This career advice article doesn’t come to you from someone with a corner office and decades of experience. I completed my PhD less than a year ago. But I do aspire to a career in senior leadership, either in academia or the private sector. Being able to say that publicly and believing I deserve to be taken seriously marks a milestone in my personal and professional development.
I failed my first term of university by 0.5 percent. At the time, the University of Waterloo’s engineering program was well known — and seemingly proud — for its high first-year failure rate. Having been near the top of my class in high school without much effort, I was ill prepared to manage the workload and stress of university. Distraught, I went to see the faculty’s first year academic advisor, who suggested I consider other programs, as it seemed I could not “cut it.” I did not accept this, and today I am a licensed member of Professional Engineers Ontario.
That’s not the happy ending
After a 10-year career in engineering consulting, I completed a master’s degree in environment and business. I enjoyed research and moved on to a PhD program in 2013. Though I received several scholarships and was successful on paper, the subjectivity of research and the uncertainties of navigating the world of academia caused me to doubt myself in a way reminiscent of adolescence. I internalized failures as reflections of my value and ability to contribute meaningfully.
As a PhD student, I took opportunities to present my work at conferences and industry events. During one networking session, a consultant, who happened to be an older white man, told me I would have no trouble finding a job post-graduation because the energy sector was looking to diversify to improve its public image. As a woman of Asian descent, this offended me, as I felt my unique set of qualifications and experiences should merit my selection for jobs, regardless of public relations strategies.
Nonetheless, the comment stuck with me and affected my confidence. It made me hyper-aware of how people perceive me based on my looks. I’m just over five feet tall and look at least 10 years younger than I am. As a result, I am often mistaken for an undergraduate student, sometimes even a high school student. I struggle at times to make myself visible in networking settings and it takes conscious effort for me to make my voice heard. It can be emotionally exhausting.
In the past, I’ve wondered if I was being too sensitive to subtle signals that I was being treated with bias or condescension. Now I realize the playing field is not equal, but based on hundreds of years of colonialism.
I’d also wondered if being a mother of two young children would limit my career. Now I know my role as a mother enhances my efficiency, my systems perspective and my ability to nurture professional relationships. Throughout my career, I have made choices in order to have a balanced life, and this will make me a better leader in the long run.
In the male-dominated field of engineering, I have sometimes wondered if my femininity constrains me. Now I know my passion and emotion do not make me weak or unreliable. Feeling deeply makes me loyal and committed to my team and projects.
Reframing my self-talk is still a daily struggle but a worthy one. I am determined to amplify my voice so I can have impact in the work I do. I aspire to a senior leadership role because when women occupy senior roles alongside men, discussions are richer and decisions account for more perspectives. And my perspectives are valuable. I am a real-world problem solver as well as a scholar. I am a subject matter expert in my field and have valuable experience in a range of industries.
I will seek more mentors and be empowered by the stories of strong, successful women. It is hard, but I will succeed. And I look forward to influencing and mentoring other future leaders, both women and men, when given the privilege. Starting now, with this article.
Stephanie Whitney is the associate director of the Viessmann Centre for Engagement and Research in Sustainability at Wilfrid Laurier University.