Growing up, I never felt any different for being a girl: at school in France, Brazil, Holland, and at University in Spain and Italy, there was equal representation of males and females and my grades were a reflection of my hard work. I never thought any different.
But then, the work life started, and I was hit with a brand new reality…
My first job was China Manager for a European logistics company based in Shanghai. I was working as an intern at the time at the Spanish Trade Commission in Shanghai and the employer contacted all 5 interns to invite them for an interview. All except one: me. The other 5 were men. I was outraged and genuinely surprised that just because I was a woman I would not get a ticket to the interview, and so I contacted the hiring manager directly and invited myself to the interview.
He ended up being my boss. He was a great guy and years later, he admitted that the management had agreed that they needed a man for the job because a woman might not be “tough enough” to handle China and lead with the Chinese agents and clients and would probably quit after a year max. I ended up staying in China longer than my male colleagues and learned to speak Chinese well enough that I would host the business meetings in Chinese and translate to the executive team at the same time, all across China.
Once I had the job, I became the only woman in the room: I was the first woman to manage a Spanish logistics business in China, I was the only woman in the international meetings with all the directors and the only woman when we visited the agents in China. They often thought I was the secretary, and when I visited alone, they would openly sneak behind my shoulders to try to spot the boss. I was the boss, ha!
I was always treated with respect and my voice was heard, but not having anyone around like me was somehow alienating. It also meant that I couldn’t really join the “all boys club” that gathered later in the bars drinking bai jiu (白酒) the Chinese equivalent to whisky and smoking cigars.
Luckily, a year later, another young woman from Spain, Belen, was appointed as Manager for South China and we bonded immediately to this day. We were now 2 women in the room. She is now the CEO of a very disruptive freight forwarder in Spain, and has become a female role model in the industry. There are many women sitting at her table now, but only because she built her own.
Throughout my career, especially in my early years, the innocent jokes about being an unmarried woman were constant: the “when are you going to get married”, “the clock is ticking” and the “your rice is overcooking” (Spanish expression for getting too old to have kids). I brushed them off with grace, but my single male colleagues who were older than me were called “golden bachelors” in the meantime #doublestandards.
After almost 20 years of professional experience, I can say that as a woman, you are not invited to go through the big door. There is a smaller door for us, often at the back, and we have to find the key ourselves: whether it’s fighting for the opportunity that others got for granted, taking less salary for the same job or having to bring extra skills to the table, like I did by learning Chinese. We have to build our own key.
Luckily things are changing and more employers are realising the tremendous bias that exists in society in detriment of women. The problem is they are not changing fast enough.
I am glad I am able to work at Leaders for Good in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion space and support companies that want to challenge the inequity in gender and beyond, that don’t want to sit and watch from the sidelines.
When it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, you either act or you become an accomplice of the status quo. There is no grey here.
Are you in or are you out?