well, substitute bragging with branding,” she added. Instantly, 

that struck a chord with the 

2,000-odd participants at The Women’s Summit, held in Kuala Lumpur on Aug 2. 

“In today’s competitive world, women are losing high visibility, and losing out on assignments and referrals.”  

The reason, Anusoorya noted, is partly cultural. “We’re somewhat introverts ... that’s how we’ve been brought up.” 

In contrast, “men are like walking billboards, some with loudspeakers. They promote themselves aggressively. Some elbow their way in and brag about their achievements.” 

The theme of the summit, organised by the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, was Putting Women at the Heart of Development, and Anusoorya was sharing her personal experience of climbing the corporate ladder.  

Getting to the heart of why women fight shy of thumping their chests, she summed it up in one word – guilt. 

“Judgment, worry and feeling guilty – all these come with choices. At work, we’re always wondering who’s taking care of the kids and the spouse. We beat ourselves up when we want to be perfectionists.” 

Nafisah Radin: Had to makesacrifices for work.

She believes that women should stand up, voice their views and ask for what they want. As a first step, they should negotiate what they can or cannot do. “Trust yourself and your instincts. Get help and outsource everything that you can afford. Get help from your partner and share the load.” 

All sound advice from someone who grew up in a rubber estate in Kepong, Kuala Lumpur, where “I didn’t see role models of powerful women around me. 

“My mother cooked and washed for the five of us and supported an extended family of five – my father’s siblings. She did tailoring in the evenings and I never saw her rest.” Despite all that input, “she, my grandmother and my aunts were never consulted in (family) decisions.”  

For Anusoorya, life centred round home, school and the estate as “I didn’t know what was out there”. But she had dreams and she knew that she had to do well in her studies to achieve them. Suffice to say, she did. 

“I was the first person in the family to get a scholarship, and to marry outside the ethnic group. As the first, I had to go through pain and face challenges,” said the mother of two young boys. 

One of these was doubts, often voiced by women, about her ability to do the work or withstand the pressure. Some even commented that she wouldn’t be able to “handle the wild guys out there”. 

Anusoorya proved them wrong. This Biochemistry graduate from Universiti Putra Malaysia worked with Andersen Consulting, then Exact Software, for which she set up sales and service offices in Asia. In 2002, she was headhunted to head the HR and training department of Eli Lilly. She joined GE early last year. 

Nafisah Radin, who shared the stage with Anusoorya at the summit, exemplifies what can happen when women choose to veer from the well-trodden path and do something different. 

Looking back on the road she has travelled, the principal of NR Architect and NR Interior Design had this advice for women: “Dare to follow your dreams. Take risks – you just have to go for it.” 

Penang-born Nafisah had humble beginnings too. Her father, a trader, was often away from home, leaving her mother to raise the children. To supplement the family’s income, the latter sold batik sarongs. 

As a teenager, Nafisah aspired to be either a fashion designer or flight stewardess because she loved beautiful things and wanted to travel. But fate decided otherwise. 

She obtained a government scholarship to study architecture at the University of Nottingham in Britain, after which she worked for seven years with the Public Works Department. Then she joined a private architectural firm. After a year there, “I kept hearing this voice that said, ‘Why aren’t you taking the plunge?’” 

Spurred by that voice, she knocked on her boss’ door, told him she wanted to quit, and offered to be a partner in the company. 

Till today, Nafisah hasn’t quite figured out how she found the guts to do what she did. But her boss wasn’t taken aback. Instead, he offered her the chance to expand the company in Penang. It was a major decision that involved leaving the family behind in KL. But, with the blessings of her husband and family, she took up the challenge. 

For the next seven years, she commuted between the two cities, sometimes with her baby in a basket. Then, tired of commuting, she opted out of the partnership in Veritas Architects. 

However, there was no break for Nafisah. In 2000, two months pregnant with her fourth child, she set up NR Architect. Seven months later, she almost died during the complicated delivery of her baby girl. After pulling through, she set about looking for land during her pantang period, and designed her dream home. 

Named the 2006 Ernst & Young Woman Entrepreneur of the Year, Nafisah’s current focus is low-energy and sustainable housing projects. 

Ever the mother, having her own business means that she can devote more time to her youngest child. “To make up for not seeing much of my three older kids, I really pamper her.” 

She is thankful that her three older ones, who are seven, 11 and 17, understand why she had to do what she did. Prior to the summit, she asked them how they 

felt about her not being there for them when they were growing up. 

“They told me, ‘We know all the hard work was for us. You did it because you love us. You inspire us.’” And, to cap it all for this architect who dared, her daughter wants to follow in her footsteps. 

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