First woman country chair in Shell Malaysia on the challenges faced by women in leadership


Photos By SAMUEL ONG

When Siti started her journey in 1994 as an operations engineer with Shell, she never realised that she would one day be running one of the world's largest energy companies.

Siti Hurrairah Sulaiman, the first woman to hold the position of country chair in Shell Malaysia, encourages women not to look down on themselves even though social norms and expectations often limit their opportunities.

“Societal expectations puts a great deal of pressure on Asian women, making them believe they need to work twice as hard just to get half the recognition,” says the 51-year-old.

According to Siti, this perception may lead women to have an “imposter syndrome”, doubting their own intellect, skills or accomplishments.

“We need to get through this self-doubt,” says the Merdeka Award Trust board trustee at the recent Merdeka Award Talk Series for 2024 titled “Women in leadership: Too hot to handle?”.

“Don’t compare yourself with others.” says Siti. “We’re all leaders in our own respective industries and all of us have our own perspectives to share, so, never look down on yourself,” she adds.

Siti believes that a good support system is necessary to circumvent this self-doubt.

“Surrounding yourself with people who have that positive mindset is super important to overcome the self doubt, because there is so much toxicity in the world out there,” she says.

"I surround myself with people who are positive and I’ve a lot of friends who are very positive. Within this kind of network, we try to reframe problem statements into opportunity statements because we need to focus on our strengths rather than dwelling on past failures – just learn from them and move on," she adds.

Making her parents proud

Siti Hurrairah is the first woman to hold the position of country chair in Shell Malaysia. Photo: Merdeka Award TrustSiti Hurrairah is the first woman to hold the position of country chair in Shell Malaysia. Photo: Merdeka Award TrustWhen Siti started her journey in 1994 as an operations engineer, she never realised that she would one day be running one of the world’s largest energy companies.

“What I really wanted then was to make my parents proud,” she shares.

Since then, Siti has climbed up the ranks and taken on various leadership roles in project management, strategy, commercial services, and others. And, in 2023, she made history, becoming the first woman to hold the position of country chair. She has built a successful career in a traditionally male-dominated industry, shattering traditional gender stereotypes and paving the way for others to follow.

“My parents worked hard to raise all four of us siblings. My mum was a housewife, and my dad, a civil servant. I was carefree when I was young and probably didn’t see beyond two years,” she recalls.

But all that changed when she received a scholarship to do engineering.

“I thought this was my opportunity to do something different, and make my parents proud,” she says.

“I studied under the scholarship for several years and subsequently joined the company as an employee. At that time, I never imagined I would one day be the country chair or someone senior,” she adds.

Support is necessary

Siti speaking at the first Merdeka Award Talk in 2024, titled 'Women in Leadership: Too Hot to Handle?'.Siti speaking at the first Merdeka Award Talk in 2024, titled 'Women in Leadership: Too Hot to Handle?'.Siti highlights that one of her observations in many organisations is that “women join the workforce in large numbers, but they also leave the workforce in huge numbers”.

“This tends to happen around middle to senior management level. And this is due to the lack of a support system or empowerment to step up into leadership roles,” she says.

“I noticed in many organisation that there are successful women who just decide to take a career break or they leave the organisation because they want to prioritise their family,” she adds.

Siti cites a global survey conducted by her company which included interviewing some of the women who had left, in order to understand and pinpoint the underlying reasons.

“It was discovered that these women felt unsupported. There wasn’t a proper support system, mentoring, or even succession planning. They didn’t see that pathway for them to progress any further,” she says.

“There was concern over the lack of support, especially for those who had to raise their families, and who had young children. Some of them also felt they had to take a step back in order for their partners to be able to progress,” she adds.

To mitigate this, in Jan 2023, they implemented the Global International Standard Paid Parental Leave that enables non-birthing partners to access paid parental leave of up to eight weeks.

“This means husbands/partners can go on leave for up to eight weeks to support their partner. They don’t have to take it immediately, as long as it’s within a certain time period. This means that their wives can come back to work, and their partners are househusbands during that time,” says Siti.

Family backing

Siti (second from right) with her husband Feisol Sobeng and their three daughters Emylia, Eliza and Erinna, who are the wind beneath her wings. Photo: Merdeka Award TrustSiti (second from right) with her husband Feisol Sobeng and their three daughters Emylia, Eliza and Erinna, who are the wind beneath her wings. Photo: Merdeka Award Trust

On the family front, Siti, who is married to Feisol Sobeng and has three daughters, aged 26, 22 and 18, says that a strong support system is something that is built.

“My husband and I met at the company and got married. We had to make it work for both of us in terms of our careers and initially, I felt obliged to step back because I needed him to progress.

“But, over time, both his and my perspective changed and we evolved,” she says.

Siti fondly refers to her husband as “her COO (chief operations officer) at home, without whom she couldn’t be where she is today”.

She admits that there are many other gender-related challenges, and cites an experience when she interviewed candidates for senior positions, as an example.

“Three years ago, when we had a major reorganisation in the company, I was part of a panel to select candidates for very senior positions. Ninety-eight percent of the candidates were male caucasians. I had two female Malaysians on the list whom I was pushing for.

“It took a lot of hard work to convince the panel members that these two Asian female talents are just as good, equal or even better than other talents on the list,” she says, adding that her key challenge is not that there aren’t suitable women candidates, but that it’s difficult to convince global stakeholders to take them on because of gender prejudices,” she says.

Siti emphasises the need to “disrupt systemic biases” that often cause women to set barriers for themselves.

“The whole support network and platform for female talents to be able to share their experiences, mistakes made, and lessons learnt is super critical.

“We need to set targets to promote gender diversity. This is needed to disrupt systemic biases such as the idea that women need to work twice as hard as men to get into those senior positions which men automatically think they would get,” she says.

“This doesn’t mean an entitlement on the part of the women as women still do need to demonstrate they have knowledge of the industry, leadership capabilities, and can perform,” she concludes.

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