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A Message to Women: Believe in YOU

An Interview with Niti Nadarajah (She/Her), Head of Legal, Australia, Philip Morris International on Discrimination of Women in the Workplace.

The word “discrimination” means differently to different people. What is the first instance that comes to your mind when we mention the word?

As a lawyer, I have to say that “discrimination” has a fairly legal meaning for me, namely when a person or persons are treated less favourably than others or otherwise adversely impacted by virtue of them possessing certain protected attributes, such as gender, race, age, sexual orientation, disability, pregnancy or family responsibilities.

What do you feel is holding women back in being successful, especially in the legal field?

I feel there are many structural barriers and unconscious biases that hold women back from being successful. When I first started working in private practice, it became apparent to me how difficult it would be to have a family and continue to practice (and be well regarded) in a transactional practice, while also maintaining a balance within one’s family life. I saw female partners with families that were heavily reliant on nannies and never saw their children during the week. That was not a life I ever wanted. Life is about more than simply working. As the saying goes, do you work to live or live to work?

But where does this inability to balance our work and personal life stem from? At its heart, the law is an old-school profession based on an outdated model of the working man with a stay-at-home wife who looks afters the kids. The billable hours model is a product of that outdated model, where law firms favour long hours and reward inefficiency and presenteeism. Lawyers learn to wear “busy-ness” and “all-nighters” as a badge of honour and compete fiercely against each other to bill the most. After all, how else does one progress? So, as a woman then, who is looking to have a family or perhaps already started one, it can be a treacherous path to navigate. Maternity leave leaves you further behind those who were your peers and when you return, you need to prove yourself all over again, perhaps while trying to maintain a balance between your family life and work life. On the flipside, working fathers who wish to help their partners at home by working flexibly (for example, on a reduced hours basis) are also treated unfavourably, leading to a generally low uptake of flexible working by men in the legal profession (and more broadly).

But not everything is attributable to pregnancy and having a family. I think the glass ceiling is as real in the law as it is in any other profession. Do women need to act a certain way, for example, to “get ahead”? What characteristics do they need to possess? The legal profession is definitely one where the harder skills associated with “masculine energy” are promoted and rewarded over emotional intelligence, empathy, kindness and inclusion, all more commonly associated with “feminine energy”. I can share many examples where there was a distinct lack of EQ displayed by those who managed me or with whom I worked over the years.

The upshot of all of this is that, at a certain level, many women leave private practice to move in-house or pursue an alternative career. I am now, for example, seeing many female lawyers who have become coaches for those within the profession.

During an interview, some women modify their behaviour/appearance and even alter their responses to avoid prejudices based on their gender. How do you feel women should handle such questions?

To me this comes down to whether an individual wants to work for an organisation and/or leaders that are not willing or able to accept them for who they are. If the interviewers are prejudiced against a female interviewee because of unconscious biases based on gender, I would argue that the interview is just the beginning of what is likely to be an unpleasant experience. It is far better in my view to be who you are and own it than to work for a company that wants to squash you into the box that works for them. In fact, I would go to some length, now that I am slightly older and wiser, to question the interviewers on how they live out their values when it comes to DEI (i.e. get them to go beyond the glossy images and motherhood statements found on any company’s website nowadays).

As a working mother, could you tell us what kind of bias women need to expect and how they should face the same?

When women have children, they often take a period of maternity leave, longer in some countries and shorter in others. In this situation, absence does not necessarily “make the heart grow fonder” but instead puts you out of the minds of those making decisions around promotions. When I returned from my first maternity leave, I found that many of the people who knew me and what I was capable of had moved on to other parts of the organisation. As a result, I had to essentially start from scratch in proving myself to people and demonstrating what I could do, while also navigating the early years of my first child’s life, sleepless nights, childcare pick-ups and drop-offs (with fixed hours). Working flexibly is a wonderful way to balance all of those responsibilities, but equally comes with its own unconscious biases – I have spoken to so many women who have suffered from perceptions of not being committed to their workplace in those years immediately following a return from maternity leave and while working flexibly. Equally, while people feel it is okay to ask a mother about childcare arrangements and the like, such questions are never really asked of male employees. When a man then says he needs to leave work early to attend a school concert or pick up a child, it can be frowned upon – these outdated attitudes do nothing to help women and the fight for gender equity in the workplace.

Added to all of this, some managers make assumptions about what new mothers may or may not want to do, including in relation to taking on more workload, increasing one’s hours or stepping up to a more senior role. Not all women experience motherhood in the same way and not all women want to work flexibly for an indefinite period of time. Many women are ambitious and want to continue progressing their careers at speed; others still may be the primary bread-winner.

When I was taking maternity leave for my second child, I was far more upfront about what I wanted when I returned from my leave. It is definitely a good idea to start thinking ahead to when you might return to work and formulating a plan of action to help counterbalance the unfortunate biases and prejudices that accompany motherhood in the workplace.

Several women that they postpone marriage and pregnancy for the sake of retaining their jobs and rising through the ranks without bias. Do you think that is a viable solution?

I actually had this very conversation with a career coach some years before I fell pregnant with my second child. I told her I was worried about whether the timing was right or whether I should wait before trying for a second child as I felt I was not too far away from potentially being promoted. I didn’t want falling pregnant to impact my ability to progress, but I was also balancing this against my age at the time and the chances of falling pregnant getting narrower and narrower. She gave me advice that I will never forget and told me that there was never going to be a “right time” and that, if I wanted a second child, I should pursue that and that work, promotions and all, would sort themselves out in time. So, no, I don’t think it’s a viable or advisable solution.

Personally, what do you feel are a few measures that organizations can adopt to be more gender-friendly?

I think much of this depends on the organisation at hand and the issues that women in those organisations are actually facing. To understand these issues, organisations and leaders in those organisations need to take the time out to LISTEN and engage in meaningful dialogue with the women in the organisation before making assumptions as to what is required. All gender issues also need to be considered from an intersectional lens as the issues may differ for women from different ethnicities/cultural backgrounds (as an example).

Some things I would however look at are:

  • The levels of gender diversity throughout the organisation, including at the most senior levels of the organisation.

  • Taking active measures to review policies relating to flexible working and attitudes among staff, with a view to reducing the negative perceptions associated with flexible working and also make flexible working more readily available to both sexes, i.e. so it is not just viewed as a tool for working mothers. The same applies to parental leave policies which should ideally be drafted in a gender neutral manner.

  • Take time to understand the challenges faced by working mothers and the manner in which maternity leave and return to work is managed, so as to provide women with a less stressful entry back into the workforce.

  • Focus on inclusive practices by considering things such as the timings of meetings vis-à-vis caring responsibilities (which, much as we would like to see things change, currently fall more heavily upon women, even those that are quite senior in their profession) or meeting etiquette including whether women are getting a chance to voice their opinions.

  • Consider unconscious biases that may be entrenched in the way performance management, interviews or decisions around career progression are conducted.

How should a women handle discrimination at the workplace?

Speak up and report it, although I acknowledge that this is often easier said than done. It is one of the biggest challenges faced by women returning from maternity leave who feel they are being discriminated against. They may feel that they have to just “deal with it” in order to not have to try and find another job that will allow them to work flexibly during what is already such a stressful time.

I would also consider whether the organisation is right for you, although again personal circumstances can often be a challenge. The other thing I would recommend is talking to someone who champions you or gender diversity in general, and seek their advice on your options. If things are really bad, I would also seek legal advice to understand your options.

How can a woman achieve a work-life balance?

This is more challenging when you are junior as you may feel that you do not have a voice. I think this then comes down to the culture of the organisation you join and I encourage all students / graduates (regardless of gender) to carefully consider the culture they are joining and whether it is going to be conducive to balance.

Use flexible working options if they are available. With the world moving to remote working, there is definitely more acceptance now of at least that one form of flexible working. I would be careful though in ensuring you are not working more than the hours/days you are contracted to work if you are on a reduced hours arrangement – it is easy to fall into this trap. Set personal boundaries for when you will or won’t work and do not be afraid to say no. One thing I have learned over the years is that deadlines set by others are rarely set in stone.

Finally, if you tell your younger self one thing beforehand, what would it be? (We believe this would help all young women out there.)

Life is a path that takes many twists and turns, not all of them pleasant. You will face setbacks and challenges along the way, but each of those events will make you a stronger, more resilient, more emotionally intelligent person, employee, colleague, manager, leader, partner and parent. You are and always will be enough. Believe in YOU.

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