VIEW: Misconceptions About Women & Mental Health That Therapists Hear Often

The below is a guest post from Jennifer Okolo, who is a therapist and the founder of She Aspires.

According to the National Institute of Mental health and other evidence-based research, mental health disorders affect men and women disproportionately. There are mental health disorders that are more commonly diagnosed in women such as depression and anxiety. Within this umbrella, there are certain types of disorder that over the years have been more identifiable and unique to women. These include symptoms of mental health disorders during hormonal changes i.e perinatal depression. Abuse is also often a factor in women’s mental health problems and treatments need to be sensitive and reflect those gender differences. Since the pandemic this year following COVID-19, domestic abuse against women has unfortunately increased. It is important to point out that COVID-19 does not cause domestic violence, only abusers are responsible for their actions. Nevertheless, according to Women’s Aid, the pandemic has, however, escalated abuse and closed down routes to safety for women to escape and ultimately affects their mental health.

This emphasises various social factors that put women at great risk of mental health which include:

  • More women than men are the main carer for their children and they may care for other dependent relatives too – intensive caring can affect emotional health, physical health, social activities and finances
  • Women often juggle multiple roles – they may be mothers, partners and carers as well as doing paid work and running a household
  • Women are overrepresented in low income jobs – often part-time – and are more likely to live in poverty than men
  • Poverty, working mainly in the home on housework and concerns about personal safety can make women particularly isolated

One of the common misconceptions around women’s mental health is that all women have this innate readiness to talk about their feelings and seek out strong social networks to help protect their mental health. Additionally, there is also the era of Freud where the history of ‘hysterical’ women and great extreme pressures exists for women to be conducted a certain way. This perception is often derived from the notion as outlined above, that women have now started taking on more ‘male-dominated’ roles such as being the figurehead of the home; completely dismantling the nuclear family we all grew up to learn that was the ‘right’ way and also are juggling careers, businesses and family life simultaneously.

These misconceptions must be cleared up as it can help make a difference in how we can all contribute to combating these problems.

Here are 3 common misconceptions about women and mental health that therapists hear often.

  1. ‘Women are too sensitive’: A lot of the time when women are low in mood or anxious, they are likely to be dismissed as being too emotional or sensitive which is a myth that needs to be dispelled. Society tends to rank people based on certain characteristics, for example. More confident personality traits are perceived as ‘strong’ and those that are more sensitive are deemed ‘weaker’. This creates further stigma and shame and diminishes a person’s mental health symptoms, consequently leading to silent suffering. 
  2. There is a ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ emotional response: Women have a long history of taking care of everyone else but themselves. Even the idea of femininity, according to Psychology Today is often linked to vulnerability, although we are in the process of redefining what it means to be a woman in today’s world.
  3. It’s always a ‘chemical imbalance’: The theory of a chemical imbalance for women’s mental health is often at the first forefront of reference, but all this does is undermine the true complexities of the disorders that women face. It’s important to include societal implications and factors which can have an impact on how a person responds.

As a woman and therapist myself, I am working on dismantling these misconceptions by creating spaces where women are seen beyond bias. My work will continue in 2021 through my platform She Aspires, a career network which provides educational tools and career resources to support women to be more fulfilled and successful at work. Also, through my podcast She’s in a Pod, which I co-host with two other ladies, I hope to continue building a safe space for women to have unfiltered conversations about wellbeing, self-development and much more!

About the expert

Jennifer Okolo is a therapist and the founder of She Aspires – a brand centred around a digital platform that asks young females to write and interact on a series of real-world issues that affect them. Passionate about female empowerment, Jennifer has made it her mission to educate, encourage other women, as explored through social activism, podcasting as 1/3 of award-nominated ‘She’s In A Pod’, and numerous other public speaking engagements across Europe.

Image description: Jennifer is sitting with her legs crossed, smiling. She has long brown hair, dark brown eyes, and is wearing a grey collared shirt and jeans.


VIEW: Our mental health system must reflect the great cultural and linguistic diversity of the Australian population

In Australia, people from a CALD background have a significantly lower level of access to mental health care and support in the wider community, with many not seeking help or support. Following his recent appointment as Multicultural Mental Health Ambassador for the Northern Territory, Mathews David shares his views on the value and role of mental health programs and policies for CALD communities.

  • Why were you originally interested in a career in mental health, and how has that interest changed over time? 

My friends always referred to me as an empathetic and meticulous person and they came to me for their personal issues and it became a profession for me in a later stage.

As a mental health professional, I am making a positive difference in someone’s life, family, and society. There is more work needed to meet the mental health needs of the CALD and indigenous communities of Australia.

  • You have recently been appointed as a  Multicultural Mental Health Ambassador for Northern Territory, Australia. What does this mean to you? 

Australia’s CALD population has unique identities and understanding of mental health and suicide. Quite often, a strong stigma surrounds the individual experiencing mental health issues or suicidal behaviours that may also affect their family, carer, friends and community. Spiritual and religious beliefs may contribute to this stigma, as well as social understanding and attitudes toward mental health and suicide within many cultural communities. As a multicultural mental health ambassador, I have a crucial role to play in terms of advocacy with government and non-governmental sectors to understand the specific needs of CALD mental health.

  • What are your priorities in this role? 

We are only in our early stages for developing CALD mental health. The majority of the service providers do not even understand specific needs of CALD communities. There is a lot to achieve; the key priorities are:

  • Mental health literacy
  • Addressing stigma and shame
  • Health promotion
  • Addressing Policy/ systemic issues
  • Why is CALD mental health particularly important to you? How does this differ to non-CALD mental health?

It’s important to  promote health and reduce illness by the development of culturally appropriate services that cover the spectrum of mental health care from the prevention of mental illness and the promotion of good mental health to treatment, rehabilitation, recovery and relapse prevention. An understanding of the role of culture is vital to the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of mental illness and is essential for everyone involved with the health and wellbeing of all people in Australia.

Many existing mental health systems and policies have been developed for non CALD communities and are only effective for non CALD communities. The First Nations people’s mental health and suicide statistics are much higher than the general community; government is trying to close that gap but still there is a long way to go. Similarly, CALD communities and leaders need to be consulted to create culturally inclusive service delivery in the health system.

As a side note, our budget gives no substantiative funding to CALD-specific mental health initiatives.

  • If you could change one thing about the current systems that manage mental health in Australia, what would it be? Why?

Cultural competency of the mental health front line workers must be addressed, and cultural competency should be a core business for all service providers. Similarly, systemic issues need to be addressed and culturally appropriate assessments must be readily available in each mental health setting.

About the expert

Mathews David is an experienced Mental health clinician with a special interest in CALD and Indigenous Mental health. He is an experienced Migration agent and Education counsellor for Australia, and was recently appointed as Multicultural Mental Health Ambassador for Northern Territory, Australia.

Image description: Headshot of Mathews – he is looking at the camera wearing a light blue-grey suit with dark tie and light blue collared shirt.

Headshot of Costa Vasili

ADVICE: CALD engagement requires diverse leadership

With a quarter of Australians born overseas, almost half with at least one parent born overseas, and nearly 20% speaking a language other than English at home, it’s clear Australia is a multicultural country. However, culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) Australians have been underrepresented across various industries, and miscommunicated to during times of nationwide change including the current pandemic.

In this interview, Costa Vasili, founder of EthnoLink Language Services, shares his journey building the business over the last ten years, his observations of CALD engagement during this time, and his advice for business and political leaders looking to effectively communicate with people of CALD backgrounds.

  • Almost 10 years since founding EthnoLink Language Services, what have been the biggest challenges over this time?

The biggest challenge I have faced over the past ten years has been the need to constantly learn, grow and evolve personally, in order to be the leader that the company has needed me to be.

I was only twenty years of age when I founded EthnoLink in 2011. I am a different person now compared to who I was then. Starting a company at that age can be tough, particularly when operating in a business-to-business environment where youthfulness can be seen as a weakness rather than a strength.

But as our organisation has grown, I have had to grow personally with it. Today, we have nearly twenty full-time staff and work with over three hundred translators across Australia. I’ve needed to develop many skills along this journey in order to continue to be the leader that EthnoLink has needed me to be.

  • How has this impacted the way you will approach the next 10 years?

Personal and professional development is at the core of my life. One of our company’s values is “Better Every Day” which is a reference to our philosophy of continuous improvement. I firmly believe that if you’re not moving forward, you’re going backwards. Even amidst this global pandemic, I’ve learnt much. I am confident that taking this philosophy into the future will ensure that our company can continue to adapt and innovate in order to stay relevant and on top of our game.

  • What role does translation play in overall CALD engagement?

Translation is only one part of a well-developed CALD engagement strategy. Community translation is an enabler. It enables an organisation to communicate with people who do not speak English well. It enables that organisation to get across an idea or message that the organisation is trying to get across — not some distortion of that message.

Importantly, the process of translation is not responsible for the development of source material. We can work with organisations to help them craft their source words, but the process of translation is responsible for conveying that message faithfully. Similarly, the process of translation is not responsible for the dissemination of that material to the community members who need to access that information. Again, we work with organisations to ‘fill this gap’ in CALD engagement, but it’s not the role of translation. Translation sits in the middle of a CALD engagement strategy — it’s vital, but it relies on the whole strategy working well together.

  • What are the biggest challenges you’re seeing business and political leaders facing when it comes to CALD engagement in 2020? Why?

Certainly the number one challenge that business and political leaders face when it comes to CALD engagement is a lack of understanding. Business and political leaders don’t fully understand the diverse needs of people from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) backgrounds. In turn, they struggle to truly engage because they simply don’t understand the concept well enough.

Good CALD engagement is not a ‘one size fits all approach’. Each individual cultural group has different thoughts, customs, values and drivers. As such, leaders need to seek to understand the needs of people, rather than a group called “CALD” which is simply a bureaucratic term. One of the simplest ways that business and political leaders can address this issue is by promoting diversity at a leadership level. If leaders surround themselves with people from diverse backgrounds, it will create a culture that permeates through the entire organisation.

About the expert

Costa Vasili is the founder and CEO of EthnoLink Language Services which has grown over the past decade to become one of Australia’s largest translation companies servicing the Government and Not-for-profit sector. Costa was born in Melbourne, Australia to a Greek Cypriot family. His father, George, migrated to Australia at the age of thirteen with limited English. The stories Costa heard growing up, coupled with his upbringing as a second generation Australian, spurred him to start EthnoLink to help improve communication between organisations and the Australia’s diverse community.

Image description: Close-up headshot of Costa Vasili, slightly angled, facing the camera, wearing a suit jacket.

PEOPLE: How Yemi Penn bent her own reality

As well as being an engineer, gym owner and author, Yemi Penn is a business coach and is passionate about helping others become their authentic self.

In this interview, she shares why she is passionate about empowering and supporting others who are focusing on what they ‘should’ do, and how she is setting out to change the stat that one in three people are unhappy with where they are in life. She also shares her views on diversity and inclusion, and how her experiences as a woman of colour have impacted her approach to business today.

  • As well as your engineering business, Penny Consulting, and your F45 gym in London, you also launched W Squared Coaching, a life coaching firm. What compelled you to launch this business? 

Funny story this! Well not really….it was 2017. I was having some sort of personal crisis as I was trying to understand why I couldn’t hold a relationship down. I attended a UPW (Unleash the Power Within) event hosted by Tony Robbins and we were asked the question, “What happens if you do not step into who you really are?”

Out of nowhere, I started crying (might have been the cool aid!). I got really emotional as I started to think about the work Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks did. This completely shifted my perspective as I had been having ‘imposter syndrome’ around being a coach. I truly felt that since I was failing in life according to the standards of life/memo, that there was no way I could guide others as a coach. It turned out this in itself would be the uniqueness in me as a coach as I keep things 100% real.

Having bent my own reality by starting my businesses despite being a single mother, I am dedicated to helping others especially the seeming underdog empower themselves and create a reality they want and deserve.

  • What are the biggest challenges you see your life coaching clients facing in 2020? Why do you think this is the case? 

Identity and purpose – 2020 has pretty much ripped the rug from underneath us and we could be forgiven for thinking we are being punk’d. Especially here in Australia where the fires have raged, the air quality has effected us, COVID19 did its thing and now major Civil unrest around the tragic death of George Floyd and the resurrection of the #blacklivesmatter movement. It’s been and continues to be intense.

Considering we tie our identities to roles we play in our personal and professional lives, a lot of us will be trying to establish new routines, find new jobs, question our relationships and much more. This is likely to open up raw emotions and wounds as we find our governments unable to answer the questions we thought they had.

This is an opportunity to dig deep, get comfortable with being uncomfortable, empowering ourselves as you create a new version of reality.

  • How has being a woman of colour impacted your approach to business and your experiences as an engineering and business consultant?

I wasn’t aware I was a person of colour till I came into my early teens having left Nigeria to the UK in the early 1990’s. Not knowing this would hold me in good stead as my focus was on being the best I could be.

Growing up in the UK would weaken this confident foundation I had as circumstances would make me feel ‘less than’. The imposter syndrome of not being ‘worthy’ or ‘enough’ would make me firstly, never dream big enough and when I did I had to constantly silence the voice that questioned me and my ability.

Within engineering, I have always been fortunate and blessed enough to have amazing allies in men and women, who always made me feel like I belonged or maybe I just didn’t care and my presence alone as a woman of colour made most people intrigued as I was and continue to be a stark minority.

Opening my fitness studio was a bit more difficult as I seemed to be one of many franchisees struggling to secure finances and therefore financed this 97% myself. Now, although my race didn’t come in as the reason why any bank wouldn’t finance me, however my circumstances did, which clearly ties to my financial background or lack thereof.

There is a show called black-ish, created by Kenya Barris, the show is very funny and extremely educational. It highlights the deep running impact of slavery, which has borne about systemic racism in institutions such as banks, schools, corporations, places of the law and many other establishments. As a result it is that much harder for a person – a woman of colour – to access things that would readily be available for a white person. Worldwide statistics show this clearly.

I have however avoided sitting in a sob story as I see myself as brilliant regardless of my race and gender. My hope is that one day, everyone will feel the same, this attitude has held me in good stead with my businesses.

  • In your view, what is the role of ‘diversity and inclusion’ initiatives in addressing racism in the corporate sphere? 

To hold the space for having uncomfortable conversations. One that discusses the following for instance, inviting a diverse group to develop and deliver initiatives around:
– White body privilege
– Bodies of culture

The corporate world has the ethical responsibility and position to show how a truly diverse workforce can excel at purpose and profits. It requires deep work from a professional and personal development perspective.

  • What are some simple actions business leaders can take to self-assess whether their business is both diverse and inclusive? 
  1. Examine their blindspots – Establish what they don’t know and what they don’t know they don’t know
  2. Invest and embed personal development & performance coaches in the business
  3. Create physical and virtual safe spaces for those uncomfortable yet necessary conversations
  4. Business Leaders to say yes to D&I initiatives unless they can prove a valid case for why it should be a no
  5. Model a business that has implemented D&I

About the expert

Born in the UK, early childhood in Nigeria, a stint in Okinawa Japan and now living in Sydney, Australia, Yemi can be described as a citizen of the world! She is an Engineer by profession, an Entrepreneur by Passion and a Transformation Mindset Coach by mission; Yemi Penn is dedicated to guiding others in unlocking their untapped potential. An introvert at heart having only recently found her ‘voice’, she is making up for lost time! Having authored her first book and podcast titled, ‘Did You Get the Memo?’ Yemi has featured in numerous publications in the U.K, Africa and Australia including, MI Business, Women’s Agenda, Smart Company and more; here she shares her stories offering tips on how to be the best, most serving version of oneself. Yemi run’s 3 businesses whilst parenting her two children in Sydney, Australia. One being her Engineering Management consultancy, an F45 Fitness studio in Brixton, London and her Transformation company under her brand of Yemi Penn. With qualifications ranging from project management to neurolinguistic programming, and methods taught to her personally by Jack Canfield and Tony Robbins, Yemi is dedicated to raising the vibration brought about by trauma and engineering powerful people; daring humanity to transmute its pain into power.

Image description: Yemi is sitting with her hands in her lap, turning slightly to face and smile at the camera. Her hair is tied up, she wears earrings and a stripped dress.

PEOPLE: From loathing chemistry to completing a PhD in environmental geochemistry – Silvana Santomartino

Women account for less than 30% of global researcher roles and, despite an increased need in scientists’ expertise during the pandemic, female scientists have been quoted significantly less often than male scientists.

Getting more women into and heard in STEM fields will take industry- and society-wide efforts to change the way women are supported in their STEM careers and empowered to become role models for the next generation of women.

In this interview, Founding Director or PSK Environmental, Silvana Santomartino, shares how she became interested in environmental science and established her own business.

  • What sparked your initial interest in environmental science? How did that interest evolve over time?

My parents sparked my initial interest. My dad was a sheepherder in a small village in Italy who built an extravagant suburban vegetable garden when he migrated to Australia. I learnt about soil health and sustainability from him and I marvelled at the way he went about reusing and recycling resources. My mum taught me to appreciate our natural environment from an early age. We’d go for long walks and she’d often stop to admire Australian botanica. She has imparted her love of the Australian landscapes on me.

Although I grew up not knowing any scientists or women in professional positions, I knew from an early age that I wanted to pursue a career in environmental science. I was fortunate to have an amazing geography teacher at high school who inspired me during my teenage years. At university, I chose subjects that I enjoyed and that challenged me.  Even though I initially loathed chemistry, I persisted with it, determined to make sense of it, and eventually completed a PhD in environmental geochemistry.

  • Following your extensive career in geochemistry, what made you decide to start your own business?

I had been working for multi-national engineering and geotechnical companies for about 10 years. I decided to leave and start my own company with a work colleague as I was ready for a new challenge. I also craved having more control over the type of work that I did and how I allocated my work and home time.

  • What were the biggest challenges you experienced when starting your own business? How did you overcome them?

I started the business in 2013, during a downturn in the mining industry following the LNG boom. The downturn also affected non-mining industries in Queensland, so it was not the best time to start a business! At that time, it was difficult to win work as there was a lot of competition. We started with a small project and worked hard to build a good relationship with the client. The client came back to us with more work and continued coming back to us. They are still one of our major clients to this day.

My biggest challenge though was the unexpected death of my business partner, Henry, whom I heavily relied upon as a technical specialist and mentor, and who had been a father figure to me whilst living away from home. I had to rely on my established networks to get through that period, calling on people for favours! I will always be thankful to those who helped me during that difficult time. Going forward, I established a wider support network of mentors and have built a larger team to help manage the increasing workload.

  • For others considering starting their own business in STEM, what is your advice and what were the most pivotal decisions you made that led to the success and growth of your business?

As with any business start-up, you must have a good knowledge of your industry and your competitors and have a good understanding of what sets you apart from your competitors, because this will form part of your marketing strategy. As a female in a male-dominated industry, it was advantageous having a doctorate and being a specialist in my field at the time of starting my business because this gave clients confidence in me. Also, starting up a business means that you have to be a good all-rounder as you need to market your business, generate business by meeting with clients, network, build a team around you and undertake the technical work and administrative work. It is challenging!

The business has grown organically over time. We have had to adapt our business model by expanding our consultancy services to meet industry demands. Whilst our model has changed, the way in which we have done business has never changed; we care about our clients and their projects and for that reason, they come back to us. Equally important is to bring together a great team of people. I have energetic and motivated scientists and engineers who share a similar vision to me. Recognising each person’s strengths and helping them succeed keeps them happy and engaged and motivated in their work.

  • How have you seen diversity or a lack of diversity impact your particular line of work? Do you have examples of where it had a direct impact on a project or body of research?

Not specifically, however having Italian migrant parents, I have an appreciation of the different life skills inherent to a person with a CALD background and I have an awareness of how beneficial these life skills and experiences are to my business. In my line of work, we often need to break down complex ideas into simpler ones and communicate these ideas effectively with our clients. This is something that those of us with a CALD background are familiar with as it is the way we communicate with our non-English speaking parents.

About the expert

Silvana is a Certified Professional Soil Scientist and has a PhD in Environmental Geochemistry. She is a Founding Director of PSK Environmental, based in Brisbane. She has over 20 years’ of research and consulting experience in environmental geochemistry, particularly related to soil, rock and water quality assessments, management and treatment. Silvana has project managed a large range of soils investigation projects including Acid Sulfate Soil, Contaminated Land and Land Resources Assessments.  Silvana was President of the Queensland Branch of Soil Science Australia in 2017-2018 and was Secretary from 2011 to 2013. She is a guest lecturer in Acid Sulfate Soils at Griffith University, Queensland.

Image description: Portrait style headshot of Silvana smiling and looking straight at the camera. She wears a sleeveless black top, has shoulder-length wavy brown hair, and is wearing earrings.

ADVICE: Understand and embrace engineering’s human factor – Trang Pham

Trang Pham, Civil Engineer at Aurecon and Chair of Women in Engineering Queensland at Engineers Australia, has had a varied career across retail, business, public service, and engineering in the private sector. She is passionate about representing and driving further diversity across STEM industries, particularly engineering, and recognises the challenges vary from organisation to organisation.

Engineering connects people – it’s not all stats and facts

Pham believes the engineering industry needs to make a greater effort to explain the societal and human impact of its work to invite and keep a more diverse workforce.

She explains, “People don’t understand it and think it’s very conceptual but it’s not. The stories we’re telling aren’t inclusive. We’re very analytical in how we describe our work. We say we’re building buildings, or designing roads, or building robots. This makes people think it’s purely technical and that engineering doesn’t require gender or diversity to be effective.

“But that’s wrong because the end users are humans. We need to talk about how the roads we’re building are connecting communities and providing access to health care and much-needed services, or how the robots we’re building are improving the quality of life for our ageing population.”

Being a woman in engineering was never a problem, until it was

Going to an all girls school, Pham remembers feeling empowered to study whatever she wanted, without any hesitation or restrictions based on her gender. At home, as the daughter of refugees from the Vietnam War, Pham also says engineering was a career she was encouraged to pursue by her parents because of its perceived stability.

By the time Pham started studying engineering at university, she started to realise that being a minority in terms of gender was going to be a part of her engineering career. She was often one of very few women in seminars and tutorials.

However, despite being a minority, Pham never felt the impact of a gender divide during her university years and says her diverse group of friends at this time ensured she was always welcomed and supported.

Once she joined the workforce, Pham’s experiences drastically changed.

In some work environments, she was part of truly diverse teams where everyone was from a unique background, culturally, religiously, or otherwise. She recalls having wonderful experiences because “you were a minority, but the majority was the minority.”

In other work environments, she “became an actual minority” and she saw significant shifts in how she was treated, viewed, and valued in the workplace.

At one stage, she had colleagues directly tell her she had only gotten a job because she was a woman and woman of colour – she ticked two diversity boxes for the company.

“It was so demeaning to my skills. I was so scared because of how I looked, I was actually standing out for once, and I felt so much more pressure to perform at a higher level than before,” she says.

Embracing a support network made me fearless

As well as her current role as Chair of Women in Engineering Queensland, Pham has been a Past Chair for Young Engineers Australia, and volunteers as a CSIRO STEM Professional in School partner. She attributes her ability to persevere past experiences of discrimination, while continuing to thrive in her career and contribute to the engineering community, to these support networks.

“Engineers Australia (EA) helped me maintain my voice within the workplace. It’s through Engineers Australia that I have developed my leadership and the role I play in the industry,” Pham says.

“It made me quite sure of myself in terms of what I had to say, what I had to contribute and that what I had to say was important. At times when I may have been scared of being seen or valued less in the workplace, through my experience with EA, I was able to take a step back and realise that I need to leverage my position and my voice to make sure I’m changing the industry for the better and for the people around me.”

Being empowered by her support network and with a drive to action change, Pham has been able to build allies and support network everywhere she goes, building her own resilience and ability to manage discrimination as it arises.

She encourages anyone experiencing discrimination in their workplace to “speak out”, but also recognises that this may not be possible for everyone. She says it’s important to assess whether the current situation is “taking your energy. If so, then you need to put that energy elsewhere that benefits you. That could be finding a job that supports you. That could be finding a support group of other women. That could be finding a hobby where you are supported and celebrated.”

She explains, “A lot of the time, people – not just women – get pigeonholed in a role and then their whole life revolves around that. For example, a lot of mums have that in any industries – people define them as a mum, not a professional, hard-working employee. It’s hard to say, ‘Ignore them’. But educating people that you are not just that person is really important, and developing that outside of work “

Today, Pham plays a key role in promoting diversity and inclusion at her current workplace, Aurecon, as well as highlighting for clients the ability to view engineering and business challenges through a human lens.

Relationships are everything in business

There were several times in her career when Pham felt she was a “failure”. She graduated several years after some of her peers due to needing to repeat some classes, and spent six months in retail management before using the skills from her business and engineering degrees in the corporate world.

However, over the years, Pham has realised that her perceived failures have led to some of her greatest strengths, and in the long-run, have enabled her to take leaps and bounds in her career that she otherwise may not have been able to achieve.

Her varied education across business and technical fields, combined with her diverse experience across multiple industries, combined with her strong work ethic and interest in understanding people has given Pham a matrix of skill-sets that are rare in engineering. In her words, it boils down to an ability to build relationships and connect on a human level.

She says, “If you can’t connect with your clients, you’re not going to bring work in and deliver the right solution. When you are building a relationship, you are trying to understand people’s stories, experiences and perspectives. Sometimes their issues aren’t engineering issues.

“Understanding that as well as the technical and commercial aspects is important, but understanding the person is the most important part. If you don’t get that, you’ll have slow growth in your career because you’re only skilled technically. If you build a relationship, people are asking for you and want you.”

About the expert

Trang Pham is a Civil Engineer at Aurecon within the Built Environment Unit, with previous experience in the IT and Infrastructure sectors. She is currently the Chair of Women in Engineering – Queensland and Immediate Past Chair for Young Engineers Australia – Queensland. Trang also volunteers as a CSIRO STEM Professional in School partner. Graduating from the University of Queensland (UQ) in 2014 with a Bachelor of Engineering (Civil) and Bachelor of Business Management (Marketing). Trang is currently involved with UQ’s Young Alumni Advisory Board and UQ’s Women in Engineering Alumni Ambassador Council.

Image description: Headshot from the shoulders up of a smiling woman with short, black curly hair, wearing a blue floral sleeveless top.

PEOPLE: Esha Oberoi’s climb from high school dropout to CEO

Today Esha Oberoi sits at the head of a 550+ staff, multi-million dollar business and has been recognised for her achievements as a Winner in the Indian Australian Community Business Award for Small Business and a Finalist in the Telstra Young Business Women of the Year Awards in 2014.

But her journey to success wasn’t without challenges.

Esha’s formative years were tough. Upon arriving in Australia as a young migrant at seven years of age she experienced ostracism and bullying from her peers, due to her inability to communicate. This  created a host of challenges including depression, anxiety, loneliness and isolation culminating in her dropping out of school in Year 11.

In this interview, Esha shares how she started and grew her passion for helping others, and built a successful enterprise by never settling for compromises.

  • After leaving school in Year 11, what decisions and steps did you take to kick off your career? 

I dropped out in Year 11 and didn’t make it to the HSC. That decision and my own mental health challenges left me unemployed for many years until my father insisted and encouraged me to find work in a nursing home. I did exactly that. The decision to remain in the industry was initially because I felt an instant connection with the clients I was working with in aged care and disability services. My clients were often lonely, feeling isolated and vulnerable, which made our relatability factor very high.

  • What were the most challenging aspects of those earlier years in your career, and what’s your advice to others who may also be experiencing these challenges today? 

The most challenging aspects of my work in the sector came because of my age. I was 24 years old when I came into the sector and I feel that I had to work a lot harder to earn trust and credibility because I didn’t have experience as a credential.

In terms of advice, what I did to overcome this was deliver very high-quality service and make no compromises. So, I would go above and beyond in my delivery and we became known for our reliability and responsiveness very quickly as we earnt this reputation.

It is important to have strengths outshine any shortcomings that we have in our professional lives. I am not suggesting that age is a shortcoming. In my early days, my lack of experience was where there was a gap I needed to fill. 

  • How have your personal experiences as a woman of a migrant background without a university degree impacted how you were treated in the corporate world? 

I didn’t remain in employment long enough to experience the impact it could have had in my treatment. Having my own business and being in the community services industry I have never felt discounted due to my migrant background or not having formal education.

  • At any point, did you feel like giving up on your career goals? Why or why not?

The sector is challenging because sometimes you really want to be able to help someone and for multiple reasons, we are limited by what we can offer. There is enormous emotional pressure at times so there have been times where I felt like I needed a change of industry. Having said that, the joy that comes from helping people always outweighed the emotional stress in the role.

  • Today, as you lead a 550+ team and multi-million-dollar business, how have your personal experiences shaped how you hire, train and support your staff? 

When it comes to hiring, I am mindful not to place people in roles that don’t complement their inherent characteristics and skills. I am highly supportive of a person’s aspirations and I would work with them to develop a clear learning pathway so they can develop the skills required for the role or share any guidance so they can eventually reach that point.

I really believe in training and skills development. As I had no professional qualifications and experiences that could back my move into entrepreneurship, I started investing very early on in my own training around leadership.

About the expert

Esha Oberoi is the compassionate, inspiring and dynamic CEO and Founder of AFEA Care Services, Australia’s most successful private in-home aged and disability care service. She is also an award winning entrepreneur and self-love advocate who credits much of her success as a heart-centred leader and business owner to her transformative ideology that, ‘mental health begins in the heart’.

Image description: Headshot of a woman from the waist up wearing a colourful dress and holding her hands in front of her. She is looking at the camera, has brown eyes and brown hair, and her hair is tied in a high ponytail. She is standing in front of a rock wall.

ADVICE: How to develop and foster cultural intelligence

The business and financial benefits of diverse workforces and leadership teams are evident in the latest research, yet many businesses still struggle with hiring, empowering, and promoting diverse talent.

This is where Wesa Chau, CEO of Cultural Intelligence, intends to make a difference. In this interview, she shares why she started her consultancy, the challenges she faces at work, and her views on unconscious bias and how to manage it in the workplace.

  • Why did you originally start Cultural Intelligence and how have your goals for the consultancy evolved over time?

I started Cultural Intelligence after working in the multicultural Not for Profit (NFP) sector and started to feel frustrated by the lack of innovation in the sector and as I was using my managing consulting hat (that was my first job), there are many more things the sector can learn from the corporate sector on training and using an evidence-based approach to improve. 

When I first started, my clientele was mostly NFP and government organisations because that was where my networks were, however that has shifted to more corporate and University clients. The shift also happened because corporate Australia has started to have the appetite to talk about cultural diversity (extending from gender diversity).

Now Cultural Intelligence spends more effort on evidence-based approaches and data-driven approaches to cultural diversity, rather than “fluffy” talks about the importance of cultural diversity which is hard to get businesses on board. 

For example, last year, we launched our research on Asian-Australian leadership in Australia. The approach we took was not simply about the number of Asian-Australians in leadership roles (or lack thereof), but to understand the natural workstyles of Asian-Australians so we can have a much more nuanced conversation about what skills and contributions Asian-Australians bring into the workplace.

The cultural diversity I see is an imbalance of power structurally and so my consultancy helps organisations create processes and policies to balance out the power imbalance to ensure people from different cultures feel equal.

  • How have your personal experiences impacted the way you manage your business and deliver your services? 

I think personal experience will always impact the way businesses are managed and the services delivered.

For me, I come from an engineering and commerce background, so using data and tools are natural to me and so even for a human related topic such as cultural diversity, I still enjoy looking at data and interpret the data in a human way. What the NFP sector has taught me was the empathy, listening and to always understand things from an individual’s perspective. 

So all my experiences inform my work, the education in engineering and commerce taught me the tools and an analytical mind, whereas my NFP experience taught me the human experience, so I combine the positive aspects of each of the areas and bring a new way to look at cultural diversity – and a different narrative to talk about the topic.

  • When working with professionals and executives to understand the benefits of cultural diversity, what are the biggest challenges and how do you overcome them? 

One of the key challenges to get people to think about cultural diversity is the lack of interest and feeling people are being pressed to do “too much diversity”, because we have just been talking about gender diversity where corporate Australia is finally starting to understand the importance of it, but rather than patting them on the back, some feel like people are slapping on another form of diversity. 

My message to them is always, if you really do diversity well – gender, culture, disability, age and more – then we don’t need this conversation, but simply looking at the face of corporate Australia shows that they still don’t do it well.

Not having people of colour in teams and in senior roles highlights that the team does not value different insights and perspectives, because people born into a different culture have different lived experiences that cannot be replicated by people who have never lived it. For me therefore, diversity is more than just about skin colour, it is about better decision making.

This is one reason why I need a different narrative to talk about the issue. The business case yes, but I wanted to show that Asian-Australians are more natural at certain workstyles and skills compared to others. So our research showed that Asian-Australians are more natural at solving programs (especially in data interpreting). This is critical in the 21st century – the data-driven century and it has just becoming even more important after covid-19 where more and more businesses are shifting their operations online.

  • Is unconscious bias inevitable? Why or why not?

Unconscious bias is normal for humans, it is how our brain works to help us to protect us, so we should not think it’s just bad. However, what we need to do is to understand our own bias and be able to manage our responses, so we do not unintendedly disadvantage a certain group. 

For example, I hear people say “I’m colour blind” (meaning they don’t care about others’ ethnicity), I just look at their work, but what if people behave differently but it is understood by another group in a different way?  For example, some people do not look people in the eye to show respect, but in Australia that would be perceived as shifty or rude. For a “colour blind person”, they are likely to see this person not looking at them as rude, that is the bias of perceiving eye contact to mean rude.

Our biases build from how we were taught as kids, which uses a frame that fits in the society we live in – i.e. rude people do not look at me in the eye – so to remove that takes conscious efforts. We can only overcome the biases when we withhold judgement on another person based on behaviour, assume the best from the other, and probe deeper at every human interaction.

There is also an Implicit Association Test based at Harvard University that everyone can test to check your own unconscious bias. It is a great one, because it helps you understand your own biases. It is only through knowing about them that you can manage your responses. Again I want to stress to not be too hard on yourself, because we all have biases. It is about how you manage your own responses to biases.

  • Have you ever met someone you felt was not open to cultural diversity, and not worth convincing otherwise?

One thing I have learned over the years is not to take things personally.  Even if I feel I’m having tense discussions with people about cultural diversity and do not feel they are open to it, you never know what seed you have planted. 

Whilst there are people with whom I felt was wasting my time at the time, I later found out that our conversations have planted a seed and a few years later they said to me the conversation we had made them think more about it and changed them somewhat. 

I’m much more compassionate about where they are at in their journey nowadays and am willing to engage with anyone (including some tense conversations) about cultural diversity. I would recommend people to have discussions with all people, however I must say to have conversations with people who are totally against cultural diversity are always difficult conversations, because sometimes they trigger my emotional responses and I get angry. I’m much better at it now, so I can still have interesting conversations with people and not make judgements about people too quickly.

  • For those currently struggling with finding an appropriate way to bring up a lack of cultural diversity in their teams or organisations, what’s your advice? 

There is no one way to do it, it depends on the context you are in – who you are talking to, the support networks you have, your workplace, how it impacts on your role, how confident you are, and more. These all impact how you might bring it up.

I ran a session to explore these issues at the Asian-Australian Leadership Summit run by ANU, PwC and Asialink. People within the session suggested all these ways can work depending on the context: having allies, finding mentors and sponsors, having empathy, don’t internalise conversations, finding friends, setup networks within the workplace, educate people by sharing personal stories, try working out their strategic objectives and relate your cause to that, build other alliances (e.g. women networks, LGBTI networks), etc.

Personally, I will assess the power dynamics of the situation you are in as the first step before developing a strategy to get there. One thing that definitely is required is thick skin – keep bringing it up at the right moments and do not give up, because it is a long battle.  Just think how long it took the gender movement to achieve what they have and still not quite fully achieved, we have only started to get some traction, which means we have a while to go. 

Whilst it is hard, it is important to maintain compassion with people who have not yet joined the journey because they never had our lived experiences and some genuinely do not understand it. We need to keep educating them.

About the expert

Wesa Chau is an experienced manager, board director, speaker, trainer and specialist consultant on cultural diversity.

Wesa is the CEO of Cultural Intelligence, a specialist consulting firm that help organisations better understand cultural diversity and its impacts on design, decision making, customer service, messaging and policy setting. In her capacity as Director of Cultural Intelligence, Wesa has worked with clients ranging from government departments, educational institutions, corporations and not for profit organisations.

As a board director, Wesa’s diverse experiences include serving on the boards of Carers Victoria, Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria and InTouch – Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence. She is currently a board member of Glenuc (Holmesglen Foundation), the Victorian Ministerial Council on Women’s Equality and the Multicultural Business Ministerial Council.

Wesa was named as the 2010 Young Victorian of the Year for her commitment to gender equality, cultural diversity and social cohesion has been recognised through the Australian Leadership Award and an inductee of the Victorian Honour Roll of Women.

Wesa is currently undertaking her PhD at Swinburne University understanding what political skills are and how people develop them. She holds a Masters in Business Management, Graduate Diploma in Law and Bachelors of Engineering and Commerce with majors in software engineering and marketing. Wesa is also a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and is a qualified teacher.

VIEW: Adjusting your work to others leads to a dead-end

With smartphones, almost everyone now has access to technology that allows us to be ‘photographers’. But to be artistic, meaningful and purposeful with photography requires a skill and mindset that not everyone holds.

Valentin Zhmodikov moved to Australia from Russia in 2014, with a passion for photography that has evolved since childhood. In this interview, he shares where that passion came from, and how it drives what photography he does and doesn’t do today.

  • What sparked your interest in photography and how did you go about the journey of self-teaching yourself this complex skillset?

My interest in photography wasn’t like a spark, it was a long process. It first appeared when I was about 14 years old. But it wasn’t that serious back then so other things more typical for a teenager replaced it shortly. 

I got back to photography about seven years later while studying Philosophy at St. Petersburg State University. At the very beginning, it was just casual shoots of my mates and random people during endless rave parties, which were quite popular in Russia in the first decade of the twenty first century. I never thought that this interest would become my main passion and last for so long.

The more I put my mind into photography, the more I realised that I lacked some basic knowledge, which was easy to find on the Internet. After getting the basics, I came to realise that the characteristics of my simple camera were not good enough for my goals so I decided to learn more about photography gear. So, step by step I got all the necessary theoretical information from the web. While doing this research I discovered several classical photographers which have become my main source of inspiration for quite a while. I believe that learning from the classics really helped me to develop my own style.

Long story short, all the skills and valuable information I mostly got from the Internet and from my own zealous practice.

  • How do you choose which work to take on and which not to?

When picking a shoot, I try to follow my gut feeling, but also my interests and curiosity.

Though I’m a portrait photographer, I would never do photos of newborns just because I don’t feel quite right about it in general. I have never done weddings and I’m quite sure that I never will.

But sometimes I’m really driven by a challenge to do something that I have never done before. Back in Russia, I applied for a product photography position, having zero experience in it. I spent half a year in this role and it gave me great knowledge about studio lighting and basic editing. I’ve tried food photography once just following my curiosity about how these kinds of photos actually should be done.

Sometimes I reject portrait and model test shoots if when looking at a potential subject’s social media feed I don’t feel they are quite right for me to work with. Once I decided not to collaborate with one big Russian celebrity because of this very reason.

  • You’ve mentioned that you sometimes take work unpaid if it’s work that allows you to be true to yourself, and you’re even willing to lose followers if it means you’re staying honest. How difficult is it to do this and how do you go about setting parameters for yourself?

I started doing photography because of my interest in it. A bit later I became really passionate about it. Surprisingly, after more than ten years I feel the same.

I’m not and have never been driven by the material behoof not only because photography has never been my only source of income but mainly because I really enjoy doing it. That’s why I still do collaborative projects with no money involved. Especially when I feel that the subject would be right for some of my ongoing photography projects. No matter whether this is a celebrity, a well known model or an everyday person who I’m working with, we all share our time with each other. The time of a human life is beyond money.

Photography is an evolutionary process for me. It’s like a journey with no exact destination with the freedom of frequent spontaneous decisions. That’s why I’m not afraid to change the subjects and the style of my work. It’s not hard when you’re following your own zest.

Since 2012, Instagram has been the main source for sharing my work with other people. And it may sound tough, but after so many years I more or less understand what people would like and want to see. Not all of them, obviously. That’s why when I post something non-typical on my feed, something provocative, less creative and more philosophical I’m aware that some people won’t like it and would unfollow me. And it’s totally fine! I think that adjusting your work for the preferences of others leads to a dead-end for creativity.

  • When you were unemployed, you rejected working with well-established studios. Why?

Back then it was an easy decision. I was much younger and more reckless. I just didn’t like their aesthetic and stereotyped attitude to portrait photography. I wasn’t ready to follow their criteria and rules. Sometimes I think that I should have tried to work there. Maybe I would have learned something new and could change their style for the better. But I don’t regret it. I was honest with myself and the way I’m following.

  • What were some of the most challenging experiences you’ve faced since moving to Australia from Russia in 2014? How have they shaped your approach to living and working today?

There were quite a few! By 2014 I had already had some progress and achievements in Russia and established my name in the photography field. So, first of all, I had to start my career from the very beginning. I literally knew no one in Australia!

Second of all, my surname – quite unusual and weird sounding even in Russian – turned out to be unpronounceable for most English speaking people. There are so many versions of it that I’ve heard and seen! Even now, more than six years later, some people recommend I change it or to get some sort of pseudonym, which I always reject. No matter what it is, it’s my family name and fairly speaking with a bit of practice it’s not that hard to pronounce.

So the first years in Australia were a challenge for me. But at the same time a great source of inspiration. Such diverse people from all around the world were calling me to shoot more and more portraits. Did you know that people in Russia never smile or say hi to strangers? I love so much that here in Australia people do!

It was not only people – everything was new for me. Architecture, nature, seasons, way of live. I fell in love with all of these from the very first days. But I still love my motherland and it’s severe beauty. I travel there once a year and can’t wait for the borders to open to go there again.

My migration to Australia gave me a lot. A possibility to live and work in such an amazing place. A connection with so many new interesting and talented people. But the main thing, it gave me the experience of moving forward in the circumstances of absolute suspense and uncertainty about what is going to happen in the future, which is really helpful in these crazy days of the world pandemic. But I’m looking forward for all that mess to finish anyway. And I really hope that our world can become a better place after that. Or, at least, not worse.

About the expert

Valentin Zhmodikov is a self-taught Russian-Australian photographer with an interest in portraiture, landscape and music. He was born in Saint-Petersburg, Russia and moved to Melbourne, Australia aged 28. He has a Bachelor degree in philosophy. 

Valentin participated in a number of personal and collective exhibitions, published in different print and online magazines worldwide and was a finalist in photography contests.

Specialising in both art and commercial photography, in his work he aims to encapsulate not only the shape and beauty of the subject but its essence and nature. Capturing everyday people, professional models and celebrities from all around the world, he extracts their personality in his own unique manner.

ADVICE: Breaking the bamboo ceiling

Annick Ah Lan is the Chief Operating Officer of Australian Institute of Quantity Surveyors, but had to overcome a range of racial stereotypes to get there. Annick is passionate about getting more women on boards, and believe strongly in the importance of recognising everyone has something valuable to bring to the table.

In this interview, she shares her experiences with meeting and surpassing the bamboo ceiling, and how she has thrived in male-dominated industries ever since.

  • You’ve had an impressive career in various industries, and currently as COO and 2iC to the CEO at AIQS in the construction industry. Have you ever experienced the bamboo ceiling?

Very much so. It was fortuitous that the first job I held at a European company based overseas had a progressive Managing Director at the helm, who mentored me and kept to the adage that “the sky is the ceiling” for every single member of staff. He looked after the health and wellbeing of employees, invested in training and development and had workplace practices that only now, almost 15 years later, some companies are barely making headway into developing for their own staff. 

Due to the GFC and numerous closures worldwide of this company, I left to face the realities of the job market when I based myself in Australia. Some comments I received whilst interviewing were along the lines of, “You’re so young, why are you on such a high salary?” and “Oh, you can’t REALLY have done all that work?” or “You are so accomplished for someone so young!”. 

It also goes without saying, when you see the line-up of senior management within any particular company and you cannot spot someone who is young, Asian and female, you pretty much deduct in hindsight why you didn’t get a particular job you were aiming for. 

Whether it’s one, or a combination of reasons, there is never an easy way of eliciting the base reason if it stems from unconscious bias. I knew my worth at the time because I had done the hard yards and put in the time, but I was constantly discouraged from aiming high. Another favourite I heard one too many times is, “Oh, you’re very outspoken for an Asian person! Where are you from exactly?”

  • How has that experience shaped the way you approach business, leadership and your career today?

It’s definitely taught me to never take anything for granted! It’s also made a me a much stronger person, more resilient, and quick to accept and react to change. 

There’s no point in fighting against the status quo, so it’s made me quite resourceful in finding smart and innovative ways of doing things.  It’s also made me more understanding and open to listening to others. 

I always ask why, and what am I missing, in situations where I do not see eye to eye with someone else. I also try to figure things out by myself, rather than just wait for answers to fall into my lap, which is something I’m vehement about in instilling in workplace culture. 

Someone who has gone through the painstaking journey of figuring out how to do something will never forget it, and they will do it well, because they would have learned from mistakes made along the journey. 

  • What’s your advice to others unsure of whether they are facing the bamboo ceiling in their current roles? And for those who are, what can they do about it?

To be sure about what they are feeling. Whether or not they take it to the next step to voice their concerns is purely up to each individual. I personally never have, because I chose to either work thrice as hard to prove my worth, or leave the company. If I’m on par with everyone else and can significantly demonstrate this without anyone finding anything to argue against, then the argument to not promote me or not give me what I justly deserve becomes moot. 

How someone acts or reacts in any particular situation is purely up to them, as you can’t change other people’s behaviours, but you can change your own. It is with this attitude that I take things, the good with the bad, and every single hurdle and challenge put in my way has only served to help me grow and become a stronger, more resilient person. 

Sitting around and raging about the situation doesn’t really help anyone, take things into your own hands and demonstrate what you can do, or move on.  Either you accept the situation, or you change things, whether it’s your environment or your attitude, to ensure your contentment.

  • What or who encouraged you to embark on a Bachelor of Computer and Mathematical Sciences when you were studying?

Growing up, I have always had a keen interest in sciences. My dad qualified as a Chemical Engineer, so I assume that being around scientific equipment at a young age sparked my sense of wanting to explore the what, how and why of things. Instead of asking for dolls I was asking for telescopes, microscopes and scientific kits. The National Geographic shops were my favourite place in the world! 

I was also lucky enough to have had a Commodore 64 which was my first foray into programming. From there we moved on to the Pentiums and my fascination with computers continued to develop. I selected IT, maths and biology as majors for my HSC and then applied for two IT-related courses, and neurology as a third option! I was happy to go into either field, but IT won! 

Having said that, I will be the first person to tell anyone that I am an artist at heart. I have done classical ballet almost my whole life and played the piano to university level, however, these were never perceived to be “proper” career options, coming from an Asian background!

  • What do you think holds back young women from studying STEM, and how do we as a society overcome these obstacles?

I believe it’s the stigma and preconceived ideas – almost unconscious bias – surrounding STEM.  My interests were never quashed, I was never told that I couldn’t pursue something purely because of my gender – and I’m talking about from much earlier than kindergarten age.

My thirst for knowledge was encouraged, critical thinking and research were key educational pieces at home, and I devoured books.  As gender wasn’t an issue for me, I never saw it as an obstacle.  During childhood and adolescence, I had a good group of male friends, which meant that I was never afraid to voice my opinions or ever felt uncomfortable being the only female in a group of males. 

I believe that the key to overcoming it is developing a high level of emotional intelligence, understanding that males and females are wired differently, and we need to embrace those differences rather than setting it up as a battle of the sexes. 

A good, solid education begins at home. School is of course, important, but the shaping of a human being’s intrinsic ideas, behaviours, instincts and core beliefs, these come from parents. Therefore, society as a whole needs to work together to overcome the obstacles, it’s not just a matter of policy-making within businesses – by that point, it’s much too late.

About the expert

Annick is the Chief Operating Officer of a Professional Association within the construction industry. Her core focus as the 2IC to the CEO involves operationalising the company’s strategic goals across all areas of the business, including project management, corporate governance and risk management, human resources management, business development and financial management.

She is a spirited advocate of and holds staff lead roles across some of the business’s various committees, including a Diversity & Inclusion Committee, Membership Committee as well as a newly-formed Digital Innovation Committee. Annick is a firm believer in the Kaizen ethos and is a self-professed quantum physics aficionado!

ADVICE: Seek out a mentor, be a mentor, and be visible

Chahida Bakkour has had an extensive career in technology, engineering and aviation. Today, as well as being an A/g Service Design and Alignment Manager for Airservices Australia, she believes strongly in the importance of encouraging women to join and empowering women to thrive in male-dominated industries.

In this interview, she shares her advice and experiences regarding imposter syndrome, confidence and leadership.

  • In your experience, what are the biggest challenges facing female leaders in male-dominated industries? 

Self confidence, fear of failure and the lack of role models and mentors.

  • How have you overcome these challenges throughout your career, and what’s your advice to others experiencing or foreseeing these challenges?

I tackle things head on, overcoming lack of self-confidence and fear of failure are no exceptions.  I set goals and mantras like in 2019 “getting out of my comfort zone”. I take ownership of my development and accomplishments instead of waiting to be asked. It’s a journey, I am happy to now realise getting out of my comfort zone has become the norm me. For me, showing up and being visible was out of my comfort zone but was something I needed to overcome for the purpose of being a visible role model.

I surround myself with like-minded inspiring women who support my goals and we work closely to uplift each other. Last year, I attended a truly inspiring week-long leadership summit which included leadership coaching sessions, networking events and a great line up of inspiring speakers who all were great role models. I walked away from the summit feeling motivated, inspired and connected to a greater network of other like-minded leaders and role models. 

My advice is to seek out mentors, be a mentor and be visible so that others can see you as a role model, then inspire others to do the same. Take ownership of your leadership, attend leadership forums and build your network.

  • In your view, what is the biggest thing driving the local and global shortage of women working in tech? What is the low-hanging fruit for each of governments, corporates, and individuals to improve the ratio?

Some of the key factors that contribute to the local and global shortage of women in tech roles include the belief that these types of roles are not suitable for females (gender stereotypes), male dominated culture and a lack of role models. We are dealing with a mindset and culture that dates back a long time.

We need to be educating the younger generations about the broad range of roles and pathways that are available and suitable for women seeking a career in tech. The aim should be to embed a culture where women in tech roles are seen as the norm across various layers of society.

Governments play a key role in ensuring school curriculums starting from prep to year 12 target these key areas. We need to start planting seeds from a very early age. The result would be an increase to the number of females that are attracted to and complete further studies in this field.

Corporations that haven’t already done so, need to review recruitment processes, position descriptions and job advertisements. In many instances position descriptions and job advertisements are written in a way that deters women from applying. Diversity strategies are needed to support the organisation in retaining staff and creating an inclusive culture, including educating on how we manage unconscious bias.  

We, as individuals, all play a role in challenging the status quo, promoting, supporting and encouraging more women in gaining and retaining roles within tech.

  • A lot of people feel pressured to behave a certain way to be seen as a ‘leader’, which can often involve acting against their gut instincts. In your view, when is this type of change necessary, and how should people experiencing this feeling address it in the moment?

Start by reflecting on your leadership style, purpose and values. It takes self awareness, confidence and courage to stay true to your values when being pressured by others to behave in a certain way that goes against your gut instinct. Believe in yourself and trust your gut instinct.

  • Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome? If so, could you share some examples?

Yes, I have definitely experienced imposter syndrome and to my surprise so have many others. I will never forget the day I discovered the imposter syndrome. I was flipping through an RACV magazine (of all places) and stumbled across an article about the imposter syndrome. I was so relieved to know that my negative thoughts, thinking I wasn’t good enough, always working towards perfection, fear of failure and continuously focusing on things that I lacked was a result of the imposter syndrome.

  • These days, do you ever experience imposter syndrome or self doubt? If so, how do you overcome that and what’s your advice to others going through this?

Yes, I occasionally still experience it but I shut down the negative thoughts pretty quickly. As mentioned earlier, 2019 was my year of “getting out of my comfort zone”. I no longer hold myself back from trying new things or seeking new opportunities due to a fear of failure. I shifted my mindset to one that sees failure as an opportunity to learn and develop from the experience. I also now keep a list of my achievements and accomplishments, no matter how big or small they are. I use the list when I need to shift my mindset from one that is focusing on things that I lack instead of the great things I do well but do unconsciously.  

My advice would be to start by educating yourself on imposter syndrome, there are some great resources available online. The first book I read was “The secret thoughts of successful women: Why capable people suffer from the imposter syndrome and how they thrive in spite of it.” By Valerie Young ED.D

If you don’t have a mentor, seek one out to support you in working through self doubt and imposter syndrome.

  • ‘Anyone can be a mentor.’ – Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why?

Agree, anyone can be mentor. All it takes is someone who has a good attitude, and is a positive role model who is willing to share relevant knowledge, experiences and advice to assist others in developing. Many people already have an informal mentoring relationship and may not realise that they are already mentoring. Whether you have a formal or informal mentoring relationship the ability to actively listen and focus on the needs of the mentee is key.

The ability to support and guide a mentee in setting career and development goals is extremely rewarding.

About the expert

Chahida dedicated part of her adulthood to raising her two boys. Once they were in primary school, there was passion to do more and be a positive role model for her family, especial her sons. Through process of discovery, Chahida found passion and fascination with technology. With the support of her family, Chahida invested in returning to studies with focus on Information Technology completing Bachelor of Business in Computer Systems Management. 

Chahida currently works for Airservices Australia, Australia’s Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP), who safely manage 11% of the world airspace. With over 10 years of experience working in the Air Traffic Management (ATM) systems domain in both technical and leadership roles, she has led an extremely diverse team of software and systems engineers that provide frontline engineering support to real time, large-scale ATM systems. Like most leadership roles, she was responsible for management of a works program, resource management, project delivery support and planning, recruitment, mentoring/coaching and performance management.

Seeking to challenge herself and live to her 2019 mantra of pushing herself out of her comfort zone, Chahida accepted secondment into a senior leadership role; Service Design and Alignment Manager, an extremely challenging role that she thoroughly enjoys. People who know Chahida would describe her as a great role model, breaking down several stereotypes by being a female Muslim leader, from a non-English speaking background, in what is traditionally a male dominated field. Chahida practices what she preaches, mentoring in The Future Through Collaboration (TFTC) program, a formal cross defence industry mentoring program for female engineers and project managers. She is also a Women in Aviation International and Australian charter.

Outside Air Traffic Management, Chahida is on the board at Migrant Resource Centre North West Region (MRC NWR), a non-for-profit, community based organisation, in the role of Assistant Treasurer. Her contributions and leading example were acknowledged in 2019’s Women Acknowledging Women’s Award – STEM Contribution Achievement