Balance is aspirational. And these four working women – BPTT 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 – know better than most that while merit and ability can get you part of the way, to reach the top, you need a good support system to help you go all the way.
“You can’t be superwoman. There’s only 24 hours in the day. Family requires time and effort for that to survive and grow, and work needs time and effort for the same. It’s constantly that juggle and one of the key things is support mechanisms and that revolves around having honest conversations that (sometimes) it’s going to be a really difficult period, so how are we going to work this? Then you get that commitment from your support network that this is collectively (agreed to be) the right thing for ‘us,’ whichever the ‘us’ unit is,” Claire said.
“You will never achieve full balance. But it’s understanding that at certain times the scales may tip a little bit out of balance (and) you have the support system in place for when it does,” Giselle added.
Support isn’t just for the workplace, Camille noted. “We have our families, our spouses/partners, and friends who all provide that support along the way and that’s an invaluable asset that we all need to leverage. Get that in place, so you know it’s reliable and trustworthy so you can then feel empowered to do what you need to do.”
For Wendy Fae, it’s about knowing and embracing what’s important to you, and understanding that it will come with having to make some sacrifices. “Once you recognise that and embrace it, it helps you navigate a little better and seek out the support where you need it.”
As four of the most powerful executives in TT, these four women 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 Business Day for a special International Women’s Day roundtable discussion, last week, at 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.
An important lesson, Claire said, was learning to let go and outsource where necessary. How did she learn to do that? “Exhaustion,” she chuckled, and feedback from her support network. “Most of the times for me letting go, or reassessing how I got my 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?' It’s my support network really telling me, 'no, you haven’t because you are now draining too much out of the goodwill bank.'”
"Most of the times for me letting go, or reassessing how I got my 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?'" – Claire Fitzpatrick
It’s also perspective. “My mother has always 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,” Wendy Fae added. “It was important then as it is now that there should be someone who is able to say to you it does not have to be that way. You have to have 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.”
The willingness to recognise failure as an option also helps with perspective. “It’s 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,” Camille said.
Perfection is not worth it, Giselle quipped, and “mum guilt” is real and never goes away.
“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. 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 them 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 (for) balance but once you’re happy with it,” she said.
"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." – Camille Boodhai-Kangal
Evolving corporate culture
Women started the turn of the 20th century fighting for voting rights, and the struggle has continued for equality and representation, but all four women agree, there has been an evolution, and for the most part, it’s been for the better.
“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 and we are all revelling in that,” Wendy Fae said.
Claire added: “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 is good for business. A diverse workforce adds more to the bottom line because it’s as much about the diversity of thought that actually then 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 50-50. Balance adjusts depending on what’s appropriate and for me it’s meritocratic-based not purely gender based.”
“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. – Wendy Fae Thompson
BPTT, as part of a multinational company with British roots, is invariably influenced by the parent. The company’s corporate culture regarding gender and inclusivity has changed in the last three to five years, Giselle noted, with much more deliberate actions, including measuring and reporting metrics. “We are taking deliberate steps to make sure we are calling issues out, 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, which is 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.”
The company also tries to be more accommodating to working parents in mid-career phase who often find it difficult to find that balance with their personal and professional life, and may see leaving the workforce as their only option. BPTT offers, among other things, flexible working hours, including work-from-home options, nursing rooms for mothers, and child care facilities.
“Male or female (people) have invested a lot of time and effort to develop (in their careers) so to have them to make a choice to take themselves out of the workforce for something that’s manageable, that’s crazy,” Claire said.
“At the (education) 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 then 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. We are providing quite a lot of initiatives to encourage and support (so) it doesn’t have to be a challenge, so that as you begin to build your career you don’t need to feel that you (have to make a choice),” Wendy Fae added.
“You can look at the stats and wonder, why aren’t women coming through, and say we are only promoting men, when in many instances it’s because women are opting out in mid-career stage because they feel they can’t balance it all. 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. 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,” Giselle said.
Eliminating sexism in the workplace is also a priority, especially given the company’s pride in its policies of inclusivity.
“I think I would say, who hasn’t experienced (sexism), right? But you call it out, learn from it and keep going. I won’t say it’s been a big challenge,” Giselle said.
Fitzpatrick added, “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.”
It’s part of the evolution, Wendy Fae said. “You have all these movements that are ensuring that it’s called out 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.”
“You can look at the stats and wonder, why aren’t women coming through, and say we are only promoting men, when in many instances it’s because women are opting out in mid-career stage because they feel they can’t balance it all." – Giselle Thompson
As much as BPTT’s corporate culture has evolved, the local landscape has changed as well. “The workforce is changing. There are a lot more women who have technical capabilities and experience so organisations need to understand that is a valuable asset to harness. Organisations need to have the right polices, procedures and practices in place to be able to embrace the productivity that women in the workplace can bring,” Camille said.
“I like to see it as the glass is half full,” Giselle added. “We really have made quite significant progress. If I look at 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’s 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 even Parliament. So, there are some areas where we are making progress and some where we can do better.”
Sharing stories to build leaders
Support isn’t just family and friends. Each woman noted the importance of having some sort of mentor that was willing to give them honest feedback or the necessary push when they may have wavered.
“When I reflect on my journey, what stands out is that I have been really lucky to work for some great male bosses – Claire is my first female boss – who challenged me and took risks to pull me through early in my career and gave me the coaching and the support I needed to be successful. That has taught me is to help others along as well, and see where sometimes you have really competent females 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,” Giselle said.
Sharing your story also does a lot, Wendy Fae added. “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 powerful. They 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.”
Claire added: “Part of sharing stories is so 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.”
Being role models, then, is something these women are cognizant of and are proud to be, so they take it seriously.
“I think it’s fantastic to be in a position that we have four females on the leadership teams 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,” Claire added.
Giselle said: “For me I think it comes with a great sense of obligation. 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.”
No regrets… well, not a lot
So do they have any regrets?
“Yes, at moments in time. But I’ve also learnt that regret as an emotion isn’t very productive. Hindsight is always 20/20. If only if I had known then what I did now I might have done something different. So, for me, it’s that I’ve let go worrying about regret a long time now,” Fitzpatrick said. It’s okay, she said, if you don’t have your life mapped out, because it will evolve and change. She did make sure to add one important caveat though, to being bold and taking risk: “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.”
“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,” Camille added.
And while she’s content for the most part, Giselle thought maybe she would have taken a little more risk. “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 what you can use when you’re coaching the younger ones on their journey.”