BY Vipra Sharma-Sethi, CONSULTANT, CAPCO
I’ve always been interested in how things work. When I was small, I used to take household items apart, including my dolls. At school, I put my curiosity to better use in the science labs, where I was top of my class in Chemistry and Physics. I loved how these subjects were so applicable to everyday life and how objects function from a compound level.
Growing up Asian in the London suburbs was not without its challenges. I desperately wanted to see women that looked like me, doing their bit in the name of science. I remember feeling so excited when I found out that Kalpana Chawla, a woman of Indian heritage, just like me, was going to space. Tragically, Chawla and six other astronauts perished in the Space Shuttle Columbia mission of 2003, but she gave me the validation that if I worked hard, I too could go on to great things.
My sixth form was all girls, and the sciences were not a popular choice at A-level. Only five students took Physics, and by the end of the course, there were just three of us left. Similarly, at City, University of London, I was one of four women on my Aeronautical Engineering master’s degree. It wasn’t much better in the workplace.
When I began my career, I was the only female on a floor of 40 employees and it took me a long time to gain the respect of my male colleagues. Even though I got on well with many of them, I sometimes felt like I was being treated differently, just because I was female.
In this role, I really had to prove my worth and one specific colleague, questioned my abilities continuously. In my first month at the company I made a mistake, which he was unwilling to let go of. My boss and another team member were aware of the environment this was creating. During a heated debate, said colleague said something unacceptable and the entire team came to my support immediately. At 20 years old, experiencing such harsh words from a more experienced colleague that were clearly linked to my gender, race and his subconscious prejudices, was hard for me.
My natural reaction was to tear up, which I tried to hide unsuccessfully, as I felt unprofessional in doing so. At the time, I remember thinking through the tears that if this colleague’s workmate’s new intern had made the same mistake as I had, they’d all be laughing and joking about it in five minutes. Why was it such a big deal, just because I made a mistake over a month ago and subsequently fixed it?
The experience taught me that I should never let others question my abilities based on their own prejudices, but always do my best to maintain my own sanity and dignity in the workplace.
Incidentally, the colleague did apologise thereafter, but I think this was only after his boss reprimanding him.
Lack of representation is of course a systemic problem in both the classroom and industry, but I would encourage all young women to not let it deter them in whichever career they choose. I know this isn’t easy. While my parents are very supportive, this wasn’t always the case.
I don’t think my father would mind admitting that he previously had some concerns about me working in male-dominated environments, which both engineering and consulting continues to be. But when my brother passed away, something in him changed. He said, “You’re our only child, now. You are our son and our daughter.”
I’m a parent too now. My son is three and I would hate for him to feel inhibited in any way, either. Being a parent tests you in so many ways, but it has changed the way that I work for the better. It has taught me that patience and perseverance definitely pays off!
So how do we ‘Press for Progress’? I am a firm believer that anything is possible. You just need to start with a plan. Sometimes, I think that women are afraid to take risks. Back when I worked at PwC my colleague Caroline Chen once gave me a piece of advice that has stuck with me to this day: “Give it a try. What’s the worst that can happen?”