As four of the most powerful executives in TT, BPTT’s regional president Claire Fitzpatrick, vice president for corporate operations Giselle Thompson, regional director for procurement and supply chain management Camille Boodhai-Kangal and managing counsel Wendy Fae Thompson, epitomise the changing dynamics of corporate culture as it evolves from a place dominated by men to be more diverse and inclusive. They sat with associate business editor Carla Bridglal for a special International Women’s Day roundtable discussion last week at the BPTT’s corporate offices on Victoria Avenue, Port of Spain, sharing their personal stories and insights about what it means to be a working woman today, including the challenges they’ve faced, the support they’ve received, the importance of inclusion and diversity in a workplace, and the unapologetic drive to carve a career while striving to maintain balance in their personal and professional lives. The following is a transcript of the discussion, edited for clarity.
Tell me what it’s been like for you, your experience in the world of work.
Claire: I think my experiences reflect the sort of values BP promotes, which have been around inclusiveness. (It was) meritocratic, and I was equally able to access opportunities. Then it was over to me to maximise that opportunity. But I’ve actually found a fairly supportive environment. It’s not without its challenges but I don’t think that’s unique to us being female. I’ve found that the only competition has been with myself.
Wendy Fae: I think for me as well, I’ve been lucky to have a very supportive system and those I worked with were supportive coming up the ranks. I have a legal background, and even (there) at the top it can be seen as very male-dominated. But at the same time, it was important for everyone to understand the importance of inclusion and to give those opportunities. I’ve been lucky. There’s also the importance of a diverse workplace and being confident in yourself to build that message. Most importantly, there’s a lot going on in the support system but you also have to do some work to ensure you are technically competent and comfortable with yourself and your space and willing to challenge and be vocal in your views.
Giselle: Environment is very important in terms of corporate culture but when I reflect on my journey, what stands out is that I have been really lucky to work for great male bosses – Claire is my first female boss – who challenged me, stretched me, took risks to pull me through early in my career and gave me the coaching and the support I needed to be successful, so what that has taught me is to help others along as well. And see where sometimes you have really competent women who sometimes just need a little push, a little coaching to say you know, speak up at the table, make your position clear, be confident. The same coaching I would have received I make sure and pass that on as well.
Camille: In the pre-BP part of my career, the level of awareness around diversity and inclusion wasn’t as strong as it is now, so I think if we look at the organisation now and the people coming into the organisation, they are very much on board. You see a lot more people getting involved, speaking up, and it’s absolutely a changing time for the industry.
What challenges have you had to overcome on your journey? How? Have you ever had a crisis of confidence?
Claire: Opportunities are there but they aren’t always handed to you on a plate. Therefore, you need to make sure you are being a little more considered about what it is you actually want to do and take advantage of people who want to coach and support you. To test how do I go about doing some of those things and then having the courage to push yourself into the less comfortable space. In terms of crisis of confidence, I’m sure there are people out there who claim that at no point in their life that they never had a crisis of confidence, I’ve just not met very many and that’s certainly not restricted to women. Particularly, as I encourage other people to take steps that I’ve taken, if you want other people to grow and develop and progress it is dependent on merit but invariably it requires taking a bit of risk and putting yourself outside your comfort zone. That can sometimes be a little scary and that’s where having an environment that is inclusive and supportive is actually really important to allow people to become as good as we think they are capable of being. And that is something all of us who have roles of leaders in supporting the next generation.
Wendy Fae: Sharing and mentoring – sharing your story has done a lot. And I’ve seen it with our employees here in the company when we’ve done it. Just understanding that there are times where there will be challenges, how you overcome that challenge and sharing that story with another person or the employee body has been very, very powerful. They at least kind of connect and understand that okay, this is not unique to me, this is what happens on your journey and everybody faces it, but it’s how you deal with it. Mentoring is absolutely one of the most important things and I will always recommend to every young woman in the business to seek out a mentor early in their career.
Giselle: I’ll share a personal story on crisis of confidence. For me, I would say it was a milestone in my journey. I had a crisis of confidence when I was offered a senior leadership role but I was still on maternity leave. I had a two-month-old baby and my decision was, do I take the leap of faith and think I can deal with growing a very young family while at the same time stepping into a senior role? I did have a crisis of confidence – can I be a successful mother and successful in my job, which involved leading people? And when I sat back and thought about it I said, what would my male counterparts do? They wouldn’t think twice. They would say, absolutely, thank you and go for it. And that for me was stepping out of my comfort zone and taking the risk where I don’t know the answer, I don’t have this all figured out and I don’t have a plan but I have faith I can do it and that’s where you find the confidence to put your foot forward to take the opportunity as it comes.
Camille: Support isn’t just in the workplace, we have our families, our spouses/partners, friends who also provide that support along the way and that’s an invaluable asset that we all need to leverage.
That’s an interesting point about support. Tell me about the type of support you’ve had.
Camille: So, for me, my husband and parents were that support that I pulled on. In one of my first leadership roles here at BP, my daughter was doing SEA the same time I was doing my MBA, so you know that was a lot of hours at the office as well as studying, and my husband filled the gap. My parents also helped and supported, and for me that’s how I was able to get through that. And I know for everybody the story is different and people use different mechanisms, but a good thing for women in a similar situation is to think about what’s your support mechanism. Get it in place, so you know it’s reliable and trustworthy and you can then feel empowered to do what you need to do.
I know it’s cliché, but balance is important, especially for working women who often have to balance family, their personal and professional lives. How do you manage? Have you ever felt guilty?
Giselle: Mum guilt is very real (laughs). I don’t think it ever goes away. I think the conversation on balance is aspirational. You will never achieve full balance. However, it’s understanding that at certain times the scales may tip a little bit out of balance and making sure you have the support system in place and have the conversation that (considers if) it’s going to be a particularly tough year or month or period to get through and then find the opportunity to get things back in balance.
Wendy Fae: I think you need to know and embrace what’s important to you and that will come with having to make some sacrifices. For me, I did have the support of my family. When I moved to Aberdeen a couple years ago on an assignment, my husband could not go with me and I had young children. My parents were happy to fill in in that space. But then, I want to be involved in (my children’s) lives as well as having to balance what’s going on at work. So, I had, to me, make that choice of making some personal sacrifices in me wanting to be at home, at school, at PTA meetings, all those things, while still wanting to show up at work as a top performer getting the job done. So, it comes with a little bit of sacrifice because I know what’s important to me. And I think once you recognise that and embrace that it helps you navigate a little better and seek out the support where you need it.
Are you happy with the choices you’ve made?
Giselle: The happiness is a journey too. But I think any time the guilt sets in for me I just reflect on my own journey growing up in a household where both my parents worked and my mother was a career person her entire life – she’s only just retired. And for me as a woman, I had a great role model. I wanted for nothing, I never felt deprived because mum wasn’t at the bake sale so then why am I feeling that way towards my own children? So, it’s sort of a different perspective to look at it that I’m teaching (my children) to be independent. And I’m teaching them to be confident in how I model the role of a woman in society. I think there’s again, trade off but on balance once you’re happy with (your choices).
Claire: Everyone has to decide what their priority is. They’re not all the same for everyone and they will change over time but there’s also the realisation that you probably can’t be superwoman. There’s only 24 hours in the day and family requires time and effort in order to survive and grow, and work needs the same. It’s a constant juggle and one of the key things is support mechanisms and having honest conversations that (sometimes) it’s going to be really difficult (so) how are we going to work this. You get that commitment from the support network that this is collectively what is the right thing for ‘us,’ whichever the ‘us’ unit is. The other thing got me was learning to let go and outsource if I could.
How did you do that? How did you learn to let go?
Claire: Exhaustion. (Collective laugh)
Wendy Fae: (Nodding) By force.
Claire: Most of the times for me with letting go or reassessing, how I got the balance and priorities right is feedback from my support network who called me on it. Whether it’s friends, family, husband, whoever, it’s okay. Let’s hold up a mirror and really, have you got this right? and my support network is telling me no, you haven’t. because you are now draining too much out of the goodwill bank.
How do you handle criticism?
Wendy Fae: Our organisation has taught us that feedback is a gift.
Giselle: It’s sort of a mantra we have. Feedback is a gift, just say thank you.
Wendy Fae: And it’s another person’s perception, so it’s understanding that this is how they are seeing it. You have to deal with that in order to be efficient.
Tell me about the evolution of corporate culture, especially BPTT’s.
Wendy Fae: It’s been an evolution. We started decades ago fighting for voting rights and fighting for equal pay and that has then morphed from that to fighting for representation at the board level or just talking about the importance of the equality of women. Now we are at the stage where it’s not a fight to get gender on the agenda. It’s there. It’s really now the tangible action of continuing that conversation as a balanced conversation. Inclusion, for example, and a lot of corporate culture – certainly our corporate culture – has embraced the importance for businesses of a diverse workplace and inclusivity. So, we are all revelling in that.
Claire: I like the word evolve. I think it’s a growing awareness (that) it isn’t just about gender, it’s that diversity and balance are good for business. There’s data out there about how a diverse workforce adds more to the bottom line because it’s as much about the diversity of thought that actually allows things to progress and be constructively challenged in a different way, so I think the whole narrative has changed. Balance doesn’t mean that it’s always fifty-fifty. Balance adjusts depending on what’s appropriate and for me, it’s meritocratic-based, not purely gender based.
Giselle: Gender, and more broadly speaking, diversity is on the agenda. So just in our own corporate culture in the last three to five years you see so much more deliberate action around making sure we are a more inclusive company. From the fact that we are now measuring our metrics that we are reporting on it. In the UK, they do the gender pay gap reporting and also, we are taking deliberate steps to make sure we are calling issues out, like unconscious bias, or looking for opportunities to provide support networks. So, a couple years ago we would never have had women’s groups. Now we have women in engineering, women in operations, we have a BP Win network, a women’s network across the organisation, where the agenda isn’t just all female, it’s about inclusivity so there are men in the conversation as well. So, it’s definitely pretty embedded in our culture and conversation of what is taking place.
How about locally? How have you seen the gender equality and women in the workplace on a national scale?
Camille: The workforce is changing. The workforce today has a lot more women who have both technical capabilities and experience, so organisations need to understand that is a valuable asset. Organisations need to have the right policies, procedures and practices in place to be able to embrace the productivity that women in the workplace can bring.
Giselle: I like to see it as the glass is half full. We really have made quite significant progress. If I look at the head of the permanent secretaries in the various ministries that we meet with, they are largely female. They’re at the top of their game in the public service. In the financial services sector, there is a strong female (component), even in the legal fraternity. So, across many sectors you are seeing many more women rising to the top because of competency. Now, it doesn’t mean we’re there. You can look at state boards, for example, the representation is not where it should be. Or you can say at Parliament, could we have better balance? So, there are some areas where we are making progress and some where we can do better.
Have you ever experienced sexism?
Claire: We benefitted from being in an inclusive environment and supportive in actually encouraging people to progress so I think for me that’s more what I’ve been aware of. I’m sure there have been people over the years who have made a comments and jokes, but that was in a room where, it wasn’t sexist, it was humorous and done in that spirit, so for me that has been my personal experience.
Giselle: I think I would say, who hasn’t, right? But you call it out, learn from it and keep going. I won’t say it’s been a big challenge.
Claire: If it is something that someone experiences, call it out. And I think in our environment, it’s not something that is expected and it’s certainly not tolerated. And I will encourage that in our organisation or anywhere. It doesn’t change unless it gets called out.
Wendy: It’s part of the evolution. You have all these movements that are ensuring that it’s called out. And so, it’s no longer taboo, no longer acceptable to hide it. We are living in an environment now where, even if sexism exists in certain quarters, it’s no longer tolerated the way it used to be so there’s even an evolution in how you treat with it when it shows up.
Tell me about the importance, then, of allies?
Claire: One of the wonderful things about this industry is that it requires people from all sorts backgrounds and as we’ve already heard— (you need) allies, support, mentors, who will advise you or challenge you, ask you why, so they can understand your thinking and help you make decisions.
Giselle: I think with allies, you have to invite it, and I think a lot of times, many women don’t. But you need to create the bridges and open the doors to the conversation. It doesn’t need to be a boss relationship, it could be another male peer but you need to open the door. Ask for feedback on a presentation, for example. Asking for feedback and being open to it creates the space for that conversation
Camille: Feedback is a gift.
Wendy: But it’s not only feedback but inviting men into the conversation. In BP we have invited men into the conversation. In fact, they are knocking on the door, they want to be a part of it. And that’s the whole thing about it. Putting men aside as allies, I want to use allies loosely and I want to talk about being allies to our young girls coming up. Not only in the organisation but in the community in which we operate. Define ways to ensure that in this generation we are a little more welcoming and willing to mentor young girls coming up. Be their allies, be their mentors. Share stories and encourage them. I don’t think we need to knock on the door of how many women are in engineering. When you look at the universities it’s there, it’s really when you come into the workplace how you start building and sharing the story.
Claire: Part of sharing stories is so that we don’t have talented people making assumptions about what they can or cannot achieve and that’s where the support and conversation really come in. I know I have had conversations over the years where young women have said, ‘But I won’t be able to because…’ and I say, no, let’s challenge that assumption.
How have you addressed the shifting dynamic then, of encouraging women in the workplace so it’s not at the expense of men?
Giselle: It comes back to inclusivity in that with us trying to progress one agenda, we don’t want an unintended consequence of marginalising another sector in society. And yes, there is a crisis of the performance of boys in our school system, from primary, secondary, all the way to tertiary. And it’s something that should be concerning. But for us, it comes back again to meritocracy. From the selection process, all through how we continue to support development, it’s inclusive to all genders and all aspects of diversity – race, age, no matter what. And keeping our eyes on all those balls is important because sometimes you can get too focused on one area and start seeing other things slip.
Wendy Fae: It’s always a topic of conversation that at the university and school level you see a higher percentage of women dominating and when you get into the workplace somehow the percentage falls off. And the discussion always therefore centres on when women decide to have a family or other challenges they are facing in their work life, they pull back thinking it’s a challenge to get them further. And what does the organisation do to help that? And I think more and more we are seeing that we are providing quite a lot of initiatives to encourage and support so that it doesn’t have to be a challenge. We have flexible working policies – work from home, child care – so that as you begin to build your career you don’t need to feel that you (have to make a choice). And I think that’s where we are focused now that we can find those initiatives to help the growth of their careers.
How do you know that people are taking advantage of these facilities?
Claire: We have a database and we know how many people who have kids in the child care centre but it’s also people speaking out and talking about it and asking about it. To someone who’s about to go on maternity leave, for example, do you know that we have mothers’ nursing rooms in the office so when you return you’re not being forced to make a choice? Because there are different ways of accommodating it. People do value the flexibility and we have evidence of people using it and for me it’s a, use it and b, if it’s not working, we want to encourage people to say what’s not working because if one person thinks it’s not working, then chances are, others feel the same way. If we don’t know about it (we can’t improve it). Male or female, they have invested a lot of time and effort to develop (themselves). To have them make a choice to take themselves out of the workforce for something that’s manageable, that’s crazy.
Giselle: On opting out, a lot of times just looking at statistics (on) why aren’t women coming through, one can look at it and ask why are we only promoting men? In many instances, though, it’s because women are opting out in the mid-career stage because they feel they can’t balance it all and therefore their choice is to say I need to prioritise my family issues. So, for us as an organisation, what’s the support system we can provide and the conversations we have so they know they don’t need to opt out. We’re flexible enough to say we can find some arrangement to make it work for you. And it’s not just raising young kids, it could be employees dealing with sick and ageing parents. It is about opening the door to dialogue where employees don’t feel they need to solve the problem on their own.
Claire: It’s about creating options so people know they have a choice and can take advantage of opportunities in the workplace. Be flexible. We also want people to bring solutions. There may be new ideas that we haven’t explored yet so we are always open to listening to the employee base.
How do you make people feel comfortable about giving feedback?
Giselle: I think a lot of it comes out of the women’s networks. And that’s the whole reason for having them – it’s a support system that allows a safe space for women to share, express and learn from each other.
Camille: We have people in these networks at different stages of their careers so they can share their experiences.
Wendy Fae: Continuous conversation.
Giselle: It’s always a journey.
A lot of women feel like they can’t make mistakes because they have a need for perfection, whereas men, for instance, may feel more comfortable with making mistakes and getting over it without too much of a blow to their confidence. Do you see that? How would you reassure women that it’s okay to make mistakes?
Camille: Part of it is recognising that we are all human. Mistakes are a part of life. Nobody is immune to it. And the key from any mistake is to make sure you learn and don’t repeat. And seek advice on how to do things differently.
Wendy Fae: We are building a culture of fail fast so the whole idea is about learning and that everything doesn’t have to be 100 per cent perfect. We want people to understand that and we are building that skill and mind set in team leaders as well so they can give employees and team members the space to be creative because that fear of failing will hold you back from your creative self. It’s that continuous conversation opening up that mind set that it’s fine to fail.
My mother has said to me that I was always Miss Perfect. Everything had to be perfect and if it wasn’t, the world was going to end tomorrow. And it was important then as it is now that there should be someone who is able to say to you that we see you and it does not have to be that way. You have to opportunity and the space. You will still be loved, from a familial perspective, you will still be respected from a team perspective and build that trust in order to do that.
Claire: There’s a lot of research done on the imposter syndrome, which is that fear that you are a fraud and someone is going to find you out eventually. A lot of stuff suggested that was a female bias, but actually all the data and research done indicates it isn’t – it’s actually male and female and it’s about recognising that if that is a feeling you are experiencing, what are the techniques of managing it so that it doesn’t hamper you so much that you lose confidence and cease performing at you’re A game. I’ve read so much that this is what a woman feels and I’ve felt yes, I’ve identified with that. But actually, the data doesn’t support it as exclusively female.
Have you had any regrets?
Claire: Yes, at moments in time but I’ve also learnt that regret as an emotion isn’t very productive and it’s a case of if I’ve made the best decision I could have based on the information I had at that time and how I felt at that time, then that’s the best I was able to do at that time and I shouldn’t regret it. Hindsight is always 20/20. If only if I had known then what I do now I might have done something different! So, for me, it’s that I’ve let go worrying about regret a long time now.
Camille: It’s difficult to go through life, or the world of work, without having some regrets. The important thing is to learn from them and move on. But those situations that happen early in our career shape who we are today and if it weren’t for them we probably wouldn’t be here today. So, you know, it’s actually a good thing that we’ve learnt from them and grown.
Giselle: I wouldn’t say it’s a regret but when I look back it’s sort of a feeling that I should have believed in myself more. I should have taken more risk. So, it was others seeing something in me to draw that out. And again, hindsight is 20/20, it’s part of the journey and maturity and developing in your career. Those are sort of the building blocks that got you to where you are. And the learnings you can take from that and say to the younger ones coming through facing the same issues and coaching them along.
Claire: It’s okay. You’re not going to have life mapped out at the start. Because it will evolve and change.
Giselle: Thing about perfection… it’s not worth it. You know the 80/20 rule is real!
Claire: I do have ne caveat, though. We are in a high hazard industry so creativity is great, but my people on site, I expect them to follow the procedure. Follow the rules.
Do you see yourselves as role models? Not just within the company, but for the country?
Claire: I think it’s fantastic to be in a position that we have four women on the leadership team that are in a position to be role models. That’s something we should all be proud of but equally for me, I’d love to get to a situation where that wasn’t viewed as unusual.
Everyone: That’s correct, absolutely.
Giselle: For me, I think it comes with a great sense of obligation that means we have a role to play. We sit in positions of influence, whether that’s influence within our company, our industry or broader TT, to use that for positivity and to continue to support inclusion, whether gender inclusion or inclusion as broadly as you want to think of it. So, I do feel a sense of obligation that says I need to be helping others along that journey as well.
Wendy Fae: I think sometimes, it’s not that you don’t realise you’re a role model, but that you’re in an environment where they are actually pulling that from you. I’ve had lots of calls, and I’m sure each one of us has had, to be mentors for women in the organisation, so they are seeing and experiencing and want to be part of that journey and pulling us in that direction. And it’s hard to say no. I’ve had to say no a couple times because it’s just too many but the important thing is to just support them and steer them in the right direction. I think it is hard work. I never like to put anyone on a pedestal because you want to understand that everyone is human and will make mistakes. So, what does being a role model really mean? It means I am human, it means I can make mistakes, even at this level in my career. And it’s how you deal with that. And you can try to impart that.
Any final words?
Claire: I think I’ll go back to something earlier that Giselle said, where you wished you’d pushed yourself more, been a little bolder. I think that would be the one thing I would say to people. Be a little bolder. And as you think what career choices, options, roles, opportunities you see, just be a little bolder.
Wendy Fae: Be a little bolder and be always willing to ask for help.
Wendy Fae: I underscore having a mentor informally, formally, whichever works for you, but don’t ever think that you are alone. There are areas you can seek help from as you build that. I didn’t have a mentor growing up specifically but I can call my mom as a mentor and maybe some of my bosses, but it’s really important to have one.
Giselle: Don’t be afraid to take risks. I say that to myself all the time still. Particularly in putting yourself out there. As women, we always want to have the most structured plan – that’s the end game and these are all the steps I’m going to take and sometimes, you just don’t know. It is having the confidence to take the risk and jump in and figure it out as you go in. There is a Sheryl Sandberg quote that I love, ‘If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat, just get on.’ Sometimes I reflect on, (should I, shouldn’t I)? you won’t have all the answers but put your best foot forward and you’ll work it out.
Camille: I think the only thing holding you back is yourself. Success is different for everybody. Whatever anyone chooses as their path to success just give it your all and be happy.