Today’s topic is highly personal and a departure from what I typically like to do i.e. industry based, unbiased, thought-leadership papers. However, the topic is discussed daily in conversation and on social media and thus warrants some discussion here.
I am frequently asked by young professionals (women and men) how I got to this point in my career – an entrepreneur, a mining sustainability specialist, and a bulging portfolio of amazing career experiences that continues to grow. From the young women this question is often followed by ‘And how do you find it as a woman in a male-dominated field?’ I was never satisfied with my own responses that today I realized were abrupt enough to end the topic and move on to the next conversation. Honest, raw discussions around this topic are generally not comfortable conversations for networking events. So last year in May I sat down with pen and paper and wrote a letter to my younger self about my experiences as a woman of colour in this field, perhaps wishing I knew then what I know now.
In the way that serendipity operates, the #MeToo consciousness was born and grew globally, gaining momentum rapidly. Gender disparity, diversity inequality, and their associated systemic handicaps such as unbalanced pay scales, hiring prejudices and toxic workplace cultures were entering into daily conversations at all levels and industries (ref: current edition of PEO's magazine - left).
Around the same time I was invited by the Canadian Federation of Engineering
Students (CFES) to speak at the Diversity in Engineering Conference, held at McMaster University last October, on the ‘Women of Colour in Engineering’ Panel. I brought my letter to share with the conference delegates, these future engineering professionals of all genders, colours, ages, religions, and sexual preferences, what I would have told myself if I was in their shoes. Or rather, what I would have like to know when I was in their shoes. The response was overwhelmingly resonant. It was a recognition of truthful storytelling, a strong indicator that others may appreciate this piece also.
"Dear Younger Self,
Always speak up. And yes, you already do this but do it more. Don’t quiet your voice because the teacher yelled at you. She is coddling the boys. You, Younger Self, have every right to shout out the answer just as the boys do and not get into trouble for being ‘out of turn’, ‘loud’, or ‘bossy’. And keep it up, all through university and after…
Speak up. Ask for what you want. Ask for justification of a questionable grade. Ask for justification of not being included in a meeting that you should have participated in. Ask for what you want. Never take the first offer and always negotiate - hard. You will have done the job of three people by the time you leave your second job. And you (and they) may not have even noticed.
Don’t put up and shut up with paternal pats on the head, office gossip and other nonsense. Again, speak up. Your excellent work performances will remain invisible unless you broadcast it in a macho manner of how great your work is, how happy the client is, and how much you contributed to the company. If you don’t you’ll always be the woman who does the work of three men for that stagnant, lower salary.
So play the game but play it carefully. Play it like a woman. Join the guys for after work drinks but do not share too much of your personal stories. Have one drink, never get tipsy. Talk to everyone, never spend the whole evening talking to just one. Never work through your lunch and never eat lunch at your desk. The work is not personal so don’t let it take away your personal time. Don’t take on someone else’s work unless it contributes to your overall goals and objectives. Business is not personal. It is professional courtesy. You may not be thanked. You may not be rewarded. And your overly generous professional courtesy may even be taken advantage of again.
Find an ally one or two levels above you who you can trust, who is kind, who knows you are smart and can do great things. Look to this person for strategic advice and not as a friend or therapist. If you do that the lines will blur and he or she will not be an asset to your career. Treat everyone around you, above and below you with dignity and respect – the role if it is not possible to respect the person – and give everyone the benefit of the doubt at least once. Remember that business is not personal so when your instincts tells you someone is off, believe who you think they are and don’t take it personally.
You will be doubted all along the way of your career by many people you meet. You will find that you will have to prove your talent over and over again. You’ll get tired and annoyed. So don’t wait until your 30s to find hot yoga. Start it in your 20s. And journal. Journal often so you’ve vented enough to sleep well, look forward to the next day, and face your next obstacle. Sheryl Sandberg's advice to 'lean in' has its merits and its limits, so know that you have other options. Life is short so if you try and try and still cannot get a seat at that table - walk away. And create your own table. Entrepreneurship is not overrated.
Know that not everyone is 'out to get you'. So smile and make work-friends. And you will meet one, or a couple, or a few kindred spirits along the way. They won’t look and sound like you but they will enrich your career experience beyond your expectations. Don’t forget to appreciate them. And one day, return the favour to another.
Your Older (Wiser and Still Learning) Self”
But the real challenge, I would also tell them, is finding your voice and never letting anyone silence it. Maintaining confidence in your knowledge, talents and abilities while remaining a constant minority in the industry will not be easy, but carry on. So, again, to the young women entering this profession, I hope you hear the advice to my younger self and continue to pursue and thrive in mining (or whichever profession you choose), because mining truly blast.
In the words of Joni Mitchell: “people will tell you were they have gone, they'll tell you where to go, but until you get there for yourself you never really know.” Wishing all young and future engineering and mining professionals an absolutely amazing career adventure. Design and build it for yourself.