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International Women in Engineering Day 2021

23 June 2021
Written by Colette Cohen OBE

On the 29th April, six female leaders came together to chat and answer questions on our careers, what inspired us, what drove our decision making and many many more topics raised by the audience.

We weren’t able to get to all of the questions, so we each agreed to take one key question topic from the event and address it.

I thought as its International Women in Engineering Day (INWED2021), today might be a good day to take on the topic of Career. I promise, I’ll try to keep it short. But there were a few consistent themes in the questions around progressing your career, so I’m going to try to address them.

The first is the Comfort Zone – or more importantly, the Discomfort Zone.

All of the ladies on the night reflected that growth, progress, personal and professional advancement are in part driven by getting out of your comfort zone.

The time you feel most challenged is the time you are learning and growing the most.  It is the experiences you gain as you conquer each one of your fears and overcome big challenges that guide your future decisions and give you confidence in your own abilities. And of course…. failure also gives you incredible insight and lessons for the future. Anyone who hasn’t failed, hasn’t really tried anything new.

So I would encourage you to embrace the unknown. Don’t thrown yourself heedlessly into the abyss –  build on your knowledge, develop a great network to support and guide you, but when given a new opportunity  – grab it with both hands and dive into the Discomfort Zone.

Amelia Earhart… a true inspirational Woman once said, “the most difficult thing is the decision to act… the rest is merely tenacity”

Getting out of your comfort zone is the fastest way I know to move through the ranks, get noticed, get promoted.

Tied to the Discomfort Zone were questions on international careers and if they accelerate your career progression. Well,  I think historically they did. The experience you gained in different offices, countries, cultures and working in different parts of the business can definitely provide you with a corporate edge and grows your network quickly.

But in today’s environment, where we’re more connected and there is a greater appreciation of cost and dual careers (with their limitations to international placement), I think it matters less. Instead, your attitude, openness to trying new roles and really understanding the business you are in can provide you with similar experience for promotion. Using the company and industry activities to build your network compensates for not working in other locations. But recognise that you will need to intentionally develop your network and keep it active, engaged in what you are doing and supportive of the people within it. Many people think ‘being connected’ or ‘knowing someone’ is enough – that’s not networking, that’s random friending…

Michelle Obama says “Success is about the difference you make in other peoples lives” and that is the very essence of a successful network.

And what about how to stand out? Other than of course the fact that you’re the only woman in the room? The same qualities for men and women work for me – your enthusiasm, hard work, creativity and ability to deliver makes anyone stand out. If you can combine that with a strong sense of teamwork, you’ll do great.

The last questions all combine into one key theme – what would you tell your younger self? Or what was a pivotal moment in your career when you knew you had to do things differently? And I think the two for me certainly were combined. I had a great early career in the oil and gas industry – I’m not going to pretend there wasn’t some prejudice and particularly offshore, some who didn’t want women there – but overall, I was welcomed, supported and helped by my male colleagues. However, you learned quickly to hide any vulnerabilities.

And in the long term, this created a suit of armour which I donned every morning, without even realising it. So, while I joked and worked in teams, I always protected myself from exposing both technical and emotional vulnerabilities, which of course stops you asking for help or advice when you really need it. It took a super coach and a few brave moments to break that habit and really let others in to support and help me. I wish I had opened up way earlier in my career. I wish I had been braver early. Asked for more advice and shown my softer side. What I discovered when I finally dropped my barriers and left my suit of armour at home, was that the downside of exposing your vulnerabilities is a lot smaller than the amazing warmth and support you get from your colleagues and mentors. For me, it was transformational. A turning point that has enhanced my life, my career and happiness. I wish I’d done it earlier.

So, my parting message today as we celebrate International Women in Engineering Day, to any young engineers starting out on their career journey, is that we can do our job and do it brilliantly but asking for help makes us stronger, smarter and happier, not weaker.

Go out there, be brilliant and every day, remember to help someone else to be brilliant too. Be someone’s #EngineeringHero, which just so happens to be this year’s #INWED2021 theme. It’s important, let’s celebrate success together.

Watch this space for more advice from my fellow industry leaders, and if you missed the Inspiring Leaders event which took place back in April, catch up here:

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