Breaking down gender barriers


  • Metro News
  • Saturday, 07 Mar 2020

(From left) Batik fashion designer Kartini Illias, reigning Miss World Malaysia 2019 Alexis Sue-Ann and Dorsett Kuala Lumpur, Dorsett residences Bukit Bintang and J-Hotel by Dorsett general manager Adele Ang all dressed in the exquisite iKARTTiNi 2020 collection. -YAP CHEE HONG

THEY are accomplished individuals who have charted their own path to where they are today.

Fashion designer Kartini Illias left her corporate career when she met a batik designer and fell in love with the designs. She started her batik business in 1990 and the 61-year-old’s label iKarrtini is well-known to those who know fashion.

As Miss World Malaysia 2019, Alexis Sue-Ann Seow, 25, is easily recognisable. The TV host and actress was clear about what she wanted from a young age and focused on achieving it.

Adele Ang, 52, is a veteran in the hotel industry, climbing the ranks to area sales director and eventually general manager of an international hotel group in Kuala Lumpur. No mean feat in a field where men are still the majority at the top.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day tomorrow, these three speak to StarMetro about how they have overcome barriers to succeed in their careers.

Who is your biggest influence or icon?

Kartini: My biggest influence are my parents. I really looked up to mine and the things I learned from them I carry with me to this day.

Ang: My parents’ dedication to the family is one of my greatest inspirations. My husband is also my greatest supporter throughout my career.

Seow: My family, of course. I also look up to Hollywood actress Audrey Hepburn. She was a beautiful person who helped others throughout her career.

Ang believes the best person should get the job, no matter the gender.Ang believes the best person should get the job, no matter the gender.

What are the values most important to you?

Kartini: To be honest and always speak the truth which I learnt from my dad. Kindness is another. No matter a person’s background, I will always be respectful.

Ang: Integrity, honesty, fairness and kindness are important, especially in my line of work. I believe in karma, so I try to be a good person in general.

Seow: I think perseverance is needed in any field, but especially for a woman of my generation. Although the world has evolved, women have to deal with setbacks all the time.

Were there any barriers or bad experiences you faced because of your gender?

Kartini: Back in the 1980s, after graduating with a business degree, I applied for my first job. When I arrived for the interview, I noticed a sign on the door with the words “men only.” I was surprised but I still waited my turn and ended up getting the job, beating 20 men.

Ang: It is common to find women holding different roles in the hospitality industry except for the position of general manager which seems to be male-dominated.

Seow: It is unfortunate that in the entertainment industry, women get paid less. As for personal experience, one that I can remember was when I was filming a TV show. I played the role of a female spy and there was a scene where I had to jump over a railing. However, I was told me to let the stuntman do it. The way men perceive women to be just dainty girls who cannot do anything is a very stereotypical mindset and has to change.

Do you find issues you face today different from when you first started working?

Kartini: Things have definitely progressed and I think women now are more vocal. We speak our mind.

Ang: Like I said, there weren’t many women in the hospitality field holding the general manager post before, but now five out of seven general managers in Dorsett Hospitality International are women. I am one of them. The industry has come a long way. But I always believe that the best person should get the job, no matter the gender.

Seow: In the past, women played a secondary role in many situations. But times have changed. For example, there are more women as heads of

government now.

What would you say is the biggest issue that women face currently?

Kartini: Women are often not included in projects which are led by men. I personally think that they are afraid of our capabilities.

Ang: I would say stereotyping is still the biggest issue we face. For example, how we should dress and behave as a lady. Asian women are often stereotyped as feminine and submissive.

Seow: We are still very discriminated in society and are often looked at as a nurturing gender and not a dominant one. I believe change has already started in some families. Western countries are progressing much faster but in many parts of the world, for instance Asia, we are still trailing behind because of the traditional values that we uphold.

Seow says that contestants at beauty pageants come in all shapes and sizes. —Photos: YAP CHEE HONG/The StarSeow says that contestants at beauty pageants come in all shapes and sizes. —Photos: YAP CHEE HONG/The Star

What is your definition of female empowerment?

Kartini: Someone who speaks her mind and is fearless. She knows exactly what she wants and how she wants to do it. My go-to quote is “absolute faith equals zero fear.”

Ang: A powerful woman is someone who is confident and comfortable in her own skin.

Seow: I believe female empowerment is having every woman come together to support each other and not put another down. The bond and values you uphold with other women is a very empowering movement itself.

What is your opinion on the stereotypes attached to powerful female figures?

Kartini: Men sneer at powerful women, but who cares. I think we do a better job than most of them. Men have been leading corporations but not all of them have done well. They are afraid of letting women in because they know exactly what we are capable of.

Ang: People like to assume that women bosses are hard to work with and often say, “Oh, she’s very emotional. It must be that time of the month.”

Seow: I’m a very hands-on person and a perfectionist when it comes to work. I would probably be stereotyped as bossy or too loud which I’m not. If a woman who knows what she wants to achieve is considered bossy, then so be it. But that stereotypical judgement has to change.

How do you feel about the way women are represented in the media, film and pop culture?

Kartini: It’s all about women’s bodies and physical beauty. People have preconceived notions of the ideal beauty and shape for a woman. I don’t apply that to my fashion shows. I still hire models who have been with me for many years. Some of them have already become mothers and fathers. I don’t mind even if they have gained a little weight, because that’s normal.

Ang: I can never see myself as the type of woman the media portrays. However, I realised that while people still look at women a certain way, there are many who lead a healthier lifestyle and I can definitely relate better to them.

Seow: I disagree that the media is still portraying women as stick figures because beauty trends evolve. I have a background in pageantry and people believe that I need to have a certain size, look and height. In Miss World, we didn’t have a swimwear round because we no longer focus on that aspect of physical appearance. There were 120 participants and not one of them was stick-thin. I believe that the majority of fashion companies have changed their perception of beauty.

What advice would you give to women at the start of their career?

Kartini: Resilience is very important because nobody becomes successful without bumps in the road. You will go through hard times but that experience will make you better. Tenacity and being receptive to change is also important. Take every problem as a test of your ability.

Ang: For me, it’s to keep on learning, be resilient and flexible. If things don’t work out the way you want it to, then change the way you do it.

Seow: As cliche as it sounds, I would advise women out there to never say never. Never let others tell you that you cannot do a particular thing or hold a particular role. Just go for it.

Do you think it is important for women to be more vocal about the circumstances they face?

Kartini: Yes, definitely. If you keep silent, it is as good as saying you agreed to it. You have to speak up if you feel uncomfortable. Never wait.

Ang: If you are in a situation that makes you uncomfortable and you cannot be yourself, you have to speak out. If you don’t say anything, it will seem as though you’re fine with what’s going on.

Seow: As easy as it may seem telling women to be vocal, different circumstances make it hard for them. Mothers play a role in educating and guiding their daughters to know when to stand up for themselves.

Kartini says women are more willing to speak their minds now.Kartini says women are more willing to speak their minds now.

Are there differences between women in urban and rural areas?

Kartini: Now that I’m based in Langkawi, I can say that women there are still afraid to speak their mind.

Ang: They know things that we don’t and vice-versa. I also think the community aspect is much stronger while women in urban areas are more competitive.

Seow: I think women in rural areas are more traditional and also adhere to cultural and ancestral norms.

What lessons do you think urban women can learn from their counterparts in rural areas?

Kartini: I think we can learn from their appreciation for nature.

Ang: Not to take things like electricity and water supply for granted.

Seow: Their strong willpower and positive outlook on things.

How important is it for women to lift each other up?

Kartini: Having a support group is important because when you form a bond with another woman who understands what you are going through, you wouldn’t feel so alone.

Ang: Having a support system can make us emotionally stronger.

Seow: The entertainment industry can be toxic and very competitive. Women often put each other down to feel better about themselves. Pitting women against each other is counterproductive.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would that be?

Kartini: Stay calm and to never react impulsively if you are unsure about something.

Ang: I would tell myself to listen to what others have to say and learn from it.

Seow: I have always been someone who acts on impulse. I would tell myself slow and steady wins the race.

International Women’s Day 2020 theme is #EachforEqual. What does it mean to you?

Kartini: Respect each individual’s capabilities and everyone deserves to be treated fairly.

Ang: Everyone deserves to play a role in something if they are capable.

Seow: Everyone has a right to equality and to do the things they want to.

What main change would you like to see for girls in the next generation?

Kartini: More respect and better communication with each other. Lift each other up and not bring each other down.

Ang: Practise perseverance and stay true to who they are. Stand firm on what they believe in and move forward confidently.

Seow: Know how to differentiate right from wrong and never pit women against each other.

We need each other to grow.

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