Shareen Shariza Abdul Ghani believes that women can have it all. The chief executive officer of Talent Corporation Malaysia Berhad (TalentCorp) feels that women can achieve anything despite various gender-based restrictions they encounter in society, the workplace or at home.
“Often we allow our cultural limitations, conditioning, our lack of confidence or insecurities to get the better of us. But to get ahead, we must confront and deal with these as well as our self-doubt. Women have the will and strength to overcome anything. We need to know what we want and be focused on how to achieve it. It is not going to be easy, but we can do it,” assures Shareen, who joined TalentCorp in the middle of last year. Prior to that, she was director of Corporate Responsibility at Khazanah Nasional Berhad.
Low Ngai Yuen, who is the founder of WOMEN:girls, a non-governmental organisation that empowers young women and girls, says that women must take any disparity they encounter and use it to their advantage.
“Not giving up is key,” says Low. “We must be clear that it is always up to us to set the precedence. In a dark room, where you cannot see the light at the end, be the light.”
Both Shareen and Low are speakers at the EcoWorld Women’s Summit which will be held in conjunction with International Women's Day on March 8.
Themed Women 360°, the summit aims to recognise women’s abilities to manage various roles and will feature stories, inspirations and “battle scars” of women of various backgrounds and experience.
Others speakers include British High Commissioner to Malaysia Victoria Treadell, IBM Malaysia managing director Chong Chye Neo, Hong Leong Investment Bank group managing director and chief executive officer Lee Jim Leng and model/actress Bernie Chan. The Star’s editor-in-chief Datuk Leanne Goh and Dimsum.my chief marketing officer Lam Swee Kim will also be sharing their insights.
Women should not have to choose between family and career, says Lee, an investment banker with over 20 years experience.
“We need to change the mindset that family versus career is either-or. Many women may perceive they have hit ‘glass ceilings’ in their careers and are limited by their role as caregivers, be it of their children or ageing parents. We can have both if we are able to prioritise and be realistic about our decisions.
“Being a successful career woman, wife, mother and daughter is certainly a challenging task, and in my experience, this balancing act holds true for both men and women.
“Women should not have to grapple with the decision to choose between the two as they move towards seeking higher-level roles in their careers,” she says.
Lee is quick to point out that she has not yet “perfected” her juggling act but it helps that her husband, Nathan Tham, shares the responsibility of parenting their three children, Nicole, Nicholas and Niemen.
“Parenting is not solely the job of the mother but the shared responsibility of both partners and neither one should be made to choose between family and a career,” she says.
For Chong, gender never played a part in her upbringing or the opportunities she had at home or school (primarily because she went to an all-girls school until Form Five). Her parents always encouraged her siblings and her to do their best and they gave equal attention and opportunities to all their children. As a result, the IT expert says she spent most of her life as a “gender agnostic” – not having experienced much disparity because of her gender.
“The desire to excel motivated me. In school, I chaired a board comprising mostly boys and later in my career, I competed with nine other shortlisted candidates, all male, for the position of a hardware engineer with a British company with only one vacancy. I got the job.
“I believe that if a woman wants to get ahead, no challenge is too big to overcome. It starts with knowing what you want and making choices based on priorities,” she says.
However, like many working mothers Chong had to stop at various points of her life and take stock of her priorities.
“When my children were young, I had strong support from my spouse and mother-in-law who were there to give my children the care and attention they needed. Later when they were teens, I decided to take not one but two career breaks to be with them. Fortunately, I had the support I needed from IBM to attend to my family and personal priorities when I needed to and still have the opportunity to resume my career.
“I do believe that the choices that we make, make us. The process never ends,” she says.
The experience of these successful women has proven that support from family is an integral component for women to be able to achieve their potential.
But equally as important is that women support each other in the workplace, says Treadell, who has been in Kuala Lumpur since 2014.
“We must all learn the art of kindness and that means being aware of those around us, whether senior or junior, and making sure that we are genuinely supportive and encouraging. Tapping into the many networks of like-minded women and men is also a powerful tool.
“But finding and encouraging men to play an equal part in the empowerment of women is as important to ensure that the right environment exists for women to be motivated and inspired to succeed,” she says.
Treadell shares that a career in diplomatic service was something she kind of stumbled upon as a young adult who wasn’t really sure of the path she wanted to follow.
‘To be honest, I did not know at 18 what I wanted to do and found myself working in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) as a junior clerical officer. There I met a number of diplomats whose stories inspired me. I decided not to go to university but to stay in the FCO and work my way up. Having made this decision, I was determined to succeed and aimed to become an ambassador one day,” she says, adding that success often meant doing things she was not comfortable with in order to prove her worth.
Sought-after host and model Chan says that hard work as well as the ability to get right back up after being passed over for jobs are what have kept her at the top of her game for the past 30 years.
“I started working at 18 and I worked very hard and took every job that came my way. I was lucky to have a mentor and agent in Cilla Foong who was honest, classy, had a good work ethic and always looked after her models.
“At such a young age, not knowing anything of the outside world, I made sure I never complained and took everything in my stride. I learnt that not everyone will like my face or me and that I will not get every job I audition for. Rejection is a big part of the industry but I love what I do and take my work seriously.
“I don’t have children. I lead a full life of work, play and making sure my parents are ok. I joke that they’re my old children now. I have also become a fitness junkie of late and balancing all this sometimes does take its toll on me.
“My mum is my inspiration. I realise now that she was superhuman … she worked and is a retired teacher. She was a headmistress and would come home and still have time for all her six children. She balanced it all,” says Chan.
To hear more inspiring stories from these women, register for the Eco World Women’s Summit which will be held on March 8 at Bukit Bintang City Centre sales gallery in Kuala Lumpur. For details, go to ecoworld.my/pwn.