23 July 2018
The 2018 She Leads Conference, happening 1 August 2018, brings together some of Australia’s biggest and brightest names from diverse industries and backgrounds to share practical advice and skills on learning to rise, lead, and take other women with you. One fantastic woman speaking at the Conference on the panel Leading and Lifting, is Raji Ambikairajah.
You are the CEO of the profit-for-purpose tech company FOLO, previous COO of Women in Banking and Finance, and hold a PhD in electrical engineering – In terms of action, what steps can we all take to see a greater representation of women in STEM?
Education is the first step in building a greater representation of women in STEM – if we want to see larger number of women move from being consumers of technology to creators of technology, it is imperative that the exposure and learning of STEM starts in primary and secondary schools. Studying STEM is not about the 1% who want to become mathematicians or engineers. The skill set of STEM will provide women with a real, sustained fighting chance to take calculated risks, to ride through waves of failure, and rise to a place of learning and growth across their personal and professional lives.
What has been your biggest personal and career accomplishment so far?
My greatest accomplishment so far, and certainly also my greatest privilege has been to open up the opportunity of a brighter future for young girls through education, and watching them bring their hopes and dreams to reality. Watching a girl become the first in her family to finish secondary school, watching her dream about being a doctor, a scientist, or an engineer and then achieving that dream is the best feeling – there is no accomplishment greater than that for me.
How would you define your leadership style? What do you see as some of the less effective styles of leadership?
My leadership practice focuses on paving opportunities for the people around me – I always think about how can I create that instant where someone on my team can experience growth and step into their highest potential. I see it as my responsibility as a leader to lead by example and also my responsibility to open up ways in which people can exercise the best versions of themselves.
The less effective style of leadership that I have observed is micromanagement. It curbs the potential of individuals and restricts diversity of thought and approach.
You’re an Ambassador for Room to Read. Your work to improve the lives of girls and women is obviously a core value – what insights does your experience give you regarding some of the barriers women face to leadership opportunities?
The biggest three barriers for women in leadership, are societal, cultural and structural, across every sector. We live in a world where these barriers have unfortunately inhibited the ideas and solutions from half the world’s population for too long. A lot of work continues to be done on unlocking opportunities for women, such as providing sponsorship, mentoring and better workplace practices but real, systemic change will only come about when there is structural, societal and cultural change in workplaces and in homes, for both men and women.
Only when we have fundamentally shifted gender-based stereotypes and cultural norms that traditionally place women as the primary carer in the home and men as the primary bread-winner in the workplace, will we see women positioned to reach their full potential and participate equally in our economy. It will take more than wholesale change in workplace policies. Cultural change is required to shift mindsets and entrenched societal structures that have prevented women from achieving equal access to leadership.
Earlier this year you received a prestigious NSW Woman of the Year award. Tell us a bit more about this, and what it means to you?
In terms of what it means to me – I am very mindful of the fact that success and responsibility come hand in hand. For every success that comes my way, I am conscious that I have also been handed the responsibility to use that success to open up pathways for other people. A lot of the wins in my life have been the result of other people backing me, or the result of being at the right place at the right time. So I take the relationship between success and responsibility seriously and I am constantly striving to make sure that my successes are shared and can be used as a platform for other people to build their own success. I’m keen to always find ways to use the opportunity of receiving this award to open up avenues for other women.
In thinking about creating structural change, what do you feel must happen to ensure that all women, particularly those from diverse and marginalised communities, are able to reach equality and thrive?
At the root of everything, the key to developing solutions to any problem is an educated population. When girls and women, especially those from marginalised communities have access to a quality education, it is a game changer. We live in a world where two-thirds of the world’s illiterate population are girls and women, yet educating a girl has been directly linked to better family health, better economies and a greater likelihood of the next generation being educated. Providing girls with access to a quality education, academic support, and teaching them key life skills is a critical component to achieving structural change.
What do you do to raise other women with you?
There is a saying that behind every successful woman is a tribe of other successful women who have her back. To raise other women, I find ways to be part of their tribe – whether that be to introduce them to my network, to put them forward for opportunities or be a sounding board. Paving success forward is both a privilege and a responsibility and I believe that women can help each other lean into their own journeys and opportunities.
What single action or event from a mentor has had the biggest impact on you and your career?
I once had a 30 minute conversation where a mentor outlined the key skills that she thought I should look for in my next role, in order to achieve my career vision. I kept her advice in mind, had hundreds of coffee meetings, and six months later ended up landing my first CEO role, ticking all the skills boxes she had mentioned.
To hear more from Dr Raji Ambikairajah, register to attend the 2018 She Leads Conference.