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In 2011, Griselda Togobo decided to jump ship from professional services firm Deloitte. She quit the firm at the age of 30 because she felt the very male environment there had crushed the confidence she had when she left university.
Today, she is managing director and owner of UK-based Forward Ladies, which helps people and organisations improve the experience of women in business, in particular in Stem — science, technology, engineering and maths — fields. The biggest barriers for women in those sectors, says Ms Togobo, are the opportunities for progression and the networking culture, which, she says, still feels as if it has been designed by and for men.
The gender imbalance in the Stem sector is more pronounced than in many others. In the US, women are awarded 35 per cent of first degrees in Stem subjects, yet only one in seven of these women go on to work in the sector, according to the World Economic Forum. The UK’s Stem workforce is 13 per cent female.
As a mentor to young women in business, IT, engineering and accounting, Ms Togobo asks them to think about how they can capitalise on being in the minority: “You stand out because of that difference. If you go into the room and you’re the only woman, the only Asian, the only tall person — flip that and see what opportunities you can get from it.”
Here, three women outline their experiences working in male-dominated sectors.
Pocket Sun, 26, is co-founder of SoGal Ventures, Singapore
It was while she was studying entrepreneurship and innovation at university in the US that Pocket Sun realised the case studies she read, the expert speakers she heard, and the innovators being showcased were, by and large, men. Even last year, she says, all-female led start-ups in the US attracted just 2.2 per cent of the total invested by venture capital (VC) firms. She decided that “venture capital was the way to go if I were to change the ratio for the better”.
On taking a closer look, however, she found there were few VC firms she wanted to work for, partly because of their investment priorities but also because of their attitude towards diversity at work. This led Ms Sun and co-founder Elizabeth Galbut to set up SoGal Ventures, based in Singapore and New York, which invests in early-stage start-ups in Asia and the US.
“It was not a really friendly environment for women who are starting out,” says Ms Sun. “I didn’t want to tell people that I was starting a VC firm because then the rest of the conversation would just become a series of investigations for me to justify myself and my qualifications.” That still happens, she says. “Even today, when I go to conferences I get comments like: ‘What you’re doing is really cute’.
Some of SoGal’s own start-up funding was their own cash, as well as money from wealthy individuals and other investors. “We managed it by hustling and keeping at it,” she says.
At the moment, SoGal Ventures has 14 companies in its investment portfolio, including Function of Beauty, which supplies bespoke shampoos and hair conditioners, and EverlyWell, a which supplies medical home-testing kits. “As VCs, you invest in what you know — and that’s probably the best thing to do,” says Ms Sun. “There are so few decision-making VCs that are younger and that are women, so they’re not [investing] in certain things that we’re interested in.”
Stacey Lock, 28, building work, London
It was Stacey Lock’s grandmother who gave her the idea of becoming a builder. After Ms Lock’s grandfather died, her grandmother was uncomfortable with “workmen” she didn’t know coming into the house. “So, I thought there need to be some ‘work women’,” says Ms Lock. “I thought there must be thousands of nans out there that feel the same.”
Initially, she wanted a female clientele but now she takes whichever jobs come her way. She works on the interior and exterior of buildings: painting and plastering, laying floors and knocking down walls. She is often the only woman on a building site, which may not be set up with women in mind. On one site, she says, there was only one toilet — doorless until “they managed to put a door-type thing on this makeshift toilet”.
Building site banter can be sexist, but Ms Lock brushes it off. “It’s small things — you might turn up on a site and they’ll say, ‘Oh look, she’s come to put the kettle on’, but they’re just trying to be funny,” she says. Other women, she knows, have a harder time dealing with the macho humour or the male gaze as they climb a ladder. “Some ladies have asked me to go on to a job with them because I’m the type of person that would turn round and say something.”
That comes from having confidence, Ms Lock says. “I don’t think there is ever a day when I think, I can’t do that, a bloke could do that,” she says. Except for scaffolding, she adds — “those 21-foot poles are so heavy to balance on just your shoulder”.
Naisrín Elsafty, 29, trainee surgeon, Dublin
“There is an old saying in surgery, ‘See one, do one’, that a lot of consultants would still adhere to,” says Naisrín Elsafty, a surgical trainee in Ireland’s capital. She is referring to the expectation that trainees carry out a surgical procedure after watching it being done once. “Generally, the type of people in surgery have a ‘go get ’em’ attitude,” she says.
Ms Elsafty always had that kind of confidence, she says, attributing it partly to her background in the traditional Irish singing style of sean nós. “Being able to stand up on a stage and sing unaccompanied to an audience has really helped me when I’m presenting [at work],” she says.
She still has four years to go to become an ear, nose and throat surgeon but recalls when she had to decide which specialism to choose. Her tutors painted a negative picture of surgery. “Most of the tutors would say, ‘Why would you do that? It’s such a long road, it’s poor work-life balance.’ I think that put a lot of people off, not just women.”
In Ireland, only 7 per cent of consultant surgeons are women and Ms Elsafty has noticed a high dropout rate among her fellow female surgical trainees. “I can’t count the number of female trainees who [have] quit the scheme,” says Ms Elsafty. Reasons for leaving range from long hours to bullying to not wanting to switch location after getting married.
Ms Elsafty does not feel isolated, however, as one of the few women in the profession. She looks to two consultant surgeons as guides. “They’re admirable role models,” she says. “Both women, both finished their scheme, got married and had children after the scheme. They always give good advice. They say, ‘Stay organised — you’re always going to have to work hard’.”