Diversity and Inclusion, a case for change

In recent weeks I together with some other colleagues have been asked to think about and consider what diversity and inclusion means to us in the workplace. This has been an interesting exercise to me so I thought it is worth sharing.

So to lay the context, what do we mean when we say diversity? Think about this. Are you a working mother? Do you belong to a minority race or religion? Do you look different to most other people, or not really but do not share the same values? Do you have a different sexual orientation? Do you speak with an accent? Do you have a physical handicap, or do not think like how others do? I believe most people would fall into one of these categories or another, or maybe even multiple, and that brings about diversity to the workplace.

As for inclusion, well that is the interesting one. In a general context inclusion means that regardless of how you are different from others, you deserve the right to feel included and not be isolated in any way. As a result inclusion can mean different things to different people because people can be, or feel like they have been, isolated in different ways.

Now back to me. What does diversity and inclusion mean to me personally? To help me think about that I have to first think about who I am, what makes me different and then think about the various situations at work that have made me feel uncomfortable, or vulnerable, or stressed in the past . If I am to define myself in that context, I see myself as a woman of Malaysian and Chinese background and values who works in a large multinational oil and gas organisation. I am also a daughter, a mother and a wife to a Korean man (with Korean values) and pride myself in those roles more than and above anything else. Throughout my working life I have been referred to as the wrong name and sometimes even the wrong person and there were times when I was automatically assumed as the note taker in meetings. In more recent times I have felt time pressure at and outside of work given my part-time arrangement and have to leave the office by a certain time to go pick up my kids.

Now don’t get me wrong, in the overall scheme of things, I realise that I have been fortunate because the companies and people I work and have worked for are diverse in nature and have been generally inclusive and accepting of me and my work and if I was to bring some of these issues to their attention, I have no doubt that we would work towards resolving them. However there were still times and situations where I felt uncomfortable or pressured given my who I am and my alternative working arrangements. To me, being inclusive is a simple concept – it means respect and understanding; that means respecting your colleagues and their ideas and their work-life preferences regardless of their looks, background and values. Nevertheless it is not about entitlement. For me it does not mean that I have to be ranked, promoted or offered the exact same opportunities as my full-time colleagues, but it is simply for others to understand and respect that I am now a mother to two young children but I can still contribute meaningfully to the organisation, just not in the conventional ways.

Simple concept, but not so simple to execute, because making people “exclusive” is not usually done consciously. People are not intentionally malicious or discriminatory; however people, myself included, are naturally used to their own thinking, their own routine, their own ideas, their own biases and prejudices and do not often realise the impact of their actions on others. Having gone through this thinking process, I identified situations where I would have preferred to have been treated differently, but it also helped me identify situations where I should have treated others differently. It has to be a two-way conversation – for the giving end to acknowledge and accept that the other person is different, and for the receiving end to inform the other of their own preferences and boundaries.

Diversity and inclusivity in the workplace (and in society) is a complex issue, it would take a huge amount of consciousness and proactivity over layers of organisations (starting from the top) and potentially over years and decades before it will get to a stage where it should be, but realising that there is an issue is the first step to realising that it needs to be fixed. And as cheesy as this is going to sound, that realisation will have to start with each one of us.

Finally I will leave you with this video for your own thoughts (with credit to Accenture who has artistically and cleverly created this).

The Women in My Life

Tonight I am sitting down and finally having some time to gather my own thoughts in quietness. The naughty little one has gone to sleep early. Things have also finally settled somewhat at work. It has been relentless in the past few months. Today, close to 4pm when the deal was finalised, I just sat in my chair and stared into space for about 10 minutes. For the first time in weeks I felt like I could let my mind rest.

My, has it been a big year.

Apart going back to work part-time in a new team where the environment is constantly challenging, we also kicked a few big personal goals. We designed a new house and signed a building contract. We moved out into an interim house and demolished the old one. We travelled and flew four times (unplanned) – three times with the kids. The kids saw their great grandmothers from both sides of the family, and played with snow for the first time. We witnessed close friends getting married. I became Australian. I started a blog and got my first article published.

I then started reflecting on the friendships and relationships that I have started to build and share with some remarkable women in my life in the past year; some continuing, some only just budding. Each with their own life story, their personal victories, their personal struggles. From the one who tries untiringly to get pregnant, to the one who built a successful career but feels at guilt for not spending enough time with her child, to the confident one who is happy to be by herself, to the one who got pregnant and tried to do everything the natural way, to the one who always makes parenting seems so easy and wants to have everything under control, to the one who is contented to put her career on hold for a few years while raising her young ones, to the one who is supporting her family financially while her husband takes the responsibility of caring for their child.

The one thing that bonds us together is that we are all modern women, trying to make sense of our own role in a society that is rapidly changing. On a daily basis we do what we need to do to get through the day, but in our minds we are having constant battles trying to reconcile the ideals with which we were brought up, where the traditional role of the women are to be dutiful wives and mothers, to the very expensive world we live in now where women are also expected to share the financial responsibility of raising a family. We are more educated and given a lot more opportunities than our mothers so we feel like we should not be wasting them.

What if you work too much that you will not get to spend time with your children in their best years? What if you do not work enough that you are not able to save up the funds for yours and their future? What if you work too much now and leave getting pregnant to much later that you have missed the opportunity to have a child? What if putting your child in daycare from three months onwards leave them permanently scarred? What if you give up your career now to care for your children and find that 5 years you are no longer about to catch up in the workforce?

It is a constant challenge. The struggle to find the perfect balance never stops. We work just as hard, some would argue harder, but sometimes we ourselves and others of the same gender doubt our own capabilities. For each of these women I see their self-doubts, but I also see their strengths and I admire them for it. How each of them chooses to deal with the situation in their lives provides me with the context to help me find the balance in mine.

So thank you. I thank you for your friendship and for sharing your stories with me and for helping me see the various angles in every situation. I appreciate it with all my heart. I just hope that by sharing mine I am able to do the same for you.

Signing out now. I had to type this out as I was thinking it but even the untroubled mind needs to sleep now.

My happy village

A couple of people at work have commented that I make balancing work and family look so easy, like I am fleeting seamlessly between one and the other without ever dropping a ball (as least not one that’s been noticed anyway).

Well, that is very nice and thank you for making that observation. I try to do my best, but I would though like to respond by mentioning these three points.

Firstly, what you see is just an illusion which I admittedly try to put up when I walk out the door. Sometimes anyway. There are days when I feel exhausted even before I step into the office and I would have had two cups of strong coffees before 9 am. And there are definitely days when I come home at night and I would be too tired to even pour myself that glass of wine which I so deserve. There are also days when I would only do the minimum at work just so that I would not drop a ball. However given that I deal with both internal and external stakeholders on a daily basis I do place value in looking professional and giving people the confidence that they can work with me. And through my many years of experience being a woman I conclude that there is nothing that good foundation, lipstick and a cup of coffee can’t fix on any given morning.

Secondly, I try to give myself a break and not be affected by little things around the house; which I think has made me a calmer person. Initially I would let a lot of things get under my skin, like dog bringing sand into the house, plates piling high in the basin and kids throwing toys everywhere. It drove me nuts. After several episodes of just losing “it” and then collapsing into a crying mess (which my poor husband had to bear the brunt of) I convinced myself that these are things which I can’t just control and since I do not really want to be vacuuming the house five times in a day, I decided to change my own outlook instead. It is ok for us to leave a few dishes to be done in the evening after we come home; it is also ok to only vaccum once in the morning and another time before you go to sleep since the dog will be coming in and out all throughout the day anyway, and if the kids’ room looks too messy, just close the door beind you (ps. if you are a bit of a control freak like me do read this article on Kidspot, it is rather entertaining).

And finally and most importantly, you know how they say you need a village to raise a kid? Yes, that is so true and I have a wonderful village whom I rely on day-in and day-out to look after our kids and the occasional home issues when husband and I are at work. Our village is also big, comprising of both my own family and my in-laws who lovingly, diligently and unconditionally take care of our kids when they are not at daycare. It is not without challenges though, these kids who are raised by dual (and even triple households) as values are being taught from all directions (try telling a kid that they can’t have something which Grandma has already promised earlier on) and your No. #1 position in their hearts gets consistently challenged, but at the end of the day it gives us reassurance and a peace of mind when the kids are not with us which means that we can focus our attention on other things like work and not get distracted. It also allows us kids to see that there are different ways to living and hopefully give them a wider perspective to life.

So yes, we are who we are and we can become who we want to become because of the circumstances and people surrounding us (with a bit of change in attitude and mentality and a lot of tolerance). And yes, we are lucky but we are also grateful and we do not let ourselves nor our kids forget that. 

Happy Sunday everyone.

PS. Lastly, I have to share this funny post which a friend put up on her Facebook which I can relate so well with.

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PPS. My dear readers, I am asking for a favour. If you know of other women (or men) who would enjoy a weekly light read or maybe benefit from the experience of a fellow mom can you please share my link with them? There is nothing more encouraging for someone who writes to know that people are reading 🙂 With thanks and lots of love.

The Joys of Part-time Work

Are you a part-time worker? If you are then you would probably have heard one too many times about how lucky you are that your company is accommodating this arrangement and that you get to spend time with the kids.

And if you are like me, you would flinch inwardly each time you hear that.

Some people have this notion that mothers returning to work have a sweet deal as they have the perfect excuse to work only a couple of days a week and then scoot off while other people deal with their problems. Well I can tell you that this definitely has not been the case for me.

I have been back at work on a part-time basis for a little over a year now (and another year before my second one was born), and I constantly find myself questioning whether this is the right arrangement for me. A few weeks upon returning to work I found myself checking emails on my off days to ensure that I did not miss out on important memos and that I did not have to spend half a day responding to emails on my first day back in the week. Then as I started taking on more responsibilities I found myself spending hours working from home while the kids entertained themselves. It got to a point that even I was on vacation, my mind was hard at work thinking about how to resolve issues that are due soon after. So even though I was physically with my kids, I was not spending quality time with them.

Of course, some of these issues are attributable to my own personality. But I figured over the two years I have been working part-time that there are a few things that has to marry up to ensure the on-going viability of part-time work.

The suitability of the role

Not all roles are suitable for part-time work. The types of roles that can be fall into one of the following groups:

  1. Where the majority of your responsibilities are contained within the period that you work and do not carry over from day to day – an example of this would be a retail role.
  2. Where you get to work autonomously, or in a consulting basis, or on longer-term projects where you have the ability to control and drive your own timeframe and activities.
  3. If your role does not fall into one of the above categories and you are required to meet short deadlines which involve daily interaction with people, the only way this can work is if you have a back-to-back who covers the same scope, is across the issues and can look after things on your days off.

Unless your roles fall into one of these categories, you will eventually find it a challenge to keep up.

Support from your organisation

This is a given. If you do not work for an organisation with management who supports and sees the value of retaining talented women (or if you are not able to convince them otherwise) then this arrangement is doomed to fail.

The ability to speak up when things are not happening how they should

If you have the support of your management and the right kind of roles exist in your organisation, then it really is up to you to monitor the progress of your work and communicate accordingly if things are not working out. Rather than sitting at home resenting the fact that you have to work on an off day or constantly worrying about things that you have no control over while you are at home and others at work, you need to be having conversations with your supervisor about the issues.

I found that things improved for me when I did that. Initially my role started off by being in the first category, and over time it crept into the third category except that I did not have a true back-to-back support. After having a meaningful conversation with my supervisor my role has now shifted more into the second category where I have more ability to control when I work. It was a learning process for both myself and my organisation to try and determine what works best, as the traditional norm of work in my team has never been part-time.

It is still early days for me to tell whether the current arrangement can be sustained in the future (or even for the next 6 months), and there were days when I thought that it might be easier for me to just return to full-time work. But I also realise that time I can spend with my pre-school kids now is too precious, so I will just have to continue trying to find the right balance until I am ready to give that up.

After all, we are mothers, so isn’t multi-tasking what we do best?

Working Mothers

I was having a casual chat with a colleague the other day on the much discussed (yet nevertheless thought-provoking ) topic of the under representation of females across some levels of big corporates and what the unseen barriers may be. (Disclaimer: This was in general and not specific to a company).

We talked about the usual suspects:

1. Part-time opportunities not always explored for mothers returning to workforce.

2. Young females commonly associated with starting families.

3. Men in management creating social circles that is difficult for women to infiltrate.

He then raised a point which I had not considered before . He said:

Most of the time people do not recognise the skill sets and experience that mothers bring into their professional roles

Hm. Interesting.

When I decided to take two intermittent years off to spend time with my babies, I have always regarded that as somewhat of a temporary career sacrifice. I accepted that because of my decision, I would return to the workforce professionally “behind” colleagues who used to be in comparable levels. Not for once have I thought that perhaps, what I lacked in actual years of professional experience may be compensated by other types of experience that I gained in motherhood which would still be valued in a work environment.

So I pondered. Could this be true? And here is my conclusion.

I agree. Here are a couple of skill sets that I believe I have either acquired or improved on since motherhood.

Firstly, the ability to prioritise. Whilst this skill has always been incorporated in my work, I noticed a marked improvement in how I execute it. The thing is, with only three days a week in the office, plus a strict start and home time, this is one skill that I (and millions of other mothers) had no choice but to improve on. The more time-poor I become, the better I get at prioritising critical and important tasks and either delaying or eliminating ones which I deem low impact, not required or can be delegated.

Secondly, assertiveness. I have always seen myself as a compromiser, very flexible to accommodate people and situations (which can be a plus when trying to advance one’s career). However, since becoming a mother, I find it more of a necessity that I start drawing boundaries and non-compromisable positions for the sake of my children, from things like safety, napping routines, diets, to others like making sure I can leave work in time to pick them up. All these require discipline and daily negotiations with people in your social web – husband, extended families, work, others involved (e.g. clinic, daycare) and the kids themselves(!). Whilst some may see these boundaries possibly detrimental to work, I see it as a plus. My ability to communicate my needs in a clear, concise, actionable manner translates into my ability at work to communicate my thoughts and positions in the same manner. And also, in the long-run, it keeps things sustainable.

So to me, yes, I believe being a mother and its circumstances has made me a more efficient worker. If I think long enough, I am sure there are others that will spring to mind, but for now, because I need to keep an eye on two monkeys who have opened all the drawers in my kitchen, it’s time for me to sign out.